Archive for the '1.03 Lech Lecha' Category

How Great are Commandments?

Despite only being eleven years old, Yadid decided to fast this year on Yom Kippur. Being that he is not yet a Bar Mitzvah (13 years old) he had no obligation to do so. We were clear with him that if he ever wanted to eat or drink he should stop fasting. At the end of the break Adina, Yadid, Libi and I were headed back to synagogue for Mincha. At this point Yadid asked, ” Is it harder for people who do not see themselves to be obligated to keep mitzvot to fast on Yom Kippur? I mean since I know I can eat it makes it even harder for me not to eat.”

At the time Yadid’s question makes me think about  Lech Lecha, this weeks portion. Here our nation’s journey begins with God instructing Avram (soon to become Avraham) to leave his birthplace and set out to start a new people in a new land. What a novel concept? A people collected by common belief as opposed to an accident of birth place. But if we were paying attention to the end of  Noah, last week’s portion, we would have seen that the destination for Avram’s travel was not new at all. Terach, Avram’s father, had set out with his family toward the land of Canaan, but never got there. While it seems that Avram was more successful than his father in terms of getting to the land of Canaan, as we see later in the this Torah portion in Avram’s travels to Egypt he was equally unsuccessful as his father in terms of staying in Canaan. How are we to compare the Avram’s divine quest with Terach’s life journey?

In the Gemara in Kidushin 31a (in a totally different context) we learn that,  “Greater is the one who is commanded and does then the one who is not commanded and does”. This sentiment can be explained with a basic understanding of the human need to combat authority. It  is more meritorious to overcome our need to rebuff authority and comply than to just do something for its own sake. It is interesting to ponder the opposite of this adage. How would you compare one who is commanded and does not comply to the one who is not commanded and does not comply? The first one is testing the limits of authority, but still might be in a relationship with the authority. The later is just not doing anything at all.

Surely Terach’s intentions were good, but we do not know them. At first Avram is successful in following God’s direction to go to the land of Canaan, but soon after he gets there he does not stay. But still he aspires to go and does eventually comply and settle in the land of Canaan. In many ways we are all still beneficiaries of this aspiration and this relationship. Beyond the scope of going to Israel, we all fail to fulfill God’s commandments, but with clear expectations it is possible for us to try again and succeed.

Yadid’s question was special in that it came with a certain openness. I hope Yadid maintains this openness for many years beyond his becoming a bar mitzvah. There is still more depth of the question, but alas even thinking about it makes me hungry.

– Borrowed from older post

 

Atlas and the High Priest Shrugged : Caring about and Carrying the Jewish Future

A number of months  ago when we were reading parshat Tetzaveh we read about the sacred clothes made for Aaron and his sons who are going to be the priests. It says that these vestments provide them glory and splendor (Exodus 28:1). It is clear that there are many layers of meaning behind all of the layers of the clothing of the priest, but this week I want to focus in on the Ephod. There we read:

And they shall make the Ephod of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the skilful workman. It shall have two shoulder-pieces joined to the two ends thereof, that it may be joined together. And the skilfully woven band, which is upon it, wherewith to gird it on, shall be like the work thereof and of the same piece: of gold, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen. And you shall take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: six of their names on the one stone, and the names of the six that remain on the other stone, according to their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, you shall engrave the two stones, according to the names of the children of Israel; you shall make them to be inclosed in settings of gold. And you shall put the two stones upon the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, to be stones of as a remembrance for the children of Israel; and Aaron shall bear their names before the Lord upon his two shoulders for a memorial.  (Exodus 28:6- 12)

I have a pretty good imagination as to what the Ephod looked like, but what is the meaning of the two shoulders memorials? For whom is this a memorial? Quoting the Midrash  on this Rashi comments:

“As a remembrance”  So that the Holy One Blessed be God should see the names of the Tribes written before God’s self and give thought to their righteousness.  ( Shmot Rabbah 38:8)

The shoulder gems are not for the High Priest, but rather for God. But, why does God need these? Does God need a cheat sheet to remember our righteousness? What is the purpose of these memorials? And why on the shoulders?

