Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Parashat Lekh-Lekha: Avraham's New Perspective

Veheyeh Berachah. “And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2). This is one of the things God promises Avra(ha)m if he takes the journey God commands. What does it mean to be a blessing? A midrash, cited by Rashi, says it refers to the first blessing of the amidah prayer, which ends with Avraham’s name, magen Avraham. Avraham literally became a brachah, a blessing for people to recite.

What does this midrash really mean? A closer look at the nature of Avraham’s journey will shed some light on it.

God commands Avraham to take a journey from his homeland and his father’s house to a land that He, God, will show him. If God was referring merely to a physical journey from point A to point B, surely He would have made those points explicit and said something like: Go from Haran to the land of Canaan.

The way God did state the command makes those physical points unclear. The commentaries in fact argue about whether Avraham’s homeland refers to Haran, where he resided at the time, or Ur Casdim, where he originally came from.

Moreover, why would God command a journey which Avraham was already in the middle of taking in any case? His father had set out with him from Ur Casdim toward the land of Canaan, and stopped at Haran. If God merely wanted Avraham to continue the journey his father had started, what would be so special or difficult about this command?

There is something more to God’s command than a physical journey. God is also commanding a spiritual journey, a movement not just from point A to point B, but also from perspective A to perspective B, from the culture and perspective of his father’s home to the culture and perspective of God. “To the land that I will show you” (12:1). Come, take the same journey your father suggested, but take it with a different set of eyes. Come to the land as I will show it to you. See it through My eyes, and not through the eyes of your family.

Lot, Avraham’s nephew, represents the perspective of Avraham’s family. When Lot is choosing where to reside within the land, he is said to “lift up his eyes and look” over the Jordan plain and see its richness and fertility. He moves into Sodom, one of the plain’s wealthy cities. Does he give a thought to the evil character of the people living there? Or to the longevity of the place, a place embroiled in years of conflict with some neighboring states? No. Lot sees wealth and follows it. Laban, Avraham’s grand-nephew, whom we will meet in a few parshiyot, is similarly characterized as being obsessed with wealth, greeting each newcomer with an eye on their jewels. Apparently, the Torah considers this greed to be a family trait.

So it is this greed, this exclusive focus on physical wealth, which Avraham is commanded to leave behind, to separate from. Indeed, the Torah makes a point of saying that it is “after Lot parted from him” (13:14), that God first spoke at length to Avraham about the land, saying that Avraham, too, should raise his eyes and see the land. Here what Avraham is to behold is not wealth, but eternity. Looking through God’s eyes, as God “shows him” the land, what Avraham sees is that it is a land that will belong to his offspring ad olam, “forever” (13:15). Lot barely lasts a few verses in the city of Sodom before he is removed as part of the war between the 4 and the 5 kings. He will be restored, but only to be removed once again when God destroys Sodom. Lot’s focus on wealth leads to transience, while Avraham’s divine perspective leads to eternity.

(Not that physical prosperity isn’t a value, too. Part of Avraham’s blessing involves the accumulation of a certain amount of wealth. But that is only part of his blessing, a blessing of both physical and spiritual dimensions.)

God offers Avraham an alternative to the physical culture he grew up in. His father no doubt was planning a trip to the land of Canaan for economic reasons. Avraham travels as part of a divinely inspired spiritual journey. At each new physical place, he stops to call out to God and build an altar, making the purpose of his journey clear. God repeatedly asks him to look at things, at the stars in the sky and the sand of the earth, and each time, God is offering him a chance to see things through His divine eyes. We humans have such a small perspective; we think in terms of today and perhaps tomorrow, ourselves, and maybe our children. God lets Avraham see things through the divine perspective of eternity, ad olam. Avraham’s children will not be like the stars of the sky for many, many years, but through God’s eyes, Avraham understands his place in the divine plan of history. During the covenant of the pieces, God shows Avraham the distant future, how his offspring will be enslaved for 400 years. In the words of my father about this text, “400 years! What a long range perspective!” The adoption of such a divine perspective is exactly the goal God mapped out for Avraham at the start, the arrival at a land “which I will show you.”

Veheyeh berachah. Avraham did become a blessing, the first of the 19 blessings said today as part of every Jew’s daily prayer. Such an achievement is true continuity, true eternity. Lot and Sodom don’t live on. But Avraham does, through us. He was blessed to have become eternal in this way, and he serves as a blessing for others by beginning for us a special relationship with the eternal God, by paving the way for our own spiritual journeys toward a more divine perspective on life.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Parashat Noah: From Noah to Avraham

Noah is like a small child, and Avraham like a grown one, says the midrash Breishit Rabbah. For Noah is said to “walk with God” (Genesis 6:9), holding God’s hand for assistance, while Avraham is said to be strong and independent enough to “walk before God” (17:1) to have the initiative to help God forge the path ahead.

