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Lookin’ Down on Creation

Why making stuff up is getting us down

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This Saturday, Jews all over the world will begin reading the Torah once again. And it’s safe to assume that, as they’ve done since the dawn of Man, pulpit rabbis will look to draw connections between the week’s parasha and current events, making the ancient text relevant to our times.

If they can do it, why can’t I? Sure, they’ve spent years in rabbinical school studying the Torah, but I’ve spent hours, maybe even days, watching TV, playing video games, and reading blogs. When it comes to popular culture, I think it’s safe to assume that God, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, is on my side.

Welcome to “Blessed Week Ever,” a weekly drash written by one of the least likely Torah commentators you’ll ever meet.

* * *

This Shabbat, as synagogue-going Jews open the ark, I will turn on my Mac and play a new game called Spore. Created by Will Wright, the gaming guru who designed the Sims”the popular series of games that allow players to create and control small universes of virtual people”the game’s objective speaks to the central issue at the heart of this week’s parasha: the question of creation. In Spore, the player creates his own microcosmic organism, and then manipulates and tweaks it throughout a complex evolutionary process. Seeing one’s little virtual darlings grow from pixilated specks to spacefaring aliens, Spore‘s players get the satisfaction previously reserved only for He who, in the beginning, created the heavens and the earth.

But while the game allows us the heady pleasure of playing God, it’s also more than enough to demonstrate just how far we really are from Our Father Which Art in Heaven. For God, creation is no biggie: some dust off the ground, the breath of life, and voila”Man. For Man, however, creation is slightly more difficult. Indeed, all subsequent human history, arguably, has been little but an attempt to replicate that most splendid of God’s miracles: making something out of nothing.

Consider the past few weeks alone, a time in which markets all over the world, like cows on a slaughterhouse conveyor belt, have been gawking at their own approaching doom with quiet desperation. The reasons for the meltdown, naturally, are many and complex; but at its heart there seems to be one common cause: Things fell apart because we’ve become increasingly apt at creation.

We created an economic infrastructure that encouraged people to borrow fortunes they couldn’t possibly pay back in order to acquire real estate they couldn’t possibly afford. And we created an emotional environment in which debt-based living was gently encouraged. We have created, in short, an alternative reality, one in which coarse and mundane things like balance sheets and bottom lines, things that told us that we could not be who we truly wanted to be but only who our bank accounts enabled us to be, were simply not welcome.

Judging by the sullen faces and somber tones of the men and women discussing the financial crisis on television, we’ve learned our lesson well. But that, alas, is highly unlikely: after all, the current collapse was born of the same mindset that spawned the Dot-com crash of the early 1990s, the war in Iraq, and most presidential campaigns since at least 1988, a mindset that too often conflates perception with reality, and that joyfully confuses our meaning with our means.

Here, for example, is what an unnamed senior aide to President George W. Bush told journalist Ron Suskind in 2004: reporters, the source said, as well as other critics of the administration, are “in what we call the reality-based community,” a community occupied by saps who believe “that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” That, the aide continued, is “not the way the world really works anymore.”

Such ontological juggling, of course, would have been unthinkable even a century ago, when the markets still greatly depended on our ability to produce actual goods, and life, for the most part, was largely observed firsthand rather than through the prism of all sorts of media. But now that so many of us make our livings off of ideas”inventing new kinds of subprime mortgages, say, or plotting political campaigns based more on imagery than on issues”we can transcend the inclement world we inherited and somehow force our way back into the Garden of Eden.

There is no use, then, in beating our chests and promising, in op-eds or on CNBC, that we will never again get ourselves into needless wars or financial freefalls. We will. It’s our nature; we haven’t changed much since the first man and the first woman bit into the apple and willingly exchanged bliss for wisdom and happiness for self-awareness. Mindless happiness was never enough for us; what we wanted was to know as much as the Man Upstairs.

And so, it seems, we’ve internalized the immortal words of Dusty Springfield: nothing is forever. Instead, all we want is a brief respite, a few years here or there during which we can actually believe that a small Internet startup delivering gourmet pet food might make us rich overnight, or that a lush estate with a private creek might be ours to own, or that a failed politician with a feeble mind might lead us to glory. Even though we know we’re headed for a fall, we don’t care all that much: we make the same mistakes again and again, knowingly and gleefully, because, like God, we, too, want to create our own universe, even if we realize that our creations are deeply and truly flawed.

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Lookin’ Down on Creation

Why making stuff up is getting us down

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