Sunday, November 20, 2005

Parashat Vayera - The Consequences of the Covenant


G-d has come to terms with the Consequences of Creation. This is only temporary, as we shall see – over and over again, G-d will meddle, interfere, lose patience, come close to destroying all humanity, or simply storm off in disgust – but for the moment, G-d has decided to let the world march on. Indeed, it has come rather farther than G-d permitted either the first or second go-round. G-d, in fact, give us a turn and attempts to hand the entire mechanism of Creation over to humans.

When we read the Psukim deliberately, the opening sentences must strike us as strange. “And G-d appeared to him at the terebinths of Mamre…” (18:1) “… and behold: three men had planted themselves opposite him…” The opening Pasuk describes G-d as appearing to Abraham, but in less than a sentence, G-d is replaced by three men, and does not appear again until, provoked by Sarah’s laughter, G-d prods Abraham and asks (1:13) “Why did Sarah laugh?” In fact, the staging of this scene is forced. Sarah is in the tent, while Abraham and the three men / angels are outside. The men announce to Abraham that Sarah will have a child, and she – hiding in the tent and eavesdropping on the conversation – laughs to think that she, at her advanced age, will bear a child. Immediately G-d, who has done and said nothing all Parasha, jabs Abraham in the ribs and asks sharply, “what’s your old lady laughing at?” Sarah – still in the tent – objects “I did not laugh!” to which G-d replies, “Did too!” We can see G-d standing between Abraham and the closed tent flap, G-d’s head snapping back and forth from the man to the goatskin door of the tent. The three man / angels are still sitting beneath the terebinth tree eating their sumptuous picnic and Abraham, as far as we can tell, is still standing by. A very odd scene, indeed.

Odd, too, that the Torah tells us G-d appears to Abraham, and then G-d is replaced by the forms of three men who have stationed themselves before Abraham’s tent. Abraham, alone of his generation, has the gift of clarity of perception. We saw last week that he was the only one to hear G-d’s constant, repeated invitation to all Creation – Lech lecha – Abraham’s hearing is clear. His vision, too, is unparalleled. Abraham forges a Brit, a covenant, a unique relationship with G-d. But in the process, Abraham’s human relationships suffer. He is, by outward standards, a miserable father to his two sons, a poor and hurtfully neglectful husband to his wife, and not much of a son to his father, brother to his brother.

Abraham leaves Haran while his father Terach is still alive and does not return, not even to bury him. His relationship with his surviving brother terminates at the same time – it is not until the end of this Parasha that Abraham is told, as an aside really, by the way – your brother has twelve sons. It takes a good amount of time to father twelve children, spread as they are between two mothers. Where is the family link?

When Sarah sees she is not fertile, she finally prevails upon Abraham to impregnate Hagar, her handmaid. Within two Psukim (16:3-5) things have deteriorated so severely that Sarah (then still Sarai) tells Abram to send Hagar out to the wilderness. Chamasi ‘aleicha! Sarai tells him: “The wrong done me be upon you!” And the word Chamas indicates theft and violence. It is a strong word, expressing a violent emotion. I offered you my handmaid, Sarai is saying, but you did not have to agree so quickly. Clearly, Hagar’s behavior is condoned by Abram, if not actively encouraged. And the family strife occasioned here will have eternal implications.

When G-d appeared to Abram in a night vision and promised Abram offspring, a series of promises and predictions ensued. At 15:13, G-d tells Abram that his descendants shall be strangers in a land not their own. G-d does not identify the land, but tells Abram that the inhabitants of the land will “afflict” – ‘inu – his descendants. The word ‘inui – affliction – is intimately bound up with the Egyptian experience. At the Seder we begin by holding up the Matzah and chanting ha lachm ‘anya – from the same root – the Bread of Affliction. It is not a coincidence that Sarai flies into a rage against Hagar the Egyptian (16:3) and afflicts her (16:6 – va-t’aneha). The play of the word Afflict / Affliction around the all-too-intimate relationship between Abram and the woman of Egypt lays the karmic groundwork for the working-out of the promised tragic destiny of Abram’s descendants: as our mother afflicted the woman of Egypt, so the nation of Egypt shall become the instrument of our affliction.

Chamasi ‘aleicha. You bear the burden of the violent wrong done to me, the theft of my dignity. Let G-d judge between you and me. Harsh words indeed, between wife and husband. But G-d comes to reassure Abram. Sarai will bear you a son, G-d tells him. It is Abram, not Sarai, who laughs derisively, at 17:17. Then he turns to G-d and says: Let Ishmael live before you. That is enough. Abram is saying to G-d: you promised me a son, and I have a son, I have Ishmael. Don’t go muddying the waters with Sarai now that she is old and decrepit. But G-d forces the issue. No, G-d persists at 17:19, Sarai will bear a son, and you will name him Yitzhak, and I will establish my Brit with him as an eternal covenant for his seed after him. The destiny is already being pushed downstream. The Promise was made to Abram in the name of his descendants. Now G-d is telling Abram that the Promise will transfer to his son, the one yet to be born.

To touch briefly on the interlude of Sodom and Gomorrah, let us observe that, at 18:17, we are treated to that rarest of Biblical passages: G-d gives a soliloquy in which G-d, as surely as any Shakespearean character, ponders what is the right thing to do. And G-d finally decides: yes, G-d says, I will tell Abraham what I am about to do.

