Archive for Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha: The Wealth of a Kingdom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
“Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.’  But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth:, I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ ”  (Bereshit/ Genesis 14::21-22)
Good Morning! 

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is mostly about the adventures of Avraham, who came from the east to the land of Canaan, only to descend to Egypt and come back. In an incident sometimes known as the “war of the five kings,” five kings of the land of Canaan fought against four other allied kingdoms, and in the middle of the battles, Avraham’s nephew Lot was taken captive. Avraham rouses his own small army of 318 men, pursues Lot’s captors, and rescues his nephew along with other inhabitants of the city of S’dom

Upon returning the captives of S’dom to their city, the king offers to let Avraham keep all the spoils of the war, and Avraham’s reply, quoted above, seems to convey almost contempt for the idea. Avraham seems to be refuting the idea that he would need or want a reward for rescuing his nephew,* but he does allow the king to pay him for his servant’s provisions. 

It strikes me that both Avraham and even the king of S’dom are drawing a distinction between what’s really valuable- the people- and what is of secondary importance: the property. Avraham was motivated to go to war to rescue his family member, and doesn’t want that motivation ever to be called into question, and even the king of S’dom seems to be mostly happy that his captured subjects have returned. One could argue that the king showed his true values in assuming that Avraham would be pleased by an offer of material reward, but for today, let’s assume that he, too, was happier for the safety of people than by the restoration of mere property, however valuable. 

This reading of Avraham’s refusal of reward makes sense to me after the great Halloween blizzard last week. For those who haven’t heard, the northeastern states got up to 18 inches of snow last weekend, which is often part of life around here, but not usually this early in the fall, when the leaves are still on the trees. The weight of the snow on the leafy trees brought branches down in great number, knocking out power, internet, telephone lines and even cell phone towers. We lost power by late Shabbat afternoon, and didn’t get it back for several days, but fortunately kind congregants with heat took us in and we were just fine. This past week I’ve heard the same thing over and over: it was a royal inconvenience that the power and internet was lost, but thank God, my family is OK. 

It shouldn’t take a freak snowstorm or a war of five kings to remind us of the obvious: at moments of danger or life transition, the things we think of as most valuable are not the material things we own but the spiritual relationships we treasure. For his nephew, Avraham would go to war, but if not for his family, the wealth of a kingdom is not worth a sandal strap. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

*For more on Avraham and the war of the five kings, do come to Shabbat services this week, when our bat mitzvah will expound upon these events and their application. Thanks for getting me to think about this story, Elianna! 
Advertisements

Leave a Comment

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

Leave a Comment

Lech-Lecha: Shield of Avraham

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Good afternoon!  It’s a bit overcast in Poughkeepsie but it’s going to be a lovely weekend with our special guest from Hazon and the Green Team Shabbaton- do come if you can.

This week’s Torah portion is Lech-Lecha, which introduces us to
Avraham and Sarah, who are chosen to leave the east and travel west to an unknown destination:

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  . . ‘ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1)

Avraham and Sarah arrive in the land of Canaan, leave for Egypt, come back, and then get mixed up in a battle between local kingdoms. Eventually, God reappears in a vision and renews the promise to Avraham:

“Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying:

‘Fear not, Abram,
I am a shield to you;
Your reward shall be very great.’ ” (Bereshit 15:1)

This promise, that God will be a “shield” [magen] to Avraham, shows up in our daily prayers as part of the opening blessings of the Amidah, or standing prayer, in the section recalling the avot or ancestors:

“Blessed are You, O Lord our God and God of our ancestors, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak and the God of Yaakov . . .  Blessed are You, Holy One, the shield of Avraham.”

Traditionally, mentioning the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in many congregations) at the opening of the Amidah is understood as approaching God in the merit of our ancestors. This is called z’chut avot- the idea is that we may not be worthy of an audience before the Holy One but we are descended from those who were.

