Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Parashat Chaye Sarah: A Turn Toward Family

Last week’s parsha ends with the akedah, the binding of Isaac. This week’s parsha begins with the death of Sarah. There is a famous midrash that connects these two events, saying that Sarah died from the tza’ar -- the emotional distress -- of thinking her son was being killed.

No one was actually killed at the akedah, but the event was still a tragedy for Avraham and his family. Not only does he lose his wife, but in some ways, he loses his son Yitzhak as well. Before the event, on the way up the mountain, the text tells us twice, vayelchu shneyhem yachdav. “The two of them walked together.” After the akedah, though, after Yitzhak experienced his father raising a knife against him, we hear only of Avraham walking “together” with his servants. Intimacy with his son is no longer possible. The family is broken.

And yet, in a way, through this tragedy, Avraham learns something. The akedah forces him to take a certain natural tendency he had to an extreme and test it. Is it necessary, in order to have faith in God, in order to maintain complete focus in an intimate relationship with God, is it necessary to sacrifice one’s family? Are God and family mutually exclusive?

God answers this question with a resounding no -- Please do not sacrifice your child, your family for My sake.

And so, after the akedah, Avraham acts differently. The Torah says Vayavo Avraham lispod liSarah vilivkotah, “And Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.” After the akedah, Avraham came to take care of Sarah, to do for her the only act of hesed, loving-kindness, still remaining– to mourn for her and to bury her. As my father has pointed out, the mention of crying and mourning at someone’s death is very unusual in the Torah. Not only that, but the Torah here goes into great detail concerning the process of burial – with a long description of the acquisition of the burial plot. All of this emphasis serves to highlight a change in Avraham, an attempt on his part to fix the imbalance of the akedah, to put his efforts back into his family.

The Torah says here Vayavo Avraham, “Avraham came.” Where did he come from to bury her? Was he in another city? Perhaps. But perhaps the verb indicates not just a change in location, but a change in heart. Avraham came – from the akedah—whole-heartedly back to his family.

After the akedah, after Sarah’s death and burial, the Torah suddenly informs us that Avraham was “old.” Wasn’t he already old – 100 at the birth of Yitzhak? Yes. But now he feels it, realizes his time on this earth – his time with those other beloved people around him – is limited.

And so, after taking care of his wife’s burial, Avraham turns to another beloved member of his family, his son Yitzhak. Sarah needed to be buried, but Yitzhak needs to get married. The parsha deals first with Avraham’s preoccupation with the first familial task, and next with the second, as Avraham sends off his servant to find an appropriate wife for his son.

What about God? Where is God in all this shift of focus to Avraham’s family? Avraham and God have become partners in taking care of Avraham’s family. Yes, there is some loss of intimacy here. After the akedah, God never speaks to Avraham again directly, but only through angels. There are no more of the awesome fiery visions of the previous parshiyyot. On the other hand, there is a new, more sustainable model for divine-human partnership. Both of the tasks Avraham occupies himself with in this parsha – taking care of the dead and bringing people together in marriage – are tasks that the rabbis say God considers His own occupation. Indeed, after the burial of Sarah, the midrash says that God made Avraham look “old” – like God—because He had adopted God’s burial occupation. And, concerning marriage, there is a famous story about a Roman matron who questioned a certain rabbi about God. Okay, she said, God created the world in 6 days, but what has He been doing ever since? The rabbi’s response? Ever since creation, God has been occupied with the making of matches.

This is what Avraham finally understood, after the akedah. If we want to participate in God’s work, if we want to be God’s partners in this world, we do not need to sacrifice and abandon those around us, but on the contrary, we need to join God in caring for them and helping to bring them together.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Parashat Vayera: On Avraham's Laughter

Avraham and Sarah’s son is given the name Yitzhak, from the root tzahak, meaning “to laugh,” because of their laughter upon hearing the prediction of his birth. They think: This is a surprise; we are too old to have children, and they laugh.

What is this laughter, and why is it memorialized in a patriarch’s name? This laughter is not a laughter of derision or disbelief, nor is it one of light-heartedness exactly. It is a laughter with deep sources, a laughter that epitomizes Avraham’s special approach to life.