When G-d does announce to Abraham the pending fate of the two cities, Abraham immediately engages in a famous courtroom argument. In fact, the dialogue can be seen as a Socratic dispute. G-d, the innocent Sophist, says, “I have to kill them because they are unjust.” Abraham, stand-in for Socrates, argues: “You say you are a Just G-d. If so, then you must do Justice. Do you not agree?” And G-d agrees. “But to kill the innocent is not Just. Do you agree?” And G-d agrees. “And so, if there is a certain percentage of the population that is just, they should tip the scales to mercy, rather then permitting them to be swallowed up, the good along with the bad. Do you agree?” G-d, by this point over a barrel, has no choice but to agree.

The dialogue now begins to grow humorous. “OK,” Abraham says. “Now, work with me on this: if there are fifty just people, will you not destroy the cities?”

“OK,” G-d replies. “Fifty is a good number. For the sake of fifty, I will not destroy.”

Abraham, with a Socratic twinkle in his eye, casts a sly glance towards G-d and says, “Soooo… for, uh, like… for the sake of forty… maybe you won’t destroy?”

“OK,” says G-d. “Yeah. For forty just people, I won’t destroy the towns.”

“All right,” says Abraham. “Now, don’t get angry with me, but since you said forty would be OK… how about thirty?”

The scene goes on until Abraham bargains G-d down to ten, at which point G-d abruptly terminates the conversation. Like all of Socrates’ interlocutors, G-d knows that G-d has been bested in this debate. The only response is to storm off in enraged silence, for to speak another word is to lose altogether.

One odd note of the aftermath. Like Noach – in another literary recycling of themes so common to the structure of Torah – Lot is warned by G-d of the coming destruction, and told to flee with his family. Unlike Noach, Lot’s sons-in-law make fun of the old coot and refuse to budge. Like Abram’s relationship with Lot when he took him from Ur Kasdim, Lot’s own daughters will now be childless, their husbands dead, and Lot in some measure responsible for finding them men to father offspring. And like Noach, he will drink wine and fall asleep, and his children will uncover his nakedness. From this union will spring Moab, and from Moab will spring Ruth, and from Ruth, David HaMelech. And when, in Megillat Ruth, Naomi coaches Ruth on how to get her man, Boaz, she tells her to go down to the tent at night when Boaz is asleep, and to uncover his feet and lie there. After all, Naomi seems to be saying, that is how you people behave. It’s where you came from in the first place.

Abraham is a man who separates from his family. He separates from all human society in order to unite himself with G-d. In a striking literary curiosity, Abraham is the only male in the Abrahamic line throughout Sefer Bereshit whose name is not given a meaning. Yitzhak, from Laughter. Ya’akov, from the Heel. Yaakov’s twelve sons are named by their mothers, each one given an entire sentence to describe the origin of his name.

And Abraham? In Talmudic Hebrew, the word Burmah means “a wedge”, from the root Bet, Resh, Mem, meaning To Split, to divide. The name Abram can be read as a verb meaning “I shall split apart, I shall divide.” And Abram, enhanced to become Abraham, does in fact split his family. Indeed, he shatters it. He not only forsakes his father and brother, he also throws over his wife for the maid. We are disgusted when Lot offers his daughters to the crowd in order to protect his guests, but what of Abraham offering Sarah, first to Pharaoh, then to Abimelech, to save himself? Ramban, for one, excoriates Abraham for this double sin, but most Meforshim are not troubled by it.

In abandoning Sarah to her fate, Abraham also splits apart the very meaning of family relationships. She is my sister, he says. When Abimelech confronts him, Abraham – rather than merely saying that he feared for his own life – justifies his treachery by saying, Well, we really are related.

At the end of Lech lecha, when G-d tells Abram that Sarai will have a son, Abram does not tell her. Instead, he tells G-d not to bother. I have Ishmael, Abraham says. Here again, in this week’s Parasha, when the Angels tell Abraham that she will have a son, he does not rush into the tent to tell her the news. Abraham has long since ceased to regard Sarah as his wife.

But when Yitzhak is born, the first one in the family to express love for Yitzhak is his brother Ishmael. All the emotion surrounding the birth of Yitzhak has been narcissistic. Abraham wanting to keep status quo; Sarah, first enraged at Hagar’s attitude, and now reflecting on how people will treat her, now that she has a son of her own. At 21:9, during the feast celebrating Yitzhak’s weaning, Ishmael is seen Metzahek. This word means “making laugh”, from the same root as the name Yitzhak. It is usually translated as “Mocking”. But…

In Parashat Toledot, at 26:8, Yitzhak takes Rivkah to the land of Gerar. As his father before him, Yitzhak tells Abimelech, the king of Gerar, that she is his sister. Later, Abimelech happens to glance out his window and see that Yitzhak Metzahek et Rivkah ‘ishto – he is making her laugh, and in such a way that Abimelech immediately knows they are not sister and brother, but wife and husband. The same word as between Ishamel and Yitzhak. It is a word of intimacy, of a close loving bond, one with a physical aspect. Clearly, Ishmael is playing fondly with his baby brother and making Yitzhak feel loved. No wonder Sarah wants him thrown out.

