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.


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