Thursday, November 30, 2006

Holy Exile!

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Yaakov is on the run, fleeing the country, heading north for Charan. One night on the road out, Yaakov goes to sleep and hears G-d’s voice for the first time. As we shall see, this was no run of the mill prophecy. G-d was presenting a policy statement of eternal consequence.

I am G-d, Lord of Avraham your father and Lord of Yitzchak. I will give to you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying.
Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.
I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land – I will not abandon you until I have done what I have promised you. (Bereishit 28:13-15)
Sounds familiar enough. Gift of Israel, numerous descendants, blessing to all of humanity – we’ve heard this before. G-d made these same promises to Avraham and to Yitzchak. However, there is a lot that is new here. Let’s take another look.

Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.
This paragraph begins with the blessing of numerous descendants and ends with a blessing to all of humanity, but in the middle we find something new. “You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.” What does that mean?

The Talmud (Shabbat 118a) highlights the significance of this line:

…Not like Avraham who was told to “walk the length and breadth of the land” [the length and breadth and no more – Rashi], not like Yitzchak who was told “to you and your descendants I give these lands” [these lands but no more – Rashi], but like Yaakov who was told “You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south.”
This is not expansionism. The borders of Israel are well defined by the Torah. G-d made Himself clear at the beginning of the prophecy: “I will give to you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying.” The idea here is not building an empire, but spreading out beyond the borders of Israel. G-d is talking about exile.

Yaakov is leaving Israel and he is not happy. He would much prefer to stay home and have his father send a servant to find him a wife, just as Avraham did for Yitzchak a generation earlier. Yaakov is being forced out of Israel by Esav, and G-d has come to console him:

“Yaakov, I know you are unhappy, but greater forces are at play. Like your father and your grandfather before you, the events of your life are inexorably tied up with the future history of the Jewish nation. Israel is your land, but exile is part of your destiny. You must leave Israel and foreshadow the Diaspora of your descendants. Why? Because through you and them blessings are to flow to all the families of the earth. And in order for that to happen, Jews must be everywhere.”

Things are getting interesting. Let’s continue our rereading of this prophecy.

I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land – I will not abandon you until I have done what I have promised you.

That last phrase sounds unnecessary and is mildly disturbing. Does it imply that once G-d has fulfilled His promise to return Yaakov to Israel all bets are off? “I will protect you” is limited to “wherever you go” but upon return to Israel Yaakov can expect divine abandonment? What does this phrase mean?

The Rashba (Responsa 4:187) uses this verse to prove that the Hebrew word “ad,” usually translated as “until,” does not necessarily indicate a stopping point. Otherwise, this prophecy would “not be a blessing of providence but a curse of abandonment afterwards.” However, the Rashaba wrote this to a priest in refutation of an attack on Judaism – the Rashba did not have to be perfectly honest. (See Emes L’Yaakov, footnote to pg. 219.)

The simple meaning of the text is inescapable – divine protection in Charan and abandonment upon return to Israel. Indeed, Yaakov enjoys great success in Charan, building his family and his fortune. But when Yaakov gets home he is struck with multiple tragedies: Rachel’s death, the rape of Dina, the loss of Yosef and, ultimately, famine and a return to exile. What does this say for the destiny of the nation? Well, we know our history. Take a look at these verses:

G-d said to Moshe, “When you go and lie with your ancestors, this nation shall rise up and stray after the alien gods of the land into which they are coming. They will thus abandon Me… and I will abandon them.
…They will then say, ‘It is because my G-d is no longer with me that these evils have befallen us.’” (Devarim 31:16-17)
There we have it. When the Jews are in exile, G-d grants them divine protection and promises to never abandon them. But when they’re in Israel there are no such guarantees.

Why is this so? Isn’t it kind of backwards? Shouldn’t G-d be closer to His nation when they are in the Holy Land?

Yes and no. Yes, Israel is G-d’s palace and a Jew who is privileged to live there is closer to G-d than those who live outside the land. But this additional closeness demands a higher standard of religious life. You can’t misbehave in the palace. If you do, don’t expect divine protection, expect exile.

Exiled from the land and distant from G-d, the Jew might feel abandoned, but this is where special divine providence kicks in. The reason is obvious. There is simply nowhere else to go. We can’t be exiled from exile! To ensure the survival of the nation, G-d must step in and provide security.

