Friday, October 25, 2013

Chaye Sarah

Sorry I missed last week.  I was busy in New York with a group of teens.

Chayye Sarah, meaning the life of Sarah, actually recalls the death of the matriarch and comes just after the binding of Isaac.  In this Torah portion we see Isaac begin to take on a bigger role in the narrative as Abraham calls his servant, Eliezer to travel back to Abraham's hometown to  find a wife for Isaac.  Going with wealth of Abraham he travels until he comes to the public well.  Resting there he has a moment to think about the important task and says this:

 "O God, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham."  "Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water."  "Let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels' -- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master."  He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham's brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder.

Rebekah of course will do as Eliezer predicted and she will become the wife of Isaac.  This plea to God, a prayer, is ridiculed by the Rabbis of the Talmud and to this day.

In Tannit it says:
How could Eliezer have asked God for this favor using such careless language?! This is not the way to speak to God! Eliezer's master, Abraham, sent him on a long journey,  back to his kinsmen in Haran, to find a bride for his son Isaac. When Eliezer got to the well of Haran he said to God, "If You will show me the right woman,  I will know who I should bring back to Canaan as Isaac's bride. Let the woman  You choose come here to the well and let down her pitcher of water for both me and my camels. That way I will know who the right woman is." God forbid, what  if a perfectly horrible, ugly, shrewish woman had come to the well and given  water to Eliezer and his camels?!

Ibn Ezra, a 12th century commentator on Torah said, 
"Eliezer was completely wrong in his approach to God, forcing God to perform a miracle for him this way. If the woman who answered him in the way he expected had been physically blemished with an artificial leg or blind, it would have been Eliezer's fault.  Eliezer should have been more specific in his request to God. He should have told God to make sure the woman was not only kind and generous, but physically perfect as well. Unquestionably, God would have arranged the right match for Isaac, but one should not depend on miracles for they certainly do not happen everyday or just because one asks God for them, no matter how prayerfully or sincerely."

Rabbi Sampson Raphel Hirsch, a 19th century Torah scholar said,
The method of petitioning God and then expecting specific signs to occur that Eliezer used is certainly not recommended for the rest of us! This is not a way to talk to God or to choose a wife! Only an Eliezer, sent on a mission with the confidence and  faith of an Abraham, told by Abraham that one of God's angels would accompany  him and help him, only such a person could act as Eliezer did and speak to God the way Eliezer did.

While some contemporary commentators like Nahum Sarna do indeed see Eliezer as doing no wrong, the idea is that this is foreigner giving a foreign prayer to the God of his master.  This is a prayer from the heart.  A prayer of petition but a prayer of emotion.  Unsure of himself, Eliezer seeks to define what he sees a good wife.  Actions speaking louder than beauty or formality.  I find the prayer remarkably Jewish.  It is what I think the connection to Godness should be.  The interaction of Eliezer and Rebekah are crucial in understanding what kind of person would be good for Isaac.  Her kindness to a stranger and his animals brings holiness to the moment.  Eliezer didn't need an angel to understand his role in making the interact a holy thing.

Too often when we pray in our culture we are looking for a miracle.  Something to happen apart from us.  Something to solve a problem that we can't seem to wrap our hands around.  But miracles are not something that we simply have happen to us.  Miracles are the result of the on-going partnership we share with the divine.  We must seek out the miraculous by creating the possibility of miracles.  We must find a way to bring God into the equation.  Eliezer did by looking straight into the eye of the problem and realizing that if the woman he seeks was among the women of Haran, then she would have to posses certain character traits measurable by her actions of kindness.  His prayer called on God not to produce a miracle, as Ibn Ezra suggests,  but to show he is seeking the miracle, like all miracles, that are around us every day.

I recently read an article that questioned the roll of God in the modern world.  It recalled how a parent might use God as a boogyman, always seeking to find us doing something wrong.  What I call the celestial hall monitor.  This is part of the Western concept of God, but is not really how we should expect Judaism to see God.  God can't simply be a concept designed to find wrong doing, but should by the light on the horizon that guides us to good.  Our prayers should focus on how best to understand the light.

