‘Solid Ground’ – Shabbat Hayyei Sarah 5780 (2019)

Hayyei Sarah brings the cycle of Abraham and Sarah stories to a close. Their story has been a frenzy of activity; constantly in motion, Abraham and Sarah left their place of birth and upbringing, traveled to a new ‘home’ and kept moving throughout the course of their lives. The Hasidic masters tag Abraham (and by extension Sarah) as a ‘walker’, one who is continuously striving and growing spiritually, ever on foot, always ‘walking’.

Hayyei Sarah’s opening passage brings us new vocabulary, offering us as readers a different model and sensibility to emulate. At Sarah’s death, Abraham seeks out ahuzat kever – a burial plot – in the place where they have lived. 19th century scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the “underlying idea of ahuzah is being settled, the act of permanent settling.” Abraham, whose “calling has been wandering”, now seeks something solid that he can hold onto, and that can hold onto him and his descendants far into the future.

 

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Hacksilver pieces of differing weights; hoard from Tel ‘Akko. (Photo by M. Eisenberg)

 

Hayyei Sarah focuses on two pieces of ‘solid ground’ – actual land (that is, real estate) and marriage (that is, long term, durable, intimate relationship). After securing a burial plot for Sarah at a price of 400 silver pieces (“not outrageous””not cheap” in the estimation of archeologist Tzilla Eshel, somewhere around $625,000 in today’s terms) Abraham deploys his servant to journey eastward in search of a partner and spouse for Isaac. At the end of a long life spent wandering, Abraham seeks a measure of certainty and permanence.

I’m moved by Abraham’s desire for ‘solid ground.’ In this moment of profound uncertainty, I deeply feel the need to grasp values and commitments that in turn have a hold on me. Perhaps you do as well. In Sarah our Mother and Abraham our Father we have blessedly enduring role models. Even in a deeply unsettling time, there is solid ground available to us. Time to take hold of it and not let go.

Shabbat Shalom.

Hospitality, then Justice – Shabbat Vayera 5780 (2019)

Nahum Sarna, the great 20th century Bible scholar, describes Genesis 18, the opening passage of Parashat Vayera as a chapter that “divides into two distinct parts.” Part one describes “the appearance of angelic visitors to Abraham” while part two details “the intended divine visitation upon Sodom and Gomorrah.” Acknowledging that “the two topics appear to be discrete”, Sarna also suggests that they are “closely interconnected”: “The first carries a message of life and posterity, the second of death and everlasting destruction. Both reveal the nobility of Abraham’s character; both disclose the workings of divine Providence”. [JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 128]

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Abraham Receiving the Three Angels, by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, 17th century

My friend and teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, sees a powerful connection between the two parts of Genesis 18. “Our covenant with God is not just about having children”, he writes; “it is also about the kind of children we have. Abraham is promised a son, but he must raise him with a passion for what is good and just. The continued flow of divine blessing depends on it”. For Rabbi Held, the key verse in the passage is this one: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord (derekh Adonai) by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what (the Lord) has promised him” (Genesis 18:19)

That ‘way of the Lord’ consists of what exactly? Aviva Zornberg’s beautiful reading of Vayera suggests that God’s way involves a sequential prioritizing of some of our tradition’s central values. Hospitality and hesed come first, to be followed by righteousness and justice. Here’s Zornberg: “To judge the earth is to annihilate it. Mishpat (justice) is the modality that human beings can never appropriate as their own…To adhere to such standards is to destroy the world; in order to build the world, hesed, the generous perception of alternative possibilities, is necessary.” [The Beginning of Desire, p. 110]

A passion for justice devoid of a prior commitment to kindness and hospitality destroys. In contrast, a passion for mishpat rooted in and anchored by a lived commitment to hesed builds lives, communities, and the world itself. That’s way of Abraham and Sarah; that’s meant to be the learned path of their posterity; that’s derekh Adonai.

Shabbat Shalom..