These questions made me think about the story of Heracles and Atlas. As one of his Twelve Labors  Heracles had to fetch some of the golden apples which grow in Hera’s garden, tended by Atlas’ daughters, the Hesperides, and guarded by the dragon Ladon. Heracles went to Atlas and offered to hold up the heavens while Atlas got the apples from his daughters. Upon his return with the apples, however, Atlas attempted to trick Heracles into carrying the sky permanently by offering to deliver the apples himself, as anyone who purposely took the burden must carry it forever, or until someone else took it away. Heracles, suspecting Atlas did not intend to return, pretended to agree to Atlas’ offer, asking only that Atlas take the sky again for a few minutes so Heracles could rearrange his cloak as padding on his shoulders. When Atlas set down the apples and took the heavens upon his shoulders again, Heracles took the apples and ran away.

What does it mean to carry the weight of the world? It does not seem to be an honor, but rather a horribly onerous task. In light of this we see the severity of the role of the High Priest. He is carrying the weight of the Jewish world on his shoulders. But, why are we revisiting Tetzaveh now?

This week in Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, we meet Avraham when the project of the Jewish people was in it incubation stage. Avraham questions God: “What can you give me, I am childless?” God answers by promising Avraham that he will have children. God directs Avraham outside and asks him to look up and count the stars, saying “Thus will be your descendants” ( Genesis 15:2-5). Avraham is alone in his relationship with God. Like Atlas he bears the weight of the world. God’s answer to Avraham is that we will be as many as the stars in the sky. We each have our own role to play in the future of the Jewish people. Who will bear the weight of the Jewish people? Will it be the High Priest or each and every descendent of Avraham?

We have seen how power can make those who are burdened with its weight crumble. While we clearly need better oversight over our leaders, another approach is to insist that each of us carry our weight. If we do not run off after the apples, but stay and are willing to hold up our end of the bargain Avraham has no reason to fear.  It seems as if we are currently caught in some sort of complex prisoner’s dilemma in which we are all Hercules trying to dupe someone else into carrying the weight of the sky. Surely Avraham’s project will only work if we all do our part in carrying and caring about the Jewish future.
– For another take on Atlas see here.

 

 

Seeing the Smoke

When the fumata bianca, white smoke, goes out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel it announces that the convening of the College of Cardinals has made their selection. The people looking on in the Vatican cheer at the election of a new Pope. Seeing that I am not Catholic I could only imagine my elation at that moment, before this past Sunday.

This past Sunday I had the pleasure of going to the installation of Rabbi Asher Lopatin as the new head of  Yeshivat Chovevei Torah,my Alma mater. Rav Asher is going to be a wonderful replacement for Rabbi Avi Weiss, the founder of YCT. It was a wonderful event that brought out an amazing group of people. While there was some sadness that there was no one there from Yeshiva University or other factions to the right, there was an amazing showing from leadership on the left. This was emblemized by the roundtable discussion featuring Rabbi David Ellenson, Dr. Arnold Eisen , Rabbi Arthur Green, and  Rabbi B. Elka Abrahamson before the formal installation. It was uplifting seeing so many luminaries from all over the Jewish world join a very young Orthodox Seminary in welcoming in their new leader. It was a singular moment in celebrating the unity of the Jewish people.

At some moment in there I got scared thinking that we had indeed sent out the fumata bianca, but maybe there was no out there cheering us on. Maybe everyone who cares about the unity of the Jewish people were already there in that room.  Still wading through the aftermath of the Pew Study, I could not help but fear for our sustainability. While I loved so many people in that room, I could not help but fear that we might be alone in our joy? What does the future look like?

I was thinking about this when reading Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn about the beginning of Avraham’s journey. We read,

God said to Avram,  “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

And with these words Monotheism is off and running. It seems that so much happened in this short directive. What awakened in Avram the awareness of God? What ever it was it seems significant in that it changed the course of history?