What is all our prayers were coupled with actions that would help us focus the Godness we seek into our lives.  Might we then spend less time waiting for the repair of the world and more time repairing it?  What if we find out.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Lech Lecha

When we open parsha Lech Lecha Avraham is still Avram, he is living in  Ur Kaƛdim.  He is called by God to leave every thing he knows and goes to a land  “asher arekha" that I will show you.  That is quite a thing.  Imagine if you will being called by an invisible God to leave all you know and not have a destination in place.  You will simply be shown.  

How often do we feel we can do that?  There is an ad running on TV that a travel website is picking people out, apparently just on the street, and giving them a trip anywhere in world if they left right now.  The ad doesn't fully define "right now" but I imagine there is time to pack.  How many of us could simply take that dream vacation if we had to leave at 8pm today.  (and by today I mean whenever you are reading this).  But at least there is a destination in mind.  At least there is a place to go with some idea of what it is like.  

Add to this notion that this God that called to Avram was not fully known in Avram's world.  The Midrash teaches us that Terah, Avram's father was an idol maker.  Ur was in the heart of modern day Iraq, Babylon, where idol worship was plentiful.  And here this God calling to Avram said, "Get out"  "Leave".  

It is weird.  The power of the story here is that Avram does it.  He listens and only later is promised to be the father of great nations, which comes true as the faiths that grow out of the story of Avram currently include half the world's population and are as diverse as snowflakes.  

But think about us, could we do it.  Rabbi Marc Gellman tells a story that the call was not to Avram first.  In fact three times God called to someone.  Using the Biblical names of Shelah, Peleg and Serug, God called to each and each wanted to bargain with God about what they would get out of it.  They were not interested in giving up their lives for a promise that was not clear.  It would be difficult and frankly I am not sure I would drop everything I know to go and see what would come.  But Avram teaches us that sometimes risks are what we must take for the greater good.  

We hear the call of something, it may not be God, but a call that asks us to change direction.  But so many things get in our way.  The Canadian band (and good Jewish boys) the Barenaked Ladies some up some of those things standing in our way with these lyrics:

We've got these chains that hang around our necks,
people want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.
Afraid of change, afraid of staying the same,
when temptation calls, we just look away.

Being afraid of change is normal.  But it also means that we miss out on chances to be more than we currently are.  Avram took a big risk, and it wasn't easy.  There were demands, hurt, decisions.  He wasn't always right as we will see in the future sections of Torah, but he found a way to be part of something bigger than himself.  Challenged by God, he accepted.

In small ways we too can do that.  I was thinking of inspirational friends today.  One, an author, decided to travel the world on her own.  She decided that the world was something to experience and not be frightened by, even as a woman traveling alone.  Every day is an opportunity for wonder and she finds it and shares it in her writing.  That writing inspires so many others and shows us what is out there waiting.

But it doesn't have to be so dramatic.  Sometimes leaving home to escape the narrative of who people think you are is a hard step but one that can help make you fully discover yourself.  The noise of a small town, where you play your role, can be stifling when you no longer fit the role you grew up in.  While you may still love home, day-to-day finding being someone different can be liberating and healthy.  For Avram, leaving home meant leaving behind the idol worship of his parents and culture.  It must have been difficult, but in the end he grew into a great man.

Lech lecha, can also be about our own internal growth.  Letting go of those things that keep us tied down.  I read today about forgiving someone even if they don't ask you to.  Carrying around the pain they caused blocks blessings it says.  Leaving behind, Going forth from a place of hurt to a place of freedom is a risk as well.  But doing so frees up space for more love and kindness to enter.

But it could be any chances we pass up out of unwarranted fear.  Not talking to someone who is different from you.  (I was privileged to hear Alicia Ostriker the other night who said God gave us imagination so that we can understand the people who are not us), not going to that job interview because we know they won't like us, not asking that girl or boy out because we feel he or she is out of our league.  Every moment of every day could be a Lech Lecha moment.  If only we embrace the road to the land that is still unseen, until then we will never know. 

Too often, we reduce Avram's story to one of "the first monotheist" or the father of nations.  But you know what he most teaches us?  To take risks.  To move away from what people think we should be, to what we feel we are.  That may mean challenging a whole lot of things in our current lives.  It may be difficult and the reward may not be becoming the parent of great nations, but if it makes you a better person, if it makes you more able to connect with who your really are, and thus treat all your encounters with honesty and wonder.  Then you do not just create nations, you create new universes, because to paraphrase Anias Nin, each positive encounter between people births a new universe.  And that is worth any risk you can take.  