This was the promise to Yaakov and this is the promise to us. There will be exile and suffering, but we will never vanish. G-d personally guarantees our national survival and identity until the day that He brings us all home.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Relating to the Avos

Posted by Benjy Ginsberg

Because this is my first post, I thought it would be a little strange jumping in right in the middle of Sefer B’Reishis. The truth is, Parshas Toldos is a great place to start. It’s really where the story of the Jewish people gets rolling. Now we can focus on Avraham’s immediate descendants and what makes them so fascinating. We will see bitter sibling rivalry, wayward sons, and tense interfamily relationships. Even the immortal Avos had their own human frailties - and Parshas Toldos really introduces that concept.

It is interesting to note that all the Avos had difficulties with raising their children. Yishmael and Esav, especially, posed unique challenges. Today we might call them “children at risk.” Maybe we'd read a special issue of a mainstream Jewish periodical dealing with the on-going crisis, or even attend a round-table or two. The Avos had no such luxuries. They had to raise their children with their own instincts, and, of course, a good helping of Siyata Dishmaya. It is not surprising that the Avos tried different methods in raising their children. What’s more striking is the pattern that emerges throughout Sefer B’reishis.

When Yishmael exhibits behavioral problems, Avraham is forced to banish Yishmael from his home. Although this act was against Avraham’s nature, sending Yishmael away was for the best (B’reishis 21: 10-12). Yitzchak’s physical and spiritual wellbeing was more important, and warranted Yishmael’s eviction. But as valid as Yishmael’s expulsion was, it was not without consequences - both for Yishmael, who grew up to be a bandit, and for Yitzchak.

Yitzchok’s take on the Yishmael incident was contrary to his father’s. Yitzchak sees only the finished product, an evil Yishmael that might have been saved with different parenting techniques. So, when confronted with his own troubled child, Esav, he did the opposite of Avraham. Yitzchok showed Esav nothing but love. There would be no punishment for this wayward child. He has a gift for hunting? Let him use it for good, instead of robbing people

Yaakov, who grew up in this environment, clearly felt ignored by his father. Here he was, the good son, yet his father favored his brother instead! It is no surprise, then, when Yaakov has an exemplary son, like Yosef, he favors him. You can’t ignore the good child to favor the others.

But Yosef bore the brunt of his father’s methods, and suffered from the jealousy of his brothers. In turn, when Yosef brought his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to be blessed by his father Yaakov, he was adamant about not showing any favoritism to his sons. Instead, he placed Menashe on Yaakov's right side, his rightful place as the older son.

We have, then, a pattern not unlike Newton’s second law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Every method one generation tries, the next generation does the opposite. Now, we do this all the time. Any parent will tell you that 95% of the way they raise their children is either the same way they were raised or the exact opposite. But didn’t the Avos have better techniques?

It shouldn’t be surprising that the Avos acted this way. The Talmud in Sanhedrin (89a) asserts that “No two prophets relate their visions in the same manner.” Each prophet uses his own life experiences to construct a mechanism through which to interpret the word of G-d. And it is no different for relationships, whether they are parent-child, husband-and wife, or between siblings. This is, of course, a very human thing. But the Avos were not simple humans; their actions are magnified for us, so we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us. That way, we can improve our own relationships and come closer to G-d.


In my most recent post about Yitzchak I a made a gross error. I wrote (parenthetically):

Tellingly, the one place where the Torah does say that Yitzchak “settled” was when he was banished from Gerar to the valley outside the city (Bereishit 26:16-17). Only in an exile within an exile does Yitzchak feel comfortable enough to settle down!

This is false. Just a few verses earlier the Torah states explicitly that Yitzchak settled in Gerar (26:6). It happens to be a verse of distinction - it is the shortest in the Torah. (Maybe that's why I missed it?) I have edited the mistake out of that post.

I must say that I am quite disappointed in my readership for failing to point this out. Never assume that the rabbi is right!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Yitzchak: Deconstructing the Right to Life

On the surface, the life of Yitzchak appears to be nothing more than a replay of the life of his father Avraham. Consistently, in one event after the next, their life stories match: A period of childlessness, two sons in conflict, refugees of famine, prophetic promises of Israel, wife charades as sister, terrific financial success, water rights contested, treaties with Avimelech… Just in case we missed the point, Yitzchok redigs his father’s wells and gives them the same names that his father gave them! In sync with the uncanny rerun of circumstances and challenges, Yitzchak is determined to live his father’s life.

