Lech-Lecha: The Righteous are Chariots

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech-Lecha

“And when God finished speaking with him, the Holy One ascended from above Avraham. . . .” (Bereshit/ Genesis 17:22)

Good afternoon!

This week we begin the story of Avraham, who travels far and wide, fights mighty battles, makes a covenant with God, and is promised a son with Sarah, his wife, despite their advanced age. Towards the end of the portion, after the astonishing conversation in which Avraham is given the mitzvah of circumcision and told that both his future and present sons will become mighty nations, we read in the verse above that God finished speaking and then “ascended from above Avraham.” The JPS translation says merely that God was “gone from Avraham” but our friend Rashi and other more traditional commentators see the preposition “from above,” [m’al ] as a significant piece of information.

According to Rashi, “from above” is a euphemism for the presence of the Shechina, or immanent Divine Presence, understood as close by or hovering near or above us. This is, of course, just a metaphor in spatial terms, but it conveys a sense of immediacy and direct experience of the Sacred. Not only that, but Rashi goes on to play with the metaphor a bit more, saying that “we learn from this that the righteous are the chariots of the Holy One.”

OK, I can feel your brows creasing as you read this: “chariots? As in, wagons pulled by horses? What does that mean?”

Maybe it means something like this: the image of God being “from above” someone may be related to the image of a chariot and its driver above it. Yet even more to the point, a chariot is only useful if it has someone directing it- it is, literally, a vehicle for a greater purpose. In that sense, the righteous make their lives vessels for a higher power, constantly aware that their direction is guided by an immediate, almost palpable sense of the sacred.

Please note: being guided by sacred purposes does not mean relinquishing free will, rationality or conscience. On the contrary: it means developing the discipline of conscious awareness of one’s choices, but framing those choices within a sense of greater possibilities and spiritual ideals. To wit: Avraham himself is portrayed as constantly struggling with his choices, but staying loyal to covenant overall.

Rashi doesn’t tell us that “the righteous are the chariots of God” only to praise Avraham; rather, he uses the story of Avraham to teach something for all of us. Every one of us is guided by something, but what sets the direction is a choice freely made.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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