Noah is nothing if not passive. His name means “rest.” He has no voice; God speaks to him but, unlike Avraham, who argues with God, Noah never answers back. God tells him how to build the ark, and Noah builds it exactly that way. The Zohar compares Noah to Shabbat; like Shabbat he does not take an active part in the world, but simply exists, floating his passive way into survival.

For now, this is what God is looking for. God is looking for someone who will not act like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, but who will simply obey, who will be tamim, blameless or blemishless, pure and obedient.

God is not yet looking for a true partner in humanity. The flood is a purely divine act. The waters of heaven overwhelm the earth, as God’s power overwhelms all living things. All control lies solely in God’s hands. And so, when God offers the rainbow covenant after the flood, it is not the reciprocal covenant of Sinai where humans play a role, but a purely one-sided covenant, a promise on God’s part not to harm the world in this extreme way ever again.

At the same time, this promise ushers in a new mode of world governance. From here on in, God will restrain Himself; He will never again take complete control of the earth. From now on, humans must become partners with God in running the world. Indeed, immediately after the flood, God commands that humans be responsible for judging and executing murderers. God will continue to be partially responsible for the earth, but from now on, humans must play a role as well, a role in preventing and judging the kind of violence and lawlessness that led to the flood in the first place.

The next step, next week, is Avraham. God’s first command to Avraham is not to be shut in to an ark for protection from the world, but rather to travel the world and influence it, to bring blessing and justice wherever he goes. No wonder the midrash suggests that Avraham was busy making converts in Haran. His job is to be God’s partner on earth. God decides to consult with him over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah for precisely this reason (Gen 18); the role of Avraham and his progeny is to bring justice to the world, to help people begin the process of self-governance. This job requires that Avraham have what Noah lacked, a sense of independence and initiative.

But Avraham’s personality isn’t an entirely new one. The strength of Avraham is that he combines this independent streak with Noah-like obedience. He can argue with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, but he can also passively obey, as he does in heeding God’s initial call to leave his home and His later call to sacrifice his son.

God says to Avraham: “Walk before Me and be tamim, blameless” (Gen 17:1). That is Avraham’s challenge (and our own). He must on the one hand, be like Noah, pure and blameless and obedient, and on the other hand, be someone who walks not with God but before Him, forging God’s path in the world with initiative and independence.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Parashat Breishit:Creation and the Individual

Bishvili nivra ha’olam. “The world was created for me.” That is how the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) says each individual should feel about herself based on the creation story. When a single human is killed, it is as if the whole world is killed, because the world started from one single person. Each person therefore has infinite value; each person contains the whole world; and each person has a divine spark, having been created b’tzelem elokim, “in the image of God.”

Now this notion can and should lead to great pride. Indeed, some hasidic masters taught that pride was actually a key ingredient for serving God. One can only be active and creative in the world if one believes that one has an essential, unique contribution to make, if one believes in one’s own infinite incomparable value. Self-confidence may be more important than any other attribute in the success of a person.

But pride isn’t the end of the story. What does it really mean to have been made in God’s image? If it means that each of us is great, how are we to interact with one another? After all, there is only one God above ruling over the world, but there are many of us little gods on earth. If we are like God, are we meant to rule over one another?

No. That is why God uses the plural when it comes time to create human beings. Na’aseh adam betzalmeinu. “Let us make man in our image.” Rashi says this plural verb teaches us about God’s humility, that He thought it necessary to seek permission and include the angels in His decision. And, says Rashi, it also teaches us about how we are to act toward one another, not haughtily assuming we can do it all ourselves, but humbly seeking each other’s advice and help, working together as a team, like God did.

How apt of Rashi to read these words, “Let us make man in our image” in this way! At the very moment when humans are being declared to be essentially like God – having been created in His image -- God is showing them what He is like, teaching them how to act like God. How does one act like God? Not by being a ruler. On the contrary, by being humble. By sharing responsibility, by working together, by generally seeking opportunities to act not as an “I” but as a “we.”

It helps to live with both these thoughts in mind at the same time. I am great and god-like, equivalent to the whole world, and capable of tremendous deeds, but I am also humble and limited; I need others to be complete. As God comments in the second chapter of the creation story, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Some midrashim suggest that male and female were initially created as one human and torn apart. We therefore seek each other and need each other like pieces of a puzzle.

With both these thoughts in our heads, we are on the one hand encouraged to take an active part in the world, and on the other hand, freed from the full weight of its responsibility. As Pirkei Avot says, “The work is not yours to finish, but neither are you free from abstaining from it” (2:16). Each individual is called upon not to do the whole job, but to play his or her unique part. We should be eager to act, but not anxious. We should feel at the very same moment that what we do matters, but also that our individual contribution is insufficient.

The world was created for me alone, but it was also created for all of us together.