At one point, however, G-d says no. When a dry spell causes a food shortage, Yitzchak, as expected, sets out to walk in his father’s footsteps. He heads south for the fertile land of Egypt, just like his father did so many years earlier when the last famine hit. But G-d stops him:

G-d appeared to him and said, “Don’t go down to Egypt... Live as an immigrant in this land.” (Bereishit 26:2)
Avraham can escape to Egypt but Yitzchak cannot?! Everything else in Yitzchak’s life matches Avraham’s quite nicely; why can’t he go to Egypt like his father? Why must Yitzchak suffer through the famine?

Back in parshat Lech Lecha at the Covenant between the Halves, Avraham received a prophecy that foretold a great national exile:

Know that your descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs… for 400 years. (Bereishit 15:13)
A 400 year exile? The Jews weren’t in Egypt for 400 years, just 210 (Pirkei D’Rebbi Eliezer 48). How do we get the number 400? Well, if you count backwards 400 years from the Exodus it takes you to the birth of Yitzchak (Rashi Bereishit 15:13). (It works out exactly to the day. Yitzchak was born on the 15th on Nisan in the year 2048 and the Exodus was on the 15th of Nisan in the year 2448; cf. Rashi Bereishit 18:10.) The divine prophecy that Avraham’s “descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not theirs” must therefore begin with Yitzchak.

There’s an obvious problem here. Yitzchak was born in Israel and never left. How can he be considered a foreigner in a land that was not his if he never left home? Wasn’t Israel his homeland?

The answer is discomforting, but inescapable. Yitzchak was a foreigner in his own land.

G-d tells Yitzchak “Live as an immigrant in this land. Not “settle,” but, "live as an immigrant," be a ger, a stranger. This is the fullfilment the prophecy of "Ger yihiyeh zaracha." Even when Yitzchak is at home, he is not at home.

Yitzchak is doomed to lead a lifelong exile, but it is not of the usual type. It is not an exile from Israel, nor is it an exile from G-d. (In the very same sentence that G-d tells him to be a ger, a stranger, G-d promises to be with him; cf. 26:3.) So what kind of exile is this? It is an existential exile – Yitzchak simply does not belong. This kind of exile is far more acute when experienced in your own home. This is why Yitzchak may not leave Israel.

Why is this Yitzchak’s fate? Why must Yitzchak forever be the foreigner? Because he has no right to life.

Yitzchak should never have been born. His mother was sterile and his father was old – they laughed with incredulity at the suggestion that they would have a child. Even after his miraculous birth, Yitzchak should have died at the Akeida. This is why his name is “Yitzchak,” laughter. His very existence is laughable. He has no place in this world.

This is what the Zohar means when it describes Yitzchak as the personification of din, strict justice. Life relies on the constant flow of G-d’s kindness and compassion for its survival. As the Psalmist said, “He gives bread to all flesh – because His kindness is infinite” (Psalms 136). In contrast, G-d’s attribute of justice provides for no one. Can anyone claim that they deserve life? A world of strict divine justice, the world of Yitzchak, simply cannot exist (cf. Rashi Bereishit 1:1). Avraham, the exemplar of divine kindness, is free to go find food in Egypt. But Yitzchak, the paradigm of strict justice, has no permission to escape the famine.

Maybe now we can understand why Yitzchak does not receive anything on his own merits. When G-d informs Yitzchak that the land will belong to him and his descendants, and later when G-d blesses him, both times G-d makes a point of saying that these gifts are in the merit of Avraham – a point G-d does not make when speaking to Yaakov (cf. 26:3-5, 26:24; compare 28:13).

Yitzchak is din. It does not matter how holy he is, he will always deserve nothing. This is why Yitzchak’s life is virtually identical to Avraham’s. Everything Yitzchak experiances in life must flow directly from his father’s merits – it has no other source. Yitzchak can produce no life of his own; he can only receive and relive his father’s life.