When, in the ensuing drama, Hagar and Ishmael lie down to die, we witness a powerful foreshadowing of the Akeidah, as well as a distinct scene of members of Abraham’s family trying to take on the Destiny of Abraham.

Hagar lays Ishmael beneath a bush and goes a bow-shot distance away to let him die. Ishmael, let us remember, is sixteen or seventeen years old – the same age as Yosef when he was cast down the pit. Surely this youth must already be used to desert life, must be capable of taking care of himself. Why does he willingly lie down to die? Why does his mother not struggle to save him? Is it because they have a faulty vision, one that tells them that a son of Abraham will be sacrificed, and that his parent will stand by and do nothing?

However it may be, Hagar stands aside, and Ishmael lies down as though purposely intending to die of thirst, and would do so, but for the angel who appears to his mother and opens her vision to what has been there all along: a well. This scene pre-plays the ensuing drama of the Akeidah in all its particulars, tying Hagar and Ishmael to the Abraham narrative. It is a powerful example of characters who are peripheral to the main theme – the the story of Abraham, of Abraham’s descendants, of Abraham’s Promise and Blessing, and ultimately of the story of Klal Israel – and who fervently desire to link themselves to the Destiny of Abraham.

But it is not to be. Ki be-Yitzhak yikare lecha zera’ – “… for in Yitzhak our seed shall be called” (21:12). G-d explains to Abraham – several times, in fact – that G-d’s program is not Abraham’s program. Abraham, who makes the mistake of interpreting G-d’s plan through his own –Abraham’s – lens of human desire, needs to be corrected over and over. Abraham has a son, Ishmael, but G-d must remind him that Ishmael is not the son of G-d’s Promise.

And now, G-d must remind Abraham one last time, one powerful and heartrending time, of what else it is that Abraham has rejected, set aside. A-bram – I shall split apart.

Rashi’s famous commentary on the opening lines of the Akeidah quotes the Midrash which has Abraham playing a specious game with G-d. It is, in fact, a childish replay of the sophist argument we saw played out at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Take your son, G-d says, and Abraham coyly answers: I have two sons. Your only son, G-d explains, and Abraham says: but each one is an only son of his mother. And so on. But what is Rashi pointing to on a deeper level? The interplay of text and Midrash draws our attention to the human tragedy of Abraham’s life: that this man has sacrificed his family to his Destiny. Like so many successful people, Abraham placed his Life’s Work above the value of a happy home life. It is not only executives of Fortune 100 corporations, not only senior partners of major law firms, not only multimillion-dollar investment bankers who put in 120 hour weeks at the expense of their wives and children. With the exception of Yitzhak’s weaning, it is probably a safe bet that Abraham never attended one of his children’s birthday parties, probably never bought Sarah an anniversary gift. Indeed, the little dialogue we have between husband and wife is terse, angry, and singularly lacking in affection, or even in traces of a close relationship. “Fix supper for the guests,” Abraham orders her. “My suffering is your fault,” she upbraids him. “Let G-d be the judge between us.” Hardly the stuff of a happy marriage.

- Take your son.
- I have two sons.
- Your only son. Come on, Abraham, you know who I mean. Have I not said over and over that Yitzhak is the Son of your Destiny?
- “Only”? But each one is an only son – each of his own mother.
- Asher ahavta – The one you used to love…

G-d forces Abraham to confront his own human failings. Will you play word games with me?, G-d seems to say. But two can play at this. You, Abraham, who bested me at your childish philosopher’s dialogue – for I would not have wiped out your precious nephew at all events. I put you to the test, to see if you would stand up for what is right. You passed, but only so much. Moshe, who will come after you, will rightly claim that he outranks you for righteousness – for you, you argued for two cities for the sake of ten men, but Moshe will argue for an entire nation, and for the sale of none, and he shall win.

Two wives, Abraham? “Each is the only son of his mother” – this is your feeble attempt at arguing G-d into a corner? I will show you “which one”. The one you used to love (asher ahavta). The woman on whom you hung all your human hopes and longing and dreams, back when you still had human feelings. Before you became obsessed with your Destiny. With your Promise. Yes, G-d says, I promised you offspring. Yes, G-d says, I promised you a Destiny. But did I command you to forsake your own human relations to embrace the future? Remember, Abraham, how once you loved your young wife Sarai. Remember when she alone was sufficient for you, when love mattered more than children and inheritance and Land and Destiny. Remember, and weep, and take that son of shattered love and bring him up to Me upon the mountaintop. And there we shall see what we shall do.

So much depends upon our reading of the ensuing lines. So much commentary has been written – continues to be written – about this defining moment of Judaism, and of the stepchild faiths that have grafted themselves onto the root of Torah. Rather than argue or criticize or justify what Abraham does, or did, or may or may not have done, let us observe a few points in context.

Where things Divine are concerned, Abraham is gifted with clarity of perception. Yet he can not see in human terms. Hagar and Ishmael voluntarily go off to the desert. Ishmael lies down to die, for he seems to know that the next part of the Abraham destiny is that a parent will willingly see a child die, the child will willingly lay down his life. Hagar, despairing in the wilderness, is so bound to the suffering of her son. So much so that it takes a miracle, the intervention of an angel, for her to see what has been before her al this time: a well. With Abraham it is different. We read several times the phrase, “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw.” He saw the mountain – even though G-d stopped speaking to Abraham after the initial command to perform this act, Abraham understands that part of the message, he knows which mountain, and he goes there directly. After the encounter with the angels interrupts the Akeidah, he lifts his eyes and sees the ram. He does not need to be told it is there.