The phrase “magen Avraham” is interesting, because if there’s anything the Torah spells out clearly, it’s that our ancestors had challenging and tumultuous lives- Avraham, after all, had many difficult conflicts over the course of his life, both within his family and with the surrounding peoples.

So if God’s promise to be a “shield” doesn’t mean protection from
conflict and difficulty, why recall that promise in our prayers? To
me, it’s worth noting that a shield is not only a defense from what’s
outside, it’s also something that keeps and protects what’s on the inside. Maybe the meaning of “shield” in this sense is not protection from life’s difficulties but the shielding and keeping of faith despite those inevitable challenges.

That is, the meaning of “magen Avraham” is not: the One Who kept suffering away from Avraham, but rather: the One who protected Avraham’s spiritual dedication over the course of challenging years. fter all, the very idea of “I am a shield to you” came to Avraham in a vision- maybe the vision itself was what needed shielding!

Read this way, “magen Avraham” is not the false promise of a life free from pain; it’s rather a deeper covenant, that we can find meaning, vision, purpose and faith despite life’s difficulties. Everything on the outside can change in a minute, but what’s on the inside can be kept by faith- this is truly a great promise, and one that sustains us today.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

Leave a Comment

Lech-Lecha: Strength for the Journey

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

This week’s haftarah is again from Isaiah, and like most selections
from the latter half of Isaiah, the theme is faith, hope and ultimate
redemption.

It’s a great text for this week, in light of the historic election
here in the United States- but for subtle and historical reasons. The
haftarah uses metaphors for faith which remind us to take the long view:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is God from of old,
Creator of the earth from end to end,
He never grows faint or weary,
His wisdom cannot be fathomed.
He gives strength to the weary,
Fresh vigor to the spent.
Youths may grow faint and weary,
And young men stumble and fall;
But they who trust in the Lord shall renew their strength
As eagles grow new plumes:
They shall run and not grow weary,
They shall march and not grow faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)

Note the contrast between God as tireless in the first part of this
passage, compared with the image of the faithful ones in the latter
part: they shall run but not grow weary. History is like a march: it
takes stamina, determination, and sufficient spiritual clarity to
overcome the inevitable discouragement and setbacks.

Now, please note, the give and take of human politics is never to be
confused with a religious vision for society; to do so debases
religion and corrupts it. Having said that, sometimes religious
language gives richer meaning to events with historical significance-
or, to put it another way, if language rooted in religious traditions
can be used without embarrassment in describing something, perhaps
that in itself can help us understand what is of true significance and
what is not.

To that end, I think it’s fair to say that many Americans, across the
religious and political spectrum, experienced this week’s election of
an African-American to the Presidency as redemptive moment in American
history. Regardless of party affiliation, who could not be moved by
the pictures of elderly and young alike being moved to tears, to
dance, to shouts of joy, upon realizing that America had just done
something unimaginable a mere 40 years ago?

In 1967, Martin Luther King evoked the language of the prophets when
he preached faith, taking the long view, to those in the midst of the
civil rights struggle:

“Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us the courage
to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet
new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of
freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds of
despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights,
let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe,
working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is
able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into
bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long
but it bends toward justice.” (Link below.)

Faith, in this view, is not dependence on miracles or believing the
irrational. It is action without despair- or, as Clarence Jordan put
it, faith is not belief in spite of evidence but a life in scorn of
the consequences. That is the significance of faith- it keeps your
feet moving when the spirit grows weary. That is the kind of faith
that is ultimately rewarded- not the kind of faith that believes
without evidence, but the kind of faith that says: never stop marching
towards justice. That is the kind of faith that kept the Jewish people
hoping for Zion throughout thousands of years of exile; that is the
kind of faith that sustained so many in this country until the day
they could see barriers of race forever discredited.