In “Contemporary Halachic Problems” (vol. II pg. 191), Rabbi J. David Bleich describes the feelings of a Jew visiting Hebron today:
One experiences the dichotomy existentially. “This is all mine. Yet if it is mine, why do I feel as a ger? Why is it that I feel that I am a stranger?” There is ambivalence and a tension in the air which foster antithetical emotions…
In our times, the Jewish nation seems to be in Yitzchak mode. Like Yitzchak, we look back at our origins and see a continuous string of miracles. Like Yitzchak, we should have been destroyed in the holocaust. We are incredulous at our own existence and we feel that we do not belong. But yet, G-d gifts us with Israel and obviously desires that we remain there. Like our father Yitzchak before us, we are doomed to be foreigners in our own land.

In Israel and in exile at the same time. Strange indeed, but this was Yitzchak then and this is the Jew of today. May the redemption be soon!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Coming Soon...

I am proud to announce the arrival of some extraordinary minds who have agreed to contribute to this blog. Stay tuned!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Just Do It

Chayei Sara contrasts two events, one tragic and one joyous. First we have the death and burial of Sara and then we have the story of how a wife was found for Yitzchak. The contrast is striking, but the differences go well beyond the obvious.

When Sara dies, Avraham needs a burial plot fit for royalty. Engaging himself in the search for and acquisition of the Machpelah Cave, Avraham must negotiate with the sleazy Efron. Undeterred, he pays top dollar to honor his deceased wife. In this story, Avraham is a man of action.

When it comes to finding a wife for Yitzchak, the storyline is quite different. Instead of Avraham taking the matter into his own hands, he sends his servant Eliezer to act as his agent. Avraham remains passively at home. This is strange. Eliezer was not sent to find a tomb for Sara – Avraham took care of that himself – but to find Rivkah he sends Eliezer?! Shouldn’t the choice of the next matriarch require more personal discretion than the choice of a burial plot?

This is no minor question. One thing we know about Avraham is that he hates to delegate his mitzvot. Nephew taken captive? Avraham leads his men into battle. Heat wave? Avraham sets up a free lemonade stand. Commanded to kill his son? Avraham saddles the donkey. When a mitzvah presents itself, Avraham is there. He does not write a check nor send a stand-in; he rolls up his sleeves. This kind of behavior is not some kind of extravagant righteousness practiced by the holy Avraham; the Halachah itself endorses it. “Rabbi Yosef taught: A mitzvah performed personally is greater than one performed through an agent. As we find Rav Safra singed the head [of the animal] and Rava salted the fish [in preparation for the Shabbat meal]” (Talmud Kiddushin 41a). (Indeed, in the rare instance that Avraham does delegate a mitzvah, there are negative consequences. Cf. Bereishit 18:4-7, Talmud Baba Metziah 86b.)

So why does Avraham opt out when it comes time to find a wife for Yitzchak? The Torah provides the answer:

Avraham was old, well advanced in years… and Avraham said to his servant… (Bereishit 24:1,2)

The answer is really quite simple. Avraham sent his servant Eliezer because he was just too old to make the trip to Charan himself. Equipped with this background information, we can now understand Avraham’s strange behavior when he gives his orders to Eliezer:
I will bind you by an oath to G-d, Lord of heaven and earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites… (24:3)
Why the need for an oath? Was Eliezer not a man of his word? Eliezer was the senior servant of Avraham’s household, in charge of everything that he owned (Bereishit 24:2). Moreover, the Talmud tells us that Eliezer was Avraham’s leading disciple and exponent of his master’s teachings (Yoma 28b). Avraham couldn’t trust him to do his bidding without an oath taken in the name of G-d?!

The truth is, Avraham is perfectly confident that Eliezer would do the job faithfully without an oath. There is something else going on here. Avraham is frustrated.

He doesn’t want to send Eliezer; he wants to go himself – but his infirmity won't allow it. So Avraham devises a plan that will transform Eliezer into his own right hand. If Eliezer’s free will could somehow be diminished and his ability to disobey Avraham eliminated, Eliezer would be reduced to nothing more than Avraham’s robot. It would then be considered as if Avraham himself had performed the mitzvah. This was the function of the oath – it forced Eliezer to do Avraham’s bidding. Now Avraham was controlling Eliezer remotely, in effect doing everything himself from the comfort of his wheelchair in Hebron.

Our parsha illustrates Avraham’s passion for mitzvot and his frustration with his inability to perform one. Avraham is not interested in excuses and he is not looking for leniencies. He just wants to do the mitzvah. It is telling that the test of Rivkah is on this very same trait.