The Ralbag, perhaps alone among major Meforshim, seems to have a post-modern read of the Akeidah narrative, in which Abraham misunderstands G-d’s command. Other major commentators – notably the Ramban (Nachmanides) – have excoriated Abraham for his poor behavior. Now the Ralbag points out that the language G-d uses – “bring him up there for a bringing-up” – in no way implies slaughter. To “make of your son an offering” can just as easily be a formal act of presenting Yitzhak to G-d. A spiritual coming-out party. This is exactly what Moshe will do, for example, with Aharon and the Leviim, when he presents them physically as a Wave-Offering during the inauguration of the Mishkan.

Animal sacrifices were a human invention. The first animal offering was spontaneously hit upon by Hevel, wanting to imitate his brother Cain. We saw that G-d accepted Hevel’s offering, if only because G-d could not accept Cain’s, the reminder of the first Sin in the Cosmos. But humans were not yet permitted to eat animals. What, then, was Hevel doing as a sheep-herder? Was he merely grazing his flocks for wool and milk? And if he did not eat the meat of his charges, how did he bring himself to slaughter one as an offering to G-d? Or was this Gift also a live beast?

However it may have come about, we see that the first animal offering leads directly to the first murder. The second animal offering, likewise, is a human invention. Noach decides to sacrifice animals to G-d in thanksgiving for having come through the Flood. Rashi is clear on this point: Noach reasons that G-d must have told him to bring extra animals (seven pairs of Tahor animals, as opposed to one pair of the others) for the express purpose of bringing sacrifices. No sooner does Noach perform the act than G-d smells the smoke and, disgusted, reflects that the wickedness innate in human nature is in-conquerable and ineradicable. G-d seems to become resigned to this evil and decides to “un-curse” the Earth.

When G-d tells Abram he will have sons, Abram’s response is to build an altar and slaughter animals. (The Hebrew word Mizbeach comes from the root Zevach, meaning Slaughter. There are other words used for structures set up to praise G-d. Yaakov, for example, sets up a Matzeva – a “standing structure” – to signify his encounter with G-d.) G-d expresses repeated frustration with the human propensity to slaughter animals as an act of worship. The ultimate message of the Akeidah seems to be that bringing sacrificial offerings is a slippery slope. You want to kill in my name?, G-d asks. I will show you the ultimate outcome. And Abraham, who understands G-d’s language, but not the language of human relationships, passes the test on the Divine level, but must fail it on the human. For his test combines them – human and Divine.

Take your son, says G-d, and come to Me. In one simple way of approaching this command, we see that the plain meaning of the words – (22:2) ve-ha’alehu sham le’olah – comes out: “bring him up there to the offering.” Ultimately, and unwittingly, this is what Abraham does. He takes his son and brings him up the mountain. There, at the mountaintop, the ‘olah – the Burnt Offering – waits for them in the form of a ram trapped in the thicket. Some minor business intervenes, in which Abraham can not figure out the seeming paradox that his destiny is to be transmitted through this son, yet he, Abraham, is to slaughter this very son. This is not the paradox of faith, but merely the portrait of a man so blinded by his own zeal that he forgets his own human side.

The one you used to love, G-d says. Remember? Remember when you were more human, less Holy? But no, Abraham does not recall. And so G-d leaves him, never to speak with him again. G-d’s various promises are assured, and Abraham will live out his years in comfort and contentment. Perhaps he never will realize what was lost. The hint of his late awakening comes next week, when he invests tremendous time and care in securing a burial place for Sarah. If they could not live together, at least they shall remain together in death.

This Parasha begins with the transfer of Creative power from G-d to humans. The verb va-year takes the creative act of Seeing – the second of G-d’s four fundamental acts of Creation – and puts it in a human context. Abraham, throughout the Parasha, Sees. Hagar, as another example, does not see. Sarah becomes distressed at what she sees. Hagar almost allows her son to die because of what she does not see. The true creative aspect requires that we balance our perception of the Divine with our perception of the Human. This is a task that sometimes even the very greatest among us are not equal to.

Yours for a better world.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Parashat Lech Lecha - The Consequences of Creation III


The Kabbalists speak of the phenomenon of G-d hiding in order to create the World – that the very act of Creation rests on G-d’s withdrawing so as to permit the World to come into being. The word Tsimtsum – “contraction” – points to a metaphoric withdrawing. What is the mathematical measure of a quantity that is infinitesimally smaller than Infinity? The mathematical concept of Infinity is not, in fact, infinite. Nor, for that matter, is our physical and temporal universe. The physical universe is very, very large. The temporal one is quite old, and is likely to grow a good deal moreso. But it is not eternal. The simple lesson, for monotheists, is that only G-d is infinite; only G-d is eternal. And by going beyond the bounds of the measurable, G-d is no longer capable of being measured. The broad spectrum of Jewish thought – from the Rambam to the Ba’al HaTanya – rests on this principle.