To those without hope, Isaiah says: keep walking, the journey is long,
but faith sustains the weary.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

Leave a Comment

Lech Lecha: Ancestors and Descendants

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

Shalom from the Hudson Valley, where the leaves are starting to turn
and there’s a hint of fall in the air- and no more tomatoes at the
farmer’s market, alas. Well, we’ll survive, we’re a hardy bunch,
descendants of our ancestors Avraham and Sarah, who left their home in
the east to travel to a land they’ve never seen, for adventures they
could not imagine. In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, not only
do they travel across many lands, but Avraham also receives a vision
of God in which he is given the sign of the covenant between God and
Avraham’s descendants:

“God further said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you and your offspring to
come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the
covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you
shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall
circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of
the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations,
every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.’ ”
(Bereshit/Genesis 17:9-12)

From this paragraph we derive the mitzvah of circumcision- perhaps the
most controversial Jewish practice of all time. We will not, in the
space of a short email, be able to answer all critiques of this
covenantal practice, nor I can I, as a rabbi, adequately address the
all the technical and medical questions that readers may have. Nor is
it my intent to discuss, at this time, the implications of
circumcision in the context of our commitment to equality of the sexes
in a Conservative congregation. What I can do is point out a few basic
ideas about brit milah- the “covenant of circumcision”- which often
get left out of the discussion, along with my personal, idiosyncratic
interpretation of the mitzvah.

First, please note, the Torah mentions nothing about hygiene, health
or medical advisability. Brit milah is not a medical act; it is a
religious one, and to a certain extent, the medical justifications for
circumcision can obscure the more fundamental idea, which is that as a
religious practice, Jews see a transcendent value in bringing a
spiritual idea into profoundly physical manifestation.

Second, the Torah is highly specific that milah- circumcision- happens
on the eighth day (barring any medical reason to delay, of course.) A
purely medical circumcision which happens in the hospital before the
eighth day does not fulfill the criteria for brit milah- there is no
mitzvah in a purely medical procedure without the right timing and
blessings. (If that happened, and you want to learn more about next
steps, consult a local rabbi.)

Why the Torah specifies eight days- or afterwards, in the case of
necessity- is open to interpretation, but one can certainly note that
seven days signify creation, the making of the whole world- the eighth
day is when the world has been created and human agency begins. Seen
this way, milah reminds us that each life is a whole world.

Finally, please note that in the passage above, milah is a symbol with
two meanings: it’s a sign of being descended from Avraham and Sarah,
and it’s a sign of the covenant between Avraham and God. As I see it,
milah reminds us that we are a people, with earthly needs and a
physical existence, as well as individuals in relationship with God.
It’s never either/or, but always both/and: we are always cognizant of
the physical needs of ourselves and our people, for safety, for
material sustenance, for right livelihood and stable communities. Yet
we are also incomplete if our physical needs are met without striving
for transcendent purpose. We are in relationship with God and with
each other at all times- we have a body and a soul, we are of Earth
and of Heaven.

I’ve had the privilege of attending two gatherings for brit milah
recently, and in both cases I was struck, again, by the sheer
physicality of this mitzvah, as well as the incredibly profound
emotions felt by the family and guests. Those emotions ranged from
fear to joy to reverence to anxiety- all of which are a normative part
of the human experience. Perhaps brit milah, precisely because of its
emotional intensity, reifies the Jewish conception of covenant as no
other mitzvah does- it brings us down to earth, forces us to
experience the gamut of emotions, and connects us with our God, our
people, and our history, all at the same time.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

Leave a Comment

Lech Lecha: Hesed and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

Greetings on a beautiful fall day! Before we begin this week’s Torah
study, the Department of Torah Typos here at rabbineal-list has an
announcement regarding last week’s Torah study, and that announcement
is: Duh! Noach was not on the ark for 40 days- that’s how long it
rained- but for more than a year. (Cf. the last part of Bereshit 7 and
the first 14 verses of chapter 8, where the timing is clearly
enumerated, unless you miss it, which we blame on insufficient coffee
while writing.)