When Eliezer arrives in Charan, he asks G-d for help in identifying the right girl. He will ask one of the shepherdesses for a drink and if she volunteers to provide both him and his camels with water, he will know that she is destined for Yitzchak. This is exactly what transpires; the girl offers to draw water for the camels and she does all the work herself – for all ten camels! The interesting thing is that Eliezer has able-bodied men with him who are more than capable to draw the water from the well (cf. 24:32). Rivkah does not ask for their help – she wants to do it all by herself. Little did she know that this demonstration of love for mitzvot would be recorded for all eternity and earn her a place among the matriarchs of Israel. She had an out, but she didn’t want out; she wanted the mitzvah.

There is more. The Midrash tells us that when Rivkah first approached the well, the water miraculously rose up to her (Bereishit Rabba 60:5). The Ramban explains that this teaching is not just a tradition; it is indicated by the text itself. When Rivkah initially went down to the well, the Torah simply states, “she filled her jug” (24:16). However, when she returns a second time to get water for the camels, the Torah says, “she drew water for all his camels” (24:20). The absence of the act of drawing water at her first visit to the well is the source for the Midrashic idea that the water rose up by itself.

The Kedushas Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Berditchever, 1740-1810) asks the obvious question. If Rivkah is so special that water miraculously rises up for her, why didn’t it happen again the second time?

In light of all that we have learned, the Kedushas Levi’s answer makes good sense. The first time, Rivkah was drawing water for herself. The water rose up in order to spare her the effort of lifting the heavy bucket. The second time, however, Rivkah was doing a mitzvah, getting water for someone in need. G-d did not want to deprive her of the great merit of doing it all by herself, so the water stayed at the bottom of the well.

Like her father-in-law before her, Rivkah knows that there is nothing more fulfilling in life than personally sweating through a mitzvah. Something to think about the next time a mitzvah opportunity presents itself. As in right now.

Thursday, November 9, 2006

Sacrifice Anyone?

This week’s parsha introduces a new Jewish value. It is a value treasured by G-d and Avraham alike and is undeniably essential to Judaism, but today it makes people uncomfortable. In our progressive world, it strikes many as primitive, even unhealthy. I am speaking of “Yirat Hashem,” the fear of G-d.

When Avraham and Sara move to Gerar and pose as siblings, it doesn’t take long for the king Avimelech to appropriate our beautiful matriarch. G-d informs Avimelech that Sara is a married woman and warns him against touching her. Indignant, Avimelech rightly accuses Avraham of tricking him.

"How could you do this to us? What terrible thing did I do to you that you brought such great guilt upon me and my people? The thing you did to me is simply not done!" (Bereishit 20:9).

Avraham silences the king with his frank reply:

"I realized that the only thing missing here is the fear of G-d. I could have been killed because of my wife."

To Avraham’s mind, security boils down to one basic question: Fear of Heaven. It is irrelevant that murder and adultery are against the law and it is irrelevant that people are educated and cultured. The only thing that can be trusted to control man’s passions and prevent sin is fear of G-d. The town of Gerar had none and that made it a dangerous place. The king didn’t argue.

Later in the parsha, G-d tests the strength of Avraham’s own fear of Heaven with the Akeida, the “Binding of Isaac.” When G-d commands Avraham to present his son as a burnt offering, Avraham heroically sets out to fulfill G-d’s will with perfect faith. At the last possible moment, an angel has to be sent to prevent Avraham from actually killing Yitzchak. G-d then says this:

"Now I know that you fear G-d. You have not withheld your only son from Me" (Bereishit 22:12).

It seems that fear of G-d is critical not only for the prevention of sin, but also for the fulfillment of mitzvot. Why is this? Shouldn’t love of G-d and appreciation for His infinite benevolence suffice to drive man to do mitzvot? Why is Avraham’s performance at the Akeida trial attributed to fear and not love? Isn’t love all we need?

No, we need more than love. Had Avraham only loved G-d and not feared Him, Avraham would never have brought his son to the Akeida. Before Yitzchak was born, G-d told Avraham explicitly that His eternal covenant would be established with Yitzchak and his descendants (Genesis 17:19). The new command to kill Yitzchak clearly contradicted that earlier prophecy. If Avraham’s relationship with G-d was built solely on love, the contradiction would have paralyzed him. For when man is in love, his sole focus is to bring pleasure to his loved one. Unable to determine what G-d really wanted, Avraham would not have dared kill Yitzchak (cf. Bereishit Rabba 56:16).