Last week, G-d told Noach “I make my Covenant – Brit –with you. This week, G-d is rather more reticent to discuss with Abram / Abraham the inner workings of G-d’s own thought processes. We see G-d giving a soliloquy – something G-d has done only once before, and will never do again. Notably, G-d articulates inwardly that G-d has established a Brit with Abram, but does not speak the word to him. What is this Power of the Unspoken?

Lech lecha, G-d says to Abram. The Chassidic view of this incident is that it is by no means unique, neither to its time and place, nor especially to its protagonist. For G-d is always, and at all times and in all places and conditions, calling to each one of us: Lech lecha. Go. Come to me. Get up and move. Abram, alone in human history, heard the call.

There is an interesting Halachic aspect to this as well. When a man is called up to read the Torah, he will generally wear a Tallit. In some communities, unmarried men do not wear a Tallit – or even own one, for it is a gift from the bride’s parents. When a man who does not own a Tallit is called for an Aliyah, he will generally borrow his neighbor’s Tallit, and return it to him after he returns from the Bimah. One is not permitted to make a Beracha on a borrowed Tallit. The Pasuk explicitly states: And they shall be your Tzitzit… ve-haya lachem tzitzit… This is generally translated in somewhat confusing fashion as “And they shall be for you fringes…” but the literalism does some intellectual harm to the text. Halachically, any Mitzvah that reads lecha – “yours”, or lachem – “yours” (plural) requires that the object be owned in order for the individual to perform the Mitzvah. One may sit in someone else’s Sukkah and perform the Mitzvah, but in order to use someone else’s Lulav, the owner must make a gift of it to the other person. It is permitted to make the gift conditional – on the condition that you will return it to me by way of gift at a later time – but a legal transfer of ownership is required, because the Pasuk uses the word lachem – yours.

Lech lecha. Go – and this is a Mitzvah you can only do for your own self. Each of us is uniquely responsible for our own spiritual life. We can not bring other people to spirituality, to moral uplift, to Torah and Mitzvot, except perhaps by example. I can not perform your Mitzvot, nor does my own relationship with G-d suffice. Each one of us is personally responsible. Responsible for our own spiritual development. Responsible for our own study and performance of Torah and Mitzvot. Responsible for our own relationship with G-d. The Mishna states: “The world was created for my sake.” This is not mere homiletics, but a Halacha. Each one of us is the direct beneficiary of the Creation. Into each of our hands is placed the responsibility for caring for the entire Cosmos. Each one of us is G-d’s partner.

Go forth.

Just as G-d continually creates Creation – renewing the whole world in each moment and in each instant and in each infinitesimal and timeless segment of Time – so too, in each moment, we are G-d’s partners, bearing the constant and moment-to-moment responsibility for the wellbeing of G-d’s Creation.

And Abram heard the call.

Yet, before Abram came his father, Terach. Terach, in fact, is the one who first heard the call, or at least behaved outwardly as though he did. For it is Terach who Went Forth. At the end of Parashat Noach we learn that Terach took his children and left Ur Kasdim, headed for Canaan. Along the way, he stopped in Haran. Ultimately – decades later – he dies there. Rashi, Ramban and many others point out that Abram’s departure from Haran occurs during his father’s lifetime; yet, it is only after the text tells us that Terach died in Haran does it take up G-d’s exhortation to Abram to leave his father’s land. Because, so the Rabbis tell us, Terach was spiritually dead.

I humbly submit that Terach has gotten a bum rap.
It may not be on the exalted level of Abram’s connecting with G-d, but Terach’s motivation to leave Ur Kasdim seems to arise from some profound dissatisfaction with the life of the city. We are not told why Terach leaves, but we do know a few details about his family:

At the end of Parashat Noach (Bereshit 11:27 onwards) we read of the generations of Terach. Terach has three sons: Abram, Nahor and Haran. And, we are told, Haran begets Lot. And then Haran dies. It says (11:28) “And Haran died in the face of his father.” We have read the genealogies since the Creation, and there is only one other case where a child dies before his parent: the murder of Hevel. The Zohar points out that this is the first time in human history that a child dies of natural causes during the lifetime of the parents. The natural order has been violated and the world will never again be the same.

Terach may not have the greatness of Abram. He may not be on the cosmic wavelength that enables him to hear G-d’s voice calling, calling… “Go… go by yourself. Take your own self and go, for it begins and ends with you…” And yet, Terach knows something is profoundly wrong.

Ur Kasdim was a major city at the time of this narrative. A city of perhaps 250,000 inhabitants, and the capital city of Nannar, the Goddess of the Moon. Robert Graves has written extensively, both in theoretical works and in novels, of the war between Goddess religion and the religion of the Masculine god. The Male god ultimately won out, and the aftershocks of the clash continue to rock our world to this day.

But the origins of this narrative also seem to trace back to the time and place and society that gave rise to the Gilgamesh epic, which deals with sexuality, with the ability of powerful men to sexually exploit women in their social orbit. With the droit de seigneur – the right of the feudal lord of the manor to take virgins at whim. And maybe – just maybe – Terach was afraid that his son’s widow would be appropriated by the men of Ur Kasdim, now that she had no husband to protect her.