In the Midrash Rabbi Isaac compares Avram’s thinking to that of a man who was traveling (Genesis Rabbah 39:1). While going from place to place he sees a building in flames. The man wonders whether it was possible that the building could lack a person to look after it. At that moment, the owner of the building appeared and said that he owned the building. This is similarly to Avram questioning whether it is conceivable that the world could exist without a Guide to look after it. At that moment, God told Avram that God is the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe. This is what the Torah records in the words ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”

This metaphor is deep. Avram could have spent his life looking back over his shoulder to Haran. Instead he is out there engaging the world around him. Recognizing the world that he is coming into he seeks an explanation of order. God responds to that  openness, empathy, and curiosity by telling him to move into the future- ” Lech Lecha- Go for yourself”. And on another level it is interesting to realize that we all want to be discovered and recognized, even God.

Like Avram, YCT could spend its days looking over its right and left shoulders and waiting to be recognized. Instead I think we need to be out there doing the holy work of engaging the world around us. The values of openness, empathy, and curiosity have become the hallmark of YCT. Rav Asher is a master of lovingly disagreeing with the other parts of our family. We need to stay uncompromising in keeping the vision of the unity of the Jewish people as our guiding light. And we need to be out there helping other people follow Avram’s example.

Between Faith and Honesty

Recently I had the pleasure of reading a Canadian Indian version of the classic Cinderella Tale. In this version of the Cinderella cycle, a father in a village has three daughters whose mother has been dead a long time. The youngest of the three is much younger than the other two, has a wonderful personality, and is loved by her community. The wicked older sisters hate her and made her dress in rags, puts cinders in her hair (hence the cinder for her being Cinderella) and burned her face and body with hot coals in effort to have people think that she is ugly.

Just outside of the village there lived a warrior whose name was Strong Wind. Strong Wind has been good to the god Glooskap and has been granted the power of invisibility which has made him a formidable hunter. Resolving to get married he has to determine who to marry of the many women who seek his hand in marriage. With the help of his sister Strong Wind devises a test for all of these fair maidens. His sister is the only one who can see him when he appeared invisible to others. Each evening when the sun was about to set, his sister takes a would be bride down to the shoreline and asks them if they can see Strong Wind. When they responded yes, as they always do, his sister asks “With what does he draw his sled?” Responding incorrectly they are all dismissed. One day our Cinderella goes to seek Strong Wind’s hand in marriage. When his sister took her to the bay and asked the first question, the ash girl said that she does not seen him. Upon hearing her honest response Strong Wind reveals himself to her. Then Cinderella is asked “With what does he draw his sled?” The girl is very afraid and answers, “With the Rainbow”. And when she is asked further, “Of what is his bowstring?” the girl answers, “His bowstring is the Milky Way.” Telling the truth Cinderella passes the test and marries Strong Wind.

This image of the Milky Way stuck in my head as I read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. Here we see Avraham come into his own as a (or even the) person of Emunah- faith. There we read:

5 And God brought him out, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them’; and God said unto him: ‘So shall be your seed.’  6 And he believed in the Lord; and God counted it to him for righteousness.  (Genesis 15:5-6)

How is it possible that Avraham was able to count the stars in the Milky Way? We often talk about the fact that as a man of Emunah– he believed that he could. But as I have discussed in the past Emunah does not translate to English as faith, but rather being trustworthy. All too often in our society we tell people who are in positions of authority over us what we think they want to hear. It is possible that he believed that he could count them. It is also possible that despite the pressure Avraham felt to say yes he could count them, this man of Emunah  told the truth that he could not count them. It takes a certain kind of bravery, self-assurance, and faith to just tell the truth to an authority, especially one we hope to please . Like this Cinderella being lead out to see the invisible Strong Wind it took a unique sense of sense of self to be strong enough to be honest.  In light of this Canadian Indian Cinderella story might we translate Emunah  as being trusted to tell the truth.

Count On It

In Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion, we see Avraham come into his own as a (or even the) person of faith. There we read:

5 And God brought him out, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if you are able to count them’; and God said unto him: ‘So shall be your seed.’  6 And he believed in the Lord; and God counted it to him for righteousness.  (Genesis 15:5-6)

While it is hard to see in modern city living, we have all been out in nature and looked up and saw the majestic night sky. We have all been humbled by the image of the vast universe with it countless stars.