Fear, however, changes everything. The question is no longer what G-d wants, but what are my obligations. These are two very different things. G-d’s statement that Yitzchak will father the Jewish nation was not a command; offering Yitzchak as a sacrifice was. Do they conflict? Yes. Does this present a problem for one who fears G-d? No. Man is not responsible for reconciling divine contradictions; man’s job is faith and duty. This is why Avraham’s unquestioning obedience at the Akeida proved his fear and not his love.

There is another explanation.

It’s hard to love when you don’t feel loved. Love could not have brought Avraham to the Akeida for love doesn’t function well if it is perceived as one-sided. When mitzvot appear irrational or callous, like at the Akeida, man feels unloved by G-d and the love relationship falters. In such situations, when the eternal Torah confronts the temporal values of society and contradicts the sensibilities of the human mind, the resultant friction can only be resolved through sacrifice. Love would expect the sacrifices to be mutual. Fear would not. The Akeida must therefore be an expression of fear.

This explains why the Torah requires fear and this also explains why religiosity is so disturbing to modern man. In 1965, Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik published a monumental essay entitled “The Lonely Man of Faith.” It describes our problem and finds modern man wanting:

"Western man… certainly feels spiritually uprooted, emotionally disillusioned, and, like the old king of Ecclesiastes, is aware of his own tragedy. Yet this pensive mood does not arouse him to heroic action. He, of course, comes to a place of worship. He attends lectures on religion and appreciates the ceremonial, yet he is searching not for a faith in all its singularity and otherness, but for religious culture. He seeks not the greatness found in sacrificial action but the convenience one discovers in a comfortable, serene state of mind. He is desirous of an aesthetic experience rather than a covenantal one, of a social ethos rather than divine imperative. In a word, he wants to find in faith that which he cannot find in his laboratory, or in the privacy of his luxurious home. His efforts are noble, yet he is not ready for a genuine faith experience which requires the giving of one’s self unreservedly to G-d, who demands unconditional commitment, sacrificial action and retreat… Therefore, modern man puts up demands that faith adapt itself to the mood and temper of modern times."

In other words, in response to the Torah’s call for selfless service and noble sacrifice, man sardonically expects Judaism to make sacrifices for him. Avraham said it long ago in Gerar, but it can be said of modern times as well: “The only thing missing here is the fear of G-d.” Love abounds, but fear remains rare.

Friday, November 3, 2006

Inventing the Wheel

At the beginning of our parsha, G-d comes to a certain man named Avram and instructs him to take a great journey. G-d promises to make him into a great nation and G-d showers him with a plethora of blessings – giving him and his descendants the eternal gift of Israel. Why? We have absolutely no idea.
When it came to Noach, the Torah introduced him properly: “Noach found favor in G-d’s eyes... Noach was a righteous man, faultless in his generation” (Bereishit 6:8,9). However, when it comes to Avram, the Torah is silent. We are told nothing of his early life and no explanation is given for why he was chosen to father the Jewish people. Not a word on how Avram discovered monotheism. Not one act of righteousness. Nada. Surely the story of the young Avram must offer more relevant advice on spiritual growth than the story of Avraham the Prophet. Why does the Torah skip it?
This is an excellent question. The Zohar provides an answer that sent a shiver down my spine.
The truth is, Avram hadn’t really earned these blessings at all. Why was he chosen? He wasn’t. G-d said “Lech Lecha” to everybody – Avram was just the only one listening. It was his willingness to take the journey that was his first act of greatness (cf. Sefas Emes 5632, s.v. Ramban). The frightening implications of this teaching will be left to the reader to ponder.
The Midrash seems to take a different approach. It records several stories of Avram’s early life, painting a picture of a brilliant, passionate and philosophical young man, searching for truth, intolerant of hypocrisy and bravely standing up for the One G-d in a pagan world. In one story, we read how Avram was sentenced to death and sat for years in a dungeon for the crime of smashing his father’s idols (Bereishit Rabba 38). We are told of Avram’s issues with paganism and his grappling with the mystery of existence (B.R. 39:1). Maimonides writes that Avram ultimately discovered G-d through the wonders of nature and Intelligent Design (Laws of Idolatry 1:3). Together with his wife Sarai, he convinced many local pagans of the truth of monotheism (B.R. 39) In light of all this Midrashic material, our question is not answered, it just gets stronger.
If indeed our oral tradition records this information on Avram’s growth and development, why did the Torah leave it out? If it is unimportant, and does not qualify as “Torah study,” why is it recorded by the Midrash? And if it is “Torah,” why doesn’t the Torah itself write about it?
Of course, this really opens a much more basic and general problem: Why is the Torah divided between a written text and an oral tradition? This is a question well worth pursuing. In 2001, Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Kuperman of Jerusalem published an important work documenting the different approaches of the classic commentators to this question. Of course, fundamental issues are at play. What is the role and message of pshat vs. drash, the written Torah vs. the oral tradition? However, for our purposes let us localize the question. Why did the Torah leave out the story of Avram’s early life?
The answer is not difficult to understand. Had the Torah told us how Avraham became Avraham, many would be tempted to follow his path. The Torah does not want us to do that.
What was right for Avraham then is not appropriate for us today. Smashing idols? Is it our job to fix the world at someone else’s expense? Discovering G-d through nature? We know there’s a G-d. He took us out of Egypt, split the sea and gave us a Torah! Why should we waste our time with Intelligent Design? The Torah’s point is this: Avraham accomplished great things. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel.
Avraham threw us the ball. We shouldn’t carry it back to where it came from and make the same throw; we should run with it. The mitzvot of the Torah tell us how.