In this Parasha we see Abram begging Sarai to pretend they are brother and sister, for in strange lands, he knows men will kill him to take her away, but if they are siblings, they will pay him for her. This is, in fact, what happens. In one’s own home, though, the situation is reversed: the society enforces the sanctity of husband and wife. A woman who is married is accorded a modicum of protection respected even by the lowest members of the society. But an unmarried woman, no longer of an age or situation to be under her father’s roof and protection – she is cast to the whim of the Goddess, or of any man whose eye lights on her.

And so Terach sets out. He takes along Abram and Sarai, as well as Lot. No mention is made of Nahor, Abram’s middle – and now only – brother, but he resurfaces at the end of next week’s Parasha when Abraham is told that he has had children. Nahor’s wife, Milcah, is Haran’s daughter (which makes Nahor her uncle). Haran is called (11:29) “father of Milcah and father of Yiscah.” Yiscah, Rashi tells us, is Sarai. Which makes her Abram’s niece, as well as Lot’s sister.

Abraham in fact treats Lot as a son. There is clearly a surrogate father-son relationship between them, a relationship that is underscored by the language in Pasuk 14:23 after Abram intervenes in the War of the Four Kings against Five I order to save Lot. “I will not even take a thread or a shoe-latchet…” an image that echoes the ceremony in which a man refuses to perform Levirate marriage with his brother’s widow. For this is not the relationship that will bring about Abram’s destiny.

Abram was, in fact, aware of this. How odd that his herdsmen should fight with the herdsmen of Lot, his nephew, his surrogate son. When they fight over ownership of the wells, Lot’s herdsmen tell Abram’s, “Your master has no children, so our master will inherit everything from him. What does it matter if we jump the gun a little and help ourselves to the water now?” Small wonder then that Abram’s response is to tell Lot, “this desert isn’t big enough for the both of us.”

Starting in this Parasha, and continuing throughout Torah, is a human replaying of the overarching theme of the Consequences of Creation: that things don’t turn out the way we plan, the way we wish. The way we pray.

Throughout the generations of the family of Abraham, we see over and over again the attempts of people to participate in the Destiny of Abraham. Nahor, for example, will father twelve sons: eight from his wife, and four from a concubine. This presages the family of Ya’akov. And yet, Nahor does not share in Abraham’s destiny. Hagar, as we shall see next week, attempts to enact – to pre-act – the Sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac. Yet she also does not share the Destiny of Abraham, even though her son Ishmael also fathers twelve tribes.

Chapter 15 opens with the mysterious scene of the Covenant Between the Pieces. Here, G-d lays out for Abram the Promise that will sustain him: the promise of children, of descendants. If there is any notion of immortality in Judaism, it is the fervent prayer that our children flourish, and their children, and theirs… G-d promises Abram a great reward, and Abram immediately shoots back: what good is any reward, as I continue without children? At verse 15:2 Abram asks whether “Demesheq Eliezer” will inherit his house. The language is somewhat complex. “Ben Mesheq” is not merely a “possessor”, but also a steward. “Demesheq Eliezer,” usually translated “Eliezer of Damascus,” probably actually means “Eliezer, the Head Steward of my Household.” Abram is afraid that his Yosef will actually become Pharaoh.

And then G-d promises Abram a biological son. A true heir. “And he believed in G-d” we read at 15:6, “and he reckoned it up to him Righteousness.”

Let us observe two amazing points about this Pasuk: first, that the subject of the second clause is ambiguous. It is translated and interpreted to mean that G-d accounted Abram’s belief as Righteousness. But the logic of the prose seems to want the same person to be the subject of both halves of the sentence, to balance the clauses, rather than setting them in opposition. The traditional reading makes sense if we break the Pasuk in two, ending it after Abram’s believing, and beginning the next Pasuk with G-d reckoning up Abram’s righteousness. The versification actually turns this Pasuk around: Abram believed G-d’s promise, and Abram now was satisfied with the weight of G-d’s Righteousness.

More astonishing is the implication of this moment: that Abram chooses to ally himself with G-d because G-d has promised Abram children. Isn’t this the very mechanism and mentality of the Idol Worshiper? That we believe in the deity when the deity promises us good things? And that we cease believing the moment the deity fails to come through? But see that G-d is working hard at this relationship. Abraham is the first level of ‘Am Israel. Abraham is being introduced gently and gradually to the process of Lech lecha. G-d describes Abraham’s descendants as being enslaved. But you, G-d tells him, do not worry. You shall live a long and prosperous life and die in good old age. All this, and children too? What more could a man ask for?

G-d has taken three starts at Creation to finally get the cosmic ball rolling. Adam was pure and simple, and along came Free Choice and the whole project came crashing down. Noach was created in absolute Righteousness. And still, his human inclination drove him to slaughter animals on an altar, to curse his own progeny. Now, with Abram – now renamed Abraham – G-d has finally found the balance. G-d’s true partner on Earth. This is balanced by Abram’s three attempts at finding a son. Lot, his surrogate / Levirate son does not work out, for Lot is not wicked, but neither is he wise. Eliezer, under the laws and social practices current in that time, could actually inherit from Abram. Favored slaves could be legally adopted, could legitimately inherit. Could even marry their owners and become fully enfranchised. But for Abraham, as for G-d, the third time’s the charm.