With that important bit of business out of the way, we can send our
fearless fact-checkers back to the garage until we need them again,
and turn to this week’s Torah portion, Lech-lecha, which begins the
story of Avraham and Sarah and their descendants. In Lech-lecha, Avram
(as he is first known) is called by God to go to the land of Canaan,
where he stays for a bit before heading down to Egypt to escape a
famine. Upon his return, he separates from his nephew Lot, who has
been travelling with him, and then Lot gets caught up and taken
captive in a battle between various allied kings and tribes near the
Dead Sea. Avram calls out his men, they go and rescue Lot, and Avram
gets a blessing from one of the kings.

One interesting detail about this story is that Lot, Avram’s nephew,
is sometimes called “achiv,” or “his brother,” and sometimes Lot is
called “his brother’s son.” In most modern translations, it’s assumed
that “ach” doesn’t only mean “brother” in the limited sense, but also
means “kinsman” in the more general sense, and thus JPS translates
these verses like this:

“They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions,
and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. . . . ” (Bereshit/Genesis
14:12)

“When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he
mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three
hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. . . ” (14:14,
but see also verse 16 and 13:8)

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, noticing that Lot is called “his brother’s son” in
one verse and “his brother” just two verses later, links this to
Avram’s great empathy and sense of duty towards Lot:

“Before the separation, Abraham had said: ‘we are [anashim achim]- men
who should be brothers.’ But when he heard of Lot’s misfortune, the
unfortunate Lot is at once ‘achiv,’ his brother.”

Now, as an uncle myself, I certainly feel that that I’d go to great
lengths to rescue a nephew taken captive, but my sense is that Hirsch
sees Avraham as motivated by more than family or clan loyalty,
powerful as that is. In the broader Jewish understanding, Avraham is
understood as possessing great hesed [“lovingkindness’], which we see
most clearly in the beginning of chapter 18, when he welcomes the
three dusty strangers to his tent and generously provides for their
needs.

With that as background, we can understand Hirsch as teaching that
precisely because Lot was suffering, Avraham grew in his attachment
and sense of obligation towards him- he was his “brother” because he
needed help, not only because he was family. That, in turn, clarifies
what the trait of hesed is all about- it’s about responding with great
empathy and dedication to human needs.

Hesed could be described as being oriented towards others such that if
you know someone is suffering, then indeed, they become your brother,
or sister, and you must not be afraid of extending yourself towards
them, even to the extent that Avram saddled up and went off to battle
to rescue “his brother.” We won’t all have the dramatic adventures
that Avram did, but all of us, every day, have a chance to regard
someone as “our brother,” as “our sister,” and give of ourselves as
Avram did- and that’s what becoming a blessing is all about.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

Leave a Comment

Avraham, the Lifelong Learner

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, Avraham (who started
out as Avram, but that’s a different discussion) gets the call from
God to leave his homeland and head out west, to the land of
Canaan. Various adventures ensue, including having a child
with his wife’s servant Hagar, but what fascinates me is that it
isn’t until the end of the Torah portion, after years of travels and
struggles and family problems, that Avraham receives the
commandment of circumcision.

In fact, we learn in Genesis 17 that Avraham was 99 years old
when he circumcised himself and his household, as a sign of
his covenant with God. So, nu, couldn’t the Almighty have chosen
a less drastic way of asking for Avraham’s commitment, or at the
very least, asked this a bit sooner in the story? Was it really
necessary to tell an old man to perform surgery on himself?

To me, the power of this story is not in Avraham’s physical
bravery- after all, in chapter 14 he was fighting a minor war- nor
is it in Avraham’s obedience. After all, what’s a little flesh wound
when you’ve already obeyed the command to travel halfway
across the continent? Rather, I find the meaning of this story in
the Torah’s clarity (it’s mentioned twice) that Avraham was an
old
man. (Let’s assume that “99 years” is not to be taken literally, but
as a poetic rendering of advanced age.)

I see in Avraham’s act a spiritual model of lifelong openness, of
being willing to undergo growth and transformation long after
some people become