It is the laughter of a man who was always open to surprises in life, to the sudden turns of fate over which humanity has no control. God promises Avraham a land and children. But life’s twists and turns seemingly thwart the fulfillment of these promises time and again. A famine forces Avraham to leave the land for Egypt. And Avraham sits childless for years. When he is finally granted a child born to his wife Sarah, he is asked to sacrifice him. Through all these trials – and the rabbis name 10 of them – Avraham is the picture of equanimity, never worrying or complaining. His attitude is epitomized by his response to Yitzhak on the way to the altar, Elokim yireh lo haseh le’olah, beni. “God will provide the sheep for the offering, my son (Gen 22:8).” Don’t worry. God is in charge. Life may seem to be going in the wrong direction, but God works in mysterious ways.

Avraham does not expect to know what the future will bring. Twice God gives him indefinite destinations and twice he follows, once at the start of the Avraham narrative, “Go forth . . . to the land that I will show you.” And once at its culmination, Go and sacrifice your beloved son Yitzhak “on one of the mountains that I will tell you.” Avraham does not need to know the future. He understands that we humans don’t control it anyway, and opens himself to whatever future God brings his way. This openness to life’s suprises is well captured by the opening scene of this week’s parsha, as Avraham is seen sitting petah ha’ohel, “in the opening to the tent,” open to whomever and whatever passes his way in this world.

This point of view, this way of living, is epitomized by laughter. Nahum Sarna points out that elsewhere in the Torah, God laughs at humans who think they can control their destiny (Pss. 2;4; 37:13; 59:9). Here, Avraham’s laughter expresses the same notion, from the human perspective. He laughs because he knows how little control he has and because he trusts in God’s ultimate plan, and this knowledge frees him from stress and worry.

It is hard to imagine having faith like Avraham. But to stand back and admire it is to see a way of life that is full of peace and joy. The New Yorker recently had an article about “Laughter Yoga,” the disciplined practice of intentional laughing. Adherents report that it is liberating, erasing all practical concerns and fears and leaving one with a sense of calm. Avraham was, in his own way, the first laughter yogi -- he achieved that same sense of calm and acceptance of life’s ups and downs by laughing the laugh of faith.

Some Loose Ends: Further Questions about Laughter
1) Avraham and Sarah each laugh, separately (17:17 and 18:12), upon hearing the prediction of Yitzhak’s birth. God admonishes Sarah for her laugh, but not Avraham for his. Rashi explains that these two laughs are of different sorts. (Rashi on 17:17). What textual support is there for making such a differentiation? Are there other ways to explain the discrepancy in God’s reaction?

2) The root tzhahak comes up on two other occasions in this parsha, both negative. One is with reference to Lot, Avraham’s nephew. When Lot warns his sons-in-law about the coming destruction of Sodom, he is in their eyes kemetzahek , “like one who jests” (19:14). In other words, they don’t believe him, making fun of his warning. The second time is with reference to Yishmael. Sarah sees him being metzahek (21:9) and decides that he and his mother must be banished. What was he doing? The JPS translates the word as “playing.” The context is Yitzhak’s weaning party; perhaps Yishmael was teasing or making fun of Yitzhak in some way. Rashi, citing verses from elsewhere in the Bible, says that metzahek can mean idolatry, sexual immorality or murder. How do all these uses of good and bad laughter fit together?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Parashat Lekh-Lekha: Making the Trip Your Own

In the end of last week’s parsha we learned that Avram’s father, Terah, had already started the family out on a journey to the land of Canaan. They never actually made it there, but they did leave their homeland, Ur Casdim, and travel part of the way to Canaan, stopping in Haran and settling there (Gen 11:31). Now, in this week’s parsha, God tells Avram to do the same thing his father had intended on doing –leave his homeland and travel to the land of Canaan. Why? What is the Torah telling us here?

All of our parents have already started our journeys for us. They brought us into the world and set us on a road, usually the road they themselves had been travelling. What happens next is essential. In Avram’s case, God says: lekh lekha, literally “go to or for yourself.” Rashi says it means, “go for your own good.” I read it as “make the trip your own.” Yes, it is the same path your father intended to walk, but make it yours, take ownership of it.

God continues by saying that Avram should leave his land, his birth place and his father’s house. Ironically, he will be fulfilling God’s command to leave behind his past by continuing his father’s journey. Avram’s leave-taking is a break that is continuous, a continuity that is also a break with the past.