Thursday, November 2, 2006

The Holy Chutzpah of Abraham

It’s a crisp autumn morning and Avram is minding his own business, enjoying a coffee and perusing the Mesopotamia Times on a park bench. Suddenly he hears a voice:

"Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you." (Bereishit 12:1-3)

Who is this Avram and why does G-d like him so much? While the Torah is mute on Avram’s early life, a rich oral history of our patriarch’s personal development is extant and it is recorded in the Midrash. It seems that Avram’s father, Terach, owned an idol shop.

I can just see it.

Terach’s God Shop. New & used. Repairs. We buy your gods, any condition! Top prices paid!

Anyhow, one weekend Terach has to attend a convention in Vegas, and he puts his boy Avram in charge while he’s away. Bad idea. As soon as his father leaves town, Avram picks up an axe and smashes every idol in the store. He destroys the entire inventory, except for the one largest statue. In its hand, he places the axe.

When Terach returns home and sees his shop, he asks his son in a quiet, tremulous voice, “Avram, What happened here?” Quite matter-of-factly, Avram explains that the gods got into a fight. “That big guy in the corner just pulverized everybody. It was terrible…”

“Avram, you know that these idols don’t fight. They can’t even move.”

Avram had scored his point. “If they can’t do anything, why do you worship them?” (cf. Bereishit Rabba 38)

You have to admit that the kid has chutzpah. The original Jewish personality is a radical and a maverick. He rejects his upbringing and doesn’t care much for conventional thinking or cultural norms. Avram is prepared to sacrifice everything for truth – and he does not lose this quality with age.

Years later, when his nephew Lot is taken captive, Avram goes to war against four kings, ultimately conquering a territory originally ruled by nine kings! (Bereishit 14:14) Talk about chutzpah!

[Avram returns all the land to its owners and reinstates the original kings (14:21-23). Power does not interest him, he just wants to free his nephew from captivity.]

It is in the context of this war that our parsha grants him the title, “Avram Haivri,” “Avram the Contrarian” (14:13). As Rabbi Yehuda explains in the Midrash, “the entire world was on one side and he was on the other” (Bereishit Rabba 42). This was the defining characteristic of Avram's personality.

While Avram utilizes chutzpah in his disregard for contemporary thinking, before G-d he is the archetype of submissiveness. When he prays for the inhabitants of Sodom, he repeatedly humbles himself: “I have already said too much before the Lord. I am mere dust and ashes…” (Bereishit 18:27,31). Of course, the ultimate example of Avraham’s submissiveness is his willingness sacrifice his own son when G-d orders him to do so. But yet, in both of these incidents Avraham's contrarian nature manages to express itself. He's consistantly unpredictable.

It takes a great deal of chutzpah to stand up against society, smash the idols of the day and wage a war to save a fellow Jew. It takes guts to pray for the wicked and it takes a contrarian to sacrifice for G-d. But this was our father Avraham then and this must also be the Jew of today. It’s the reason we were chosen in the first place.