Similarly, Avram was  brought out of the tent to count the stars. What made him think, feel, or believe that he could count these stars? Even today with all of our amazing technology this is still not possible. Clearly Avram was a man of faith. For most of my life I assumed that his emunah was tremendous and frankly out of reach. How could I ever achieve that level of faith?

Later in the same chapter we learn about the Covenant Between The Parts. It is dramatic scene in which Avram sacrifices a number of animals, we are told of a covenant between God and the decedents of Avram, and a flame comes down and goes in between the parts. There we read:

12 And it came to pass, that, when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and, a dread, even a great darkness, fell upon him. 13 And God said to Avram: ‘Know of a surety that your seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; 14 and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance. 15 But you shall go to their fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And in the fourth generation they shall come back from there; for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet full.’ 17 And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. (Genesis 15:12-17)

This darkness clearly sets up the theatrical moment for the fire passing between the parts. It also has profound implications as for the nature of faith.

If  the sun goes down during the Covenant Between the Parts, it implies that it was up for Avram’s moment of faith. What if was not our image of the starry night? What might it have meant for Avram to be lead out of his tent in the middle of the day to look up to the sky and count the stars in heaven?

I might not believe that I could count the stars in the universe, but I do believe that the stars will be out tonight. I do have faith that certain things exist even when I do not see them. Maybe God is just asking Avram (and us for that matter) to believe in God even when we cannot see God.  Faith need not be infinitely complex.  We can trust and believe with our eyes wide open. Maybe faith can be this simple without being simplistic. This is a faith that is within reach and one you can count on in our modern lives.

Great are Commandments

In Lech Lecha, this weeks portion, our nations journey begins with God instructing Avram (soon to become Avraham) to leave his birthplace and set out to start a new people in a new land. What a novel concept? A people collected by common belief as opposed to an accident of birth place. But if we were paying attention to the end of last week’s portion we would have seen that the destination for Avram’s travel was not new at all. Terach, Avram’s father, had set out with his family toward the land of Canaan, but never got there. While it seems that Avram was more successful than his father in terms of getting to the land of Canaan, he was as unsuccessful as his father in terms of staying there. We read in this week’s portion a that Avram left the land of his divine quest almost as soon as he got there. How are we to compare the life journey of Avram and Terach?

In the Gemara in Kidushin 31a (in a totally different context) we learn that,  “Greater is the one who is commanded and does then the one who is not commanded and does”. This sentiment can be explained with a basic understanding of the human need to combat authority. It  is more meritorious to overcome our need to rebuff authority and comply than to just do something for its own cause. It is interesting to ponder the opposite of this adage. How would you compare the one who is commanded and does not comply to the one who is not commanded and does not comply? The first one is testing the limits of authority, but still might be in a relationship with the authority. The later is just not doing anything at all.

Surely Terach’s intentions were good, but we do not know them. Avram might have failed in complying with the will of God  in going to and staying in the land of Canaan, but we know where he aspired to go. We are still the beneficiaries of that relationship. We all fail, but with clear expectations it possible for us to try again and succeed. And for that I love Mitzvot.

 

Looking Back

Blog trafficIn this week’s Torah portion we read about the destruction of Sodom. When the angel informs Lot and his family of the imminent destruction of their home town, they are warned not to look back lest they be swept away (Genesis 19:17). And we all know, as they are leaving, Lot’s wife looks back and is turned into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). What was so wrong with looking back?

I would venture to say that we have all been delayed on a highway due to the delays of a crash on the other side of the divide. We curse the people ahead of us, but when it is our turn we join the rubberneckers slowing down to look back at that crash ourselves. It is natural to want to see the spectacle of destruction, but we know that it is not beneficial to society.

The story of Lot’s wife stands in contrast to Avraham. He too was instructed to leave and in another way told not look back. God told him to: “Get out of your country, and you’re your kindred, and from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). If he had really turned his back on his father’s house he would not have repeatedly come to the rescue of his cousin Lot. Where Lot’s wife looks back to gawk at the pain of other’s, Avraham turns back to aid and assist. I want to share with you an Irish blessing, “May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, the foresight to know where you are going, and the insight to know when you have gone too far.”


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