Abraham circumcises himself, his son Ishmael, and all the men of his household. Amazing as it is to realize, this is the sole action G-d requires of him. In return for the promise of wealth, of power, of a long life, of sons, G-d requires only that Abraham and his male descendants forever be circumcised. Over the generations and over the centuries, we shall see the intricate and intimate connection between the physical and the spiritual of which Torah is uniquely capable. It is not, as some would say, that we imbue physical objects with sanctity by doing Mitzvot. Rather, we link the spiritual – which is a feeling – to the physical – which is an extension of our body – by action and speech. Which is G-d-like. Which is how we become G-d’s partners in Creation.

You are not like Noach, says G-d. Noach walked only by means of G-d’s support. This is the plain meaning of the words that describe him. Et ha-Elokim hithalech Noach. “Noach got himself walking y means of G-d.” Now, G-d commands Abraham, Hithalech lefanai vehyeh tamim. “Walk before me and be whole.” The same words, but with an entirely new meaning.

You must walk by yourself, G-d is saying, for I must hide a little bit. In order for there to be a relationship, you have to learn to trust me. And I, says G-d, must learn to trust you.

And what has intervened? Lech lecha. It is you who must take responsibility for becoming whole, for becoming righteous. For making yourself holy. In fact, this is perhaps the first great lesson learned by G-d, who is now coming to terms with the Consequences of Creation. That te relationship between G-d and G-d’s creation must be balanced, must be two-sided. That, just as G-d wants things a certain way, we too want things our way. Or we are not capable of making things be other than as they are. We are not capable of being other than what we are.

Which is why we need to be open to hearing G-d’s constant call. Listen. Can you hear it? It’s Ha-Kadosh Baruch-Hu. It’s G-d. Calling you name.

Lech lecha.

Yours for a better world.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Parashat Noach - The Consequences of Creation II


Bereshit 6:9 – Noach ‘ish tzadik tamim hayah be-dorotav. This opening clause is translated: “Noach was a righteous and perfect man in his generations.” ‘Et ha-Elokim hithalech Noach. “Noach walked with G-d.”

Or, we can read the words of the Hebrew on the level of simple meaning, out of their context. This worked brilliantly last week, when Cain’s famous quote, usually translated as “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” was seen to read equally well – and with more profound effect – as “I did not know that I am my brother’s keeper!” How does our friend Noach fare when subjected to the same treatment?

“Noach is a simply righteous man; he was in his generations. Noach made himself walk by means of G-d.” And there, I say, you have the whole story.

The Zohar, commenting on the notion that Noach was Tzaddik and Tamim – generally translated as Righteous and Perfect – tells us that Noach was born already circumcised. But Noach’s Righteousness is suspect: indeed, as Moshe stands in the hour of his own death, the Midrash tells us how he argued both with G-d and with all the righteous of Israel. Of Noach, Moshe says to G-d, “Do not mention me in the same breath as you name that wicked man!” Moshe reminds Noach that he, Noach, was told of the destruction of the world, yet spoke not a word to save anyone. Moshe, by contrast, was told repeatedly of the impending destruction of Klal Israel, yet every time he stepped boldly forward and argued to save us all.

Let us dissect this complex and mysterious hero.

First, to the notion of Tamim. The word is related to Tam, meaning Whole or Simple. Ya’akov will be described as ‘ish tam- a simple man, or perhaps, a quiet man. A dweller in tents. The word comes from the root meaning Whole, and actually signifies a closed circle. Tam – spelled Taf, Mem – is Simple. Tamim is Whole. Tamam is Perfect. Through consonantal substitution, a process not uncommon in the development of the Hebrew language, the word Tamei, spelled not with the letter Taf, but with Tet, also derives from the same root, and evokes an image of the edges of a hole swelling up until they seal the hole closed entirely. What are we to make of this?

When one is Tam, the circle is clear, is simple. The purpose of the circle is to create an emptiness, a space that invites. Invites what? Other peole? The Divine? But here is the crux of Tam: there is space in the center and one waits to be filled. When one is Tamim or Tamam, the circle begins to thrive, to take on a significance unto itself. Now the space at the center is no longer more important than the boundaries that form the circle. But what is a circle, if not merely an imagined limit to a round, empty space? When the Mishkan is build, G-d will speak to Moshe from the center of just such a circle. Yet, Noach did not have to build a Mishkan, for he was born in simple perfection.

Finally, when the circle becomes all-powerful, the center is closed off. Forgotten. Whatever inhabited that center space – other humans, family or society… G-d – gone, all of it crushed under the weight of the ego. Tam has transmuted into Tamei. Significantly, when one is Tamei, one must leave the circle, for the ritually impure – which is what the word means – are forced to leave the camp for a prescribed period, until they are cleansed of their impurity. Social groups take their identity in two basic ways: either by Inclusion, or by Exclusion. You are One of Us – or We are not allowed to become One of Them.

So was Noach. Born circumcised because, unlike the first Creation, G-d did not want to take the risk that Free Choice would bring the entire project tumbling down a second time. Creation was moving along just fine until Life entered the picture. So G-d decides to do away with all Life, selecting one man and his immediate family to be survivors. As G-d will strut and swoop and rage later on to impress the Egyptians, G-d here seems convinced that, if G-d can show one person concretely just how powerful G-d is – and if G-d can make just one person eternally grateful for that person’s relationship with G-d – then Free Choice will not be a threat to order. We say that G-d created the world for us, for each and every one of us. Noach was the only person for whose sake G-d destroyed the world. A bad point of departure, to be sure. But who knew?