Here is what makes it a break, what makes it a brand new journey for Avram. Terah went of his own accord, but Avram does so at God’s command. This is a journey originally conceived by man, but now sanctified by God’s command. As such, the journey, though physically the same, becomes entirely new and holy. The act is the same, but the intention, the kavanah, is different. Like a blessing before the performance of a mitzvah, God’s command transforms an ordinary action, the taking of a journey, into a special, holy one.

Avram makes the trip his own by making it also God’s trip, by making his travels a response to God’s command. The command begins with just Avram, lekh lekha, “Take this trip for yourself,” but it ends with both God and Avram -- el ha’aretz asher areka, “to the land that I will show you.” I and you, God and Avram, joined in that single word areka, which encompasses both the I and the you of “I will show you.” The Sefat Emet says this phrase means God will show you things you cannot see on your own. The trip’s destination becomes larger, grander, as a result of its sanctification by God.

The final destination for Avram’s physical journey is indeed the same as Terah had intended, the land of Canaan. But God does not speak of this physical destination. He speaks of “the land that I will show you,” of an open future. Terah’s journey ends before he reaches his final destination, stopping in Haran and dying there. But Avram’s journey never really ends. God tells him to keep walking, to traverse the land lengthwise and widthwise, and so Avram keeps travelling and God keeps showing him things, the sand and the sky, the future.

Avram’s journey is the task of every child. From the child’s perspective, every parent’s path is like Terah’s, just a physical road they have been asked to follow. Every child has the obligation and the opportunity to heed God’s call to Avram -- to make the trip her own, to give it meaning and sanctification, a sense of novelty and a future.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Parashat Noah: On the Tower of Bavel and the Danger of Unity

In the tower of Bavel story, God mixes up the people’s languages “so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” Shouldn’t we strive to understand one another? Why did God want to put distance between humans?

In the generation of the tower, there was apparently too much closeness, too much unity, too much homogeneity. The story begins by saying people had safah ahat, ”one language” and devarim ahadim, “few words or things.” Their problem was a lack of multiplicity; there were too few words and ideas in their society.

The sound of the text dramatizes this sense of sameness, as the modern scholar Cassuto points out. The people say to one another: Havah nilbinah leveinim and then havah nivneh lanu. It means, “Let us make brick,” and “let us build for ourselves,” but listen to the sound of it, havah nilbinah leveinim/havah nivneh lanu. This is a story about few words and it also has few words in it, the same words and sounds being repeated over and over. The words ehad, “one” safah, “language,” kol ha’aretz, “the whole earth” and shem, “name” or sham, “there,” are each repeated numerous times. The result is a story which sounds like the industrial assembly line it describes—the construction of a single tower, brick by brick, each the same as the last.

What is wrong with this model of human productivity? It is not creative. It is monotonous and immobile, building a single tower in one place. Pru urvu umilu et ha’aretz, says God repeatedly in these early stories -- be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Don’t have devarim ahadim, few ideas. Have many. Rejoice in the diversity of humanity. Shivim panim laTorah, say the rabbis – there are 70 different sides to the Torah, 70 ways of interpreting any one phrase, and our job as humans is to multiply meanings, to see all the colors of God’s post-flood rainbow, not to reduce them all to brick brown.

Maybe the problem was there were no individuals in Bavel. Before and after this story, we find long lists of genealogies with many an individual name but not in Bavel; the story itself has not a single personal name, and all action and speech is done in the plural. No wonder they had “few things.” The richness of many individuals had been reduced to group think. God made each individual in His image, which means, say the rabbis, that each one of us is slightly different. A society that does not prize and develop these differences to their fullest potential, a society that turns all its members into brick-layers, misses the essence of God’s rich world.

And so God comes down to the Tower builders and mixes up their languages, trying to get them to not understand each other, trying to get them to see that there are parts of other humans that are not the same as their own, that each person is a separate individual with his own language.

The midrash says that after God mixed up their languages, the people starting arguing. “I said to bring me a brick, not a hammer, you idiot!” The scenario sounds unpleasant, but may be exactly what they needed. Without conflict, ideas cannot blossom and grow. Jewish learning is traditionally suffused in argument, in the back and forth of Talmudic reasoning and all its rabbinic disagreements. Maybe what God was teaching the generation of the Tower was the value of conflict, the value of sometimes not agreeing, of creating a society of growth and variation, where there exist more than devarim ahadim, “a few things.”