 

 

Transformation! – Shabbat Lekh L’kha 5780 (2019)

Avram and Sarai model the possibility of transformation – of one’s self, of one’s path in life, of reality itself, of the world as a whole. Aviva Zornberg’s evocative essay about Lekh L’kha employs much of the powerful vocabulary of what she calls ‘the imperative of transformation.’ Transformation is about the desire to ‘become other’; it is an ‘existential condition’, a ‘quasi-autonomous urge…to create (oneself) anew’. God’s call to Avram, in Zornberg’s reading, is a seductive ‘voice urging discontinuity’, one that sets in motion ‘a kind of inner vagabondry’ suggestive of ‘freedom from the cognitive norms of (one’s) society’. [The Beginning of Desire, pp. 78-81]

Zornberg’s language echoes that of the Torah itself; the forward motion of Genesis 12 is palpable, whether read or heard it feels vigorous and dynamic. Avram and Sarai are on the go. How, one wonders, do they know that it’s time to move? And how do they know to where? R Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev’s equally evocative reading of Lekh L’kha’s opening words focuses our attention on such concerns. ‘Here is the rule,’ teaches Levi Yitzhak. ‘When you are uncertain if you should do something or not, pay attention: if you sense clarity in your thinking, in your inner awareness, then you should do thing. This is the meaning of God’s promise I will show you: this word implies clarity of awareness.’ [Kedushat Levi, R Jonathan Slater, ‘A Partner in Holiness’ p. 24]

For Levi Yitzhak (and for us?) the ‘voice urging discontinuity’ comes from within! Inner awareness, then, is the first step, the prerequisite, to real and enduring transformation. Avram and Sarai’s restlessness is less a response to external conditions than it is a growing awareness of their own inner needs and wants. How/who do I want to be in the world? No billboard or megaphone out there will broadcast the answer to that question. Seek out the ‘still, small voice.’ That’s Levi Yitzhak’s advice. ‘Clarity of awarenss’ leads to transformation.

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And transformation, in turn, brings about blessing in abundance. Second Isaiah charted the whole process a couple of millennia ago – ‘Listen to Me, you who pursue justice, You who seek the Lord: Look back to the rock from which you were hewn, to the quarry from which you were dug. Look back to Abraham your father and to Sarah who brought you forth. For he was only one person when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many’. [Isaiah 51:1-2] Go forth also means dig deep. That’s where the insight which leads to transformation is to be found. Blessing in abundance will follow.

Shabbat Shalom.

Relatable Righteousness – Shabbat Noah 5780 (2019)

Daily, I trip over one of the middle blessings of the weekday ‘Amidah.

.עַל הַצַּדִּיקִים וְעַל הַחֲסִידִים. וְעַל זִקְנֵי עַמְּךָ בֵּית יִשרָאֵל. וְעַל פְּלֵיטַת סופְרֵיהֶם. וְעַל גֵּרֵי הַצֶּדֶק. וְעָלֵינוּ

“May Your compassion, Adonai our God, flow to the righteous (tzaddikkim), the pious (hasidim), the leaders of the people Israel, the remnant of the sages, the righteous converts, (geirei ha-tzedek), and us all (‘aleinu)…”

I, as a worshipper, don’t include myself as among the righteous. Indeed, a line or two later the blessing articulates this request: וְשים חֶלְקֵנוּ עִמָּהֶם – “and may our share be among them.” The commentary in Siddur Lev Shalem puts it well: “In the shadow of these people we ask for God to turn to us as well.”

A couple of questions: If I am neither righteous nor pious, then who/what am I? Who are ‘these people’ – the righteous and the pious? Are ‘they’ people I know or are they imagined prototypes? Either way, is it possible for me to be/become more like them?

 

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[Venice, mosaic, 12th century]

 

Parashat Noah opens with a well known statement about the central character’s character.

נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃  – “Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.” Close readers will note that the Torah’s statement is actually three statements – 1. Noah was righteous (tzaddik); 2. Noah was blameless (tamim) in his age (b’dorotav); and 3. Noah walked with God.

Would Noah have been ‘blameless’ in another age or generation? In evaluating righteousness, how much does general environment matter? Perhaps Noah’s ability to be ‘righteous’ in a time of lawlessness means that he’d be ‘righteous’ in a less challenging environment as well. And perhaps, the Torah means to convey the precise opposite – only relative to his surroundings can Noah be described as ‘righteous’; in a time of different (higher?) standards, he’d not have measured up.

Dena Weiss makes beautiful sense of Noah’s righteousness and its intended role modeling potential for each of us. “The reason why Noah, a totally average person, is nevertheless called a tzaddik is so that we ordinary readers of the Torah will think to ourselves, ‘If that totally average person can be considered righteous, can be called a tzaddik, then so can I.’ … Noah is relatable and Noah is emulatable. The secret of Parashat Noah is that Noah is us. He is righteous in the way that we are.”

Relatable righteousness, I suggest, connects Noah and the daily Amidah. Both invite us to strive for just a bit more in our very challenging time. And both models hold out the hope of Divine grace and compassion in response to that striving. ‘May our share be among them’ indeed. Shabbat Shalom.