It is a commonplace to say that this Parasha is a re-Creation; that Noach is Creation’s second chance. Perhaps the imagery is itself the message. At the beginning of Parashat Bereshit, we read that (1:2) “… the Spirit of G-d hovers on the face of the water…” There is water before the first Act of Creation. G-d’s first act – to speak – comes immediately after G-d’s spirit hovers on the waters. The very next Pasuk, in fact. Perhaps, then, the G-d who is the protagonist of this book perceives a world covered with water as a null point, a point of departure for Creation. In any event, this is exactly the situation G-d re-creates in this Parasha: the earth is covered with water, and from this primeval point, G-d launches the Second Act of Creation.

There is a poetic structure to the opening Parshiyot that underscores the intellectual and spiritual development of our tale – one could argue that it is G-d who is developing. As we shall see at the end of this Parasha, nothing about the world or humanity changes, for all the hard work G-d puts in, but we also see at the end of this Parasha that G-d learns a valuable lesson.

The opening Pasuk of our Parasha repeats the name Noach: ‘Eleh toledot Noach – Noach ‘ish tzaddik tamim haya be-dorotav. This mirrors the opening words of the first Parasha – Bereshit bara- where the three letters Beit, Resh, Aleph, repeat in successive words. Next week, of course, we shall read the opening words Lech lecha – spelled identically, pronounced differently. The poetic symmetry of this repetition – Bra / bra – Noach / Noach – Lech lecha – is undeniable. These three Parshiyot do repeat the fundamental theme of Creation. The first time, G-d creates humans with Free Choice, assuming that we shall naturally choose to do exactly as we are told. The second time – today’s Parasha – G-d removes Noach’s Free Choice, making him a perfect Tzaddik from the moment of birth.

The outcome is a failure – as should have been predictable. No sooner does Noach exit the Ark then he slaughters animals on an altar. Tellingly, Rashi says that Noach reasoned that G-d could only have told him to bring seven each of the Tahor (Pure) animals in order for him to bring sacrifices after the flood abated. And no sooner does G-d smell the smoke of the offerings than G-d rethinks the entire project of Creation. At 8:21, G-d smells the sacrifices and soliloquizes: I shall not curse the Earth for the sake of humans any longer – this is a literal retraction and reversal of the Curse of Adam, where G-d cursed the earth “for the sake of humans.” Here, now, G-d comes to an important realization: “For now I see that the imagination of the mind of humans is evil from youth.” The language is slightly ambiguous – it is not clear whether the antecedent of “from his youth” is the human, or the imagination of the human. The traditional translation is that the imagination of the mind of humans is evil from their childhood – the childhood of humans. This implies that we come up with wicked thoughts from the time we are able to think on our own. The second reading has G-d reflecting that the human imagination is intrinsically evil; that all our thoughts arise from an evil impetus. Either way, it is not felicitous. In fact, it is most probable that both readings are correct. It is most likely for this reason that Rashi comments on this verse as he does. Why does Rashi give us Noach’s thought process? By giving us this insight into Noach’s mind, Rashi is clearly pointing to the fact that G-d never commanded him to bring sacrifices – and to the likelihood that perhaps G-d never intended this. After all, humanity does not have a good track record where bringing offerings is concerned.

So G-d removes the curse of the earth, in effect relenting. G-d has learned that humans are incorrigible. That even destroying the entire world for the sake of one man does not buy Noach’s cooperation. On a homiletical level, just as G-d gave Cain the ‘ot – the Letter – this time, G-d placed Noach in a teva – a Word. It does not seem to have helped much. G-d recognizes that this is a difficult lesson to learn. I will place my bow in the heavens, G-d says, so that when I lose my temper, it will rise before my eyes and remind me. I make my Covenant with you, G-d says to Noach. Go ahead, G-d says, eat meat, take and dominate the Earth, for I realize that I can not prevent you. This theme will repeat, perhaps most notably when we are wandering in the Midbar and G-d gives us permission to eat Meat of Appetite. G-d has placed Free Choice into the mix. This remains the one aspect of Creation that G-d can not dominate. Indeed, G-d will repeatedly have tremendous difficulty coming to terms with it. If the rainbow does not appear in the sky, G-d says, if the bright flashing bow of light does not strike across my eyes, I may forget my Covenant, for all that I have sworn it.

Noach, who is famously silent throughout the Parasha, finally opens his mouth as a result of drinking wine. This is a repeat, of course, of the Chava and Adam tale with the forbidden fruit. Let us recall that the Gemara, in discussing the story of Adam and Chava in the Garden, argues about the identity of the fruit. One of the opinions is that it was grapes. Wine.

Noach’s first words are the curse he pronounces upon his own grandson, Cana’an, in the aftermath of his drunkenness. Echoing G-d’s first Act of Creation – introduced by the same Vayomer – And he said – Noach creates the situation that dominates our history to this day: the antagonistic relationship that is destined to prevail through all of human history between the sons of Shem and the sons of Cana’an. The curse of Noach will be mitigated from time to time by the blessings of Abraham, of Yitzhak, of Ya’akov upon their own children. But the scene has been set and will remain immutable for all time. It is for us to live with its consequences, to make the world perfect in spite of this.

Yours for a better world.