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Rolling Round Boulders: Sisyphus and the Jewish Alternative

Sisyphus was forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity.

I dedicate this blog post and Dvar Torah to my father, Allan Gartenberg.

Sisyphus was the king of Ephyra (now known as Corinth). He was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. This ancient Greek story became the basis of Camus famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. (Wikipedia)

My father did not have a middle name. He added the letter S to his name as a middle initial. It stood for Sisyphus.  

My father was a rocket engineer, but his first love was philosophy. His favorite writers and philosophers were existentialists. His favorite writer was Camus and his favorite essay was The Myth of Sisyphus. My father had a tragic sense of life. He identified with Sisyphus.

My father was also a great empath, the most empathetic person I ever knew. He was kind and caring. He loved his Judaism and, along with my mother, inspired me to become a rabbi. 

In this week’s portion, Yitro, this verse comes before the revelation of the Torah at Sinai.

וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

“Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured (segulah) possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine” Ex. 19:5

The word "segulah" has multiple meanings. It can mean treasured, chosen, purple. It is a name for a Hebrew vowel.  It also has the meaning of round. 

I came upon this teaching in Iturei Hatorah by the Admor Rabbi David Melilov...

“You shall be my treasured possession.” Segulah has the aspect of roundness, in the sense that every direction that you turn it over it is able to stand; it is round.  This is true of Knesset Yisrael. With all the shocks and all the tumblings, the Jews remain together.

We are not like a large rock that can topple, rather we roll. The Admor has given expression to the amazing capacity for Jewish adaptability.

I was thinking of Sisyphus when I read Admor’s teaching. In the Jewish version, the Jew pushes the round boulder to the top of the mountain, but it does not fall back down as in the case of Sisyphus. Rather the boulder goes over the top and rolls down into the valley below. We then continue pushing the boulder up the next mountain until the boulder goes over the top and falls down into the next valley and so on. The Jew’s task is to keep the ball rolling. There is always some task repairing the world that we must attend to.  

In my class, Judaism for the Ambivalent, we have been reading a wonderful book by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called The Great Partnership. I paraphrase Rabbi Sack’s words:

"God, in Abraham’s faith, is not the solution to a contradiction but the call to a journey that will eventually change the world by showing that there is another way to live, an alternative to the way of resignation. It is no accident that those raised in this faith are disproportionately to be found among lawyers fighting injustice, economists fighting poverty, doctors and medical researchers fighting disease, and teachers and academics fighting ignorance. Sisyphus does not change the world, but the covenant at Sinai demands that we do." (Sacks 254)

As I remember my dad, I think of him as a man who thought like a Greek, but lived as a Jew. He may have thought of himself as Sisyphus, never reaching the top and watching with resignation the boulder fall back down. But he lived as a Jew who pushed the boulder ever forward, over the top again and  again, making the world around him better with each effort.   

Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot captures this sense of “keeping the rock rolling.”

רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר, הַיּוֹם קָצָר וְהַמְּלָאכָה מְרֻבָּה, וְהַפּוֹעֲלִים עֲצֵלִים, וְהַשָּׂכָר הַרְבֵּה, וּבַעַל הַבַּיִת דּוֹחֵק:

Rabbi Tarfon said: "The day is short, and the work is plentiful, and the laborers are indolent, and the reward is great, and the master of the house is insistent."

הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.:

"It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it."

Jew, keep the rock rolling.

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Dvar Torah given on Parshat Yitro, February 6, 2021

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