Posts Tagged 'Lech Lecha'

Where the Sidewalk Ends

What is the nature of beginnings? Seneca said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”  The start of something new means that something else ends, but does it also mean that eventually the very thing you are starting will eventually end with something else’s beginning? I was thinking about this when reading the start of Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. There we  read:

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you. And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” ( Genesis 12:1-3)

This is the start of the Jewish project, but what is the end of that project? While many people throughout history have tried to answer that question for us, for now I rather keep in a lighter note. When talking with my friend Shalom Orzach recently he connected this charge to Avram to go out with Shel Silverstein’s poem Where the Sidewalk Ends. There we read:

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we’ll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we’ll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Image result for where the sidewalk ends
It is true that cosmology points us to eschatology, but it can be playful and it does not have to be so darn gloomy. Regardless, we can all enjoy the adventure. It is always refreshing to read Lech Lecha and reconnect with our beginning and reassess if we are going in the right direction.
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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

 

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.


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