Friday, October 4, 2013


If last week's portion is the most talked about Torah portion for adults, Noah has become a story that most western children know as it has been almost Disneyfied.  Having a son named Noah I also know that you can get anything with a Noah theme, anything.

Noah's ark is also used by many businesses for impact.  From a Kosher deli (ironically) in New Jersey to 100s of veterinarians' offices to environmental groups.  Noah's ark is a sign of comfort and caring for the earth.

But the story of Noah is not a good one.  This is the story of an angry God, destroying creation and starting over.  The killing of all of humanity save one family.  The destruction of all civilization because people were wicked.

However the story brings us symbols that today have powerful images of peace in love, the dove with an olive branch and the rainbow.

This parsha has been picked apart by many but there are two stories that I think could use reflection.  The first is the story of Noah getting drunk on homemade wine right after the everyone left the ark and the ending of the story of the Tower of Babel.  (yes sometimes we forget this story is in this parsha).

The story of Noah and the wine if fascinating because it occurs at at time and in a place that should be a more serious time.  The world, destroyed, is being reborn. But Noah decides to get drunk.  Now his son Ham sees "his nakedness" and then Shem and Japheth cover Noah's nakedness without looking.  Now the Torah seems to be leaving something out of the story.  Did Ham do something with his father's nakedness?  Did he make fun of the old man's shriveled body?  Was Noah aroused and Ham explored that in some way?  We really don't know.  What we do know that this was a crisis in the Torah.

What happens next is a genealogy that includes a condemnation of Ham and his son Canaan.  But beyond that there is a clear discussion of the peoples of the earth growing out of these families.  Each son will father a different race or ethnicity of people.  The results of this strange encounter is that God defines humanity not as a single homogeneous group but as a diverse population that will spread out and engage the world.

In the midst of this story we get the story of the tower of Babel.  This story, like the flood narrative, is a common story among the people of the ancient near east.  What we find is a group of people, living closely in an urban environment all with one language.  They decide to build a large tower to make a name for themselves.  Some people say to become god-like.  God's solution, confound their speech, create new languages and make it impossible for them to easily work together.

In both crisis in this story God's solution to the problem of stepping outside of appropriate behavior was to diversify the population.  With Noah and Ham, the close relationship that grew deeper than father and son while cramped on the Ark make it hard for Ham to fully appreciate, let's call it, personal space.  A danger that can lead to all manner of problems.  Even if there was no contact between Noah and his son there was something that occurred that made the familiarity of the people too central.  Spreading them over the earth and having them create new cultures will focus their energy on something, hopefully positive, instead of what was occurring.  With Babel, the people had grown too comfortable again.  They wanted more.  God's actions remind me of a Sci-Fi story where a group (usually humans) are moving to fast with technology and not allowing their morality to catch up with them.  A godlike alien sends them backward in some fashion to make them figure out a new hurdle and in doing so give them more time to grow.

Perhaps that is one of the morals of Noah.  That we see humanity growing at too fast a pace.  God uses the flood to end the evil and make it easier for humans to grow more and perhaps better.  Then he separates the family of Noah who grew too comfortable by making people different.  Creating a test that we still struggle with today.  How to we work closely with someone so different in thought than us?  Then we see the final story of Babel.  Language confusion makes it hard to work together on a project of conceit.  Learning how to speak with your neighbor who has a different language is difficult without a reference point.  Just think of the work one has to do to get someone to understand them.  Point at a glass of water and say the first word that describes it.  Did you say clear?  glass?  container?  water?  liquid?  wet?  drink?  Think of all the words we take for granted.

In the end parsha Noach is a parsha that sees us as still children, and God is worried that we are growing too quickly and thus gives us a test.  A test of diversity that we must figure out.  We must find a way to balance who we are from those who are different and must humble ourselves to learn about others, their language and their culture.  In doing so we might find a new way to seek God, not by building a tower (or getting drunk) but by seeing God in the person so different from who we are that we have to get into his or her soul to see the real humanity there.  Diversity is good and a tool of God.