Thursday, October 25, 2012

Parashat Lekh Lekha: The Divine Perspective

Was Avram a great warrior? What gave him the equanimity to enter the conflict between the 4 kings and the 5 (Gen 14), a conflict that had been raging for some 25 years? Yet Avram does not hesitate, calmly gathering his friends and entering the fray.

There is some greatness to Avram that is beyond the everyday. He exists in the everyday world, suffers hunger, has his wife stolen, his sheep fought over with his nephew, his nephew taken in captivity, but interspersed among all these worldly problems, at regular intervals, he hears the word of God. He hears God tell him things about the future and he has the vision to see them – to look out at the land and see his progeny inheriting it, for generations to come. And it is this vision, this ability to see oneself as a part of a larger history, a larger plan, a larger world, that gives him the strength and the courage to persevere. Fighting 5 kings must seem like nothing to one engaged in divine conversations about eternity.

“400 years. What a long range perspective!” This is what my father said about Avram (to whom God revealed His 400-year plan for the people of Israel) in a speech he gave at my high school graduation. This is Avram’s strength. He is not mired in the problems of the present. The Torah juxtaposes 2 types of looking in this parsha (13:10-17). First Lot looks out at the land, and sees the beautiful gardens of Sodom and decides to move there. Then Avram looks out and God tells him to look north and south, east and west, all the land that he sees will be his and his descendants’ forever and ever. This is a global view – all of space and all of time are suddenly connected for Avram. He is able to adopt a divine perspective.

How do we see the world? Piecemal, like Lot – what seems shiny and bright right now -- or do we have a sense of history and continuity and connection like Avram? Avram’s vision strengthened him, and it can strengthen us as well; as they said in Margalit’s preschool: “God told Avram that his progeny would be like the stars of the sky. You are one of those stars.” Feeling that you are one of those stars means feeling connected to the past and the future, to eternity, to the south and the north, the east and west, being able to see oneself as a part of a whole that is ongoing. With this vision, nothing can stop us, not 4 kings and not 5 kings; we are a part of eternity.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Parashat Noah: On Sealed Doors

Maybe the world still is essentially bad, as it was when God decided to destroy it with the great flood. What is the solution? Make yourself a tevah, an enclosed space, to ride through the swirling whirling storms of the world, so that you are not touched by it, so that you, at least, do not become swallowed up in the evil of the world. You can bring your family in, too; create a space that is sacred, untouched by the outside waters, and there you can preserve some goodness, some temimut, some little remnant of sanctity. Maybe you can bring some others in, too, like Noah’s animals, others whom you can feed and care for, save from the treacherous outside. But not many. It is an enclosed space you have created.

Maybe that is a good solution to the evil of the world. Sometimes it is necessary to hole up, to stay inside a safe space and at least save yourself and a few others. Sometimes the only other option is to get drowned along with the rest outside.

Maybe sometimes it is a good solution, but it seems that God ultimately did not consider it a sustainable one. Noah preserved something, but he didn’t reach out. There is a limit to the effectiveness of this type of goodness. Avraham, on the other hand, built tents wherever he went, tents that were open on all four sides, unlike Noah’s tightly sealed tevah. Avraham was constantly involved in outreach, converting anyone who passed his way and running forward to bring people in from the road. If the world around was still essentially evil, he was going to make some effort to change it.

But this week is Noah’s parsha, not Avraham’s, and every person comes to this world with a special Torah to teach. Noah’s method, too, deserves some respect; without him, none of us would exist; closed doors saved humanity; they are a method of preservation. We are used to talking about the importance of open doors, but this week I’m wondering about the place of sealed doors, of an attempt to preserve something precious which could easily be swallowed up in the storming waters that are constantly trying to get in.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

To Clothe the Naked: On Parashat Breishit and Acts of Kindness

“And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them (Genesis 3:21).”

In the midst of all the greatness of God’s acts in this parsha – the creation of heaven and the earth, of the seas and the trees, of the animals and the humans – in the midst of all this wonder, we could easily lose sight of this simple and intensely intimate act of caring: God clothes Adam and Eve, like a parent clothes her child.

This act comes at the end of a story of sin and punishment – the eating of the forbidden fruit and the resultant punishments to each of the sinners and then their banishment from the Garden. Even at a time of punishment, in the midst of a first moment of distance, God does this warm and nurturing act. God didn’t say to them – you got yourself in this trouble; now get yourself out. He made them clothing. He took care of them even though it was their own fault they needed clothing in the first place (the fruit made them realize they were naked).

The Talmud (Sotah 14a) says that the Torah begins with an act of gemilut hasadim –loving kindness -- and ends with an act of gemilut hasadim. It begins, here in Genesis, with this act of clothing Adam and Eve, and it ends, in the parsha we just read on Simchat Torah, in Deuteuronomy, with the ultimate act of kindness, the act of burial – as the Torah reports that God Himself buried Moshe (34:6). In each case, God’s loving and intimate action surrounds an individual.

These are small acts, not like the wonders of the Red Sea or the 10 plagues or the creation of the world. Yet these are the book-ends of the Torah. Simple small acts of kindness done to one person. The message here is that it is really the simple daily acts of kindness, the most basic of things – clothing the naked, burying the dead – that are the stuff of God in the world.

God is our model for how to act in the world; at our core, there is something divine about us, as we also learn in this week’s parsha: we were created betzelem elokim – in God’s image. So when we speak in our prayers about God’s attributes -- when we say His hands are wide open or that He is full of compassion -- we are really telling ourselves how we should act. God is malbish arumim, “He who clothes the naked,” goes one of the morning blessings, reminding us to surround others with warmth and love as God first did to Adam and Eve.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

For Sukkot: On Fear and Joy

One of the things that stops us from being happy is fear, and also the twin sister of fear, worry or anxiety, which in their own way are forms of fear – fear of what will happen next. We are normally consumed by fears, whether they be on a large scale, the worry over the destruction of the earth through greenhouse gasses and Iran’s nuclear weapons, or on smaller scale, worries over our children’s health and education, our careers and our personal economic situation.

To be truly happy, sameach, as we are called on to be during this holiday of Sukkot, zman simchateinu, requires us to leave these fears behind. But how?

The Sefat Emet says that yirah amitit, “true fear or awe” mevi simchah, actually “brings joy.” This is why Sukkot follows the “Days of Awe.” On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are meant to lose our ordinary fears by acquiring a true sense of awe for the ultimate King. All else pales in comparison. Why fear other humans when they are here today and gone tomorrow? The only thing to fear is God Himself, and this is a fear which brings liberty and joy.

We step out into the world on Sukkot, in our little sukkahs, vulnerable to the elements with our open roofs. But we do not fear our ordinary fears because we are secure in the knowledge that God protects us. Hosha Na, “Please Redeem Us” we say again and again to God, reminding ourselves that it is only God’s protection we seek. And this knowledge brings us joy – the kind of joy reserved for only the truly faithful, who, like dependent children secure in their trust of their parents’ providence, do not worry the ordinary worries, but go out in the world, confident and secure. May this be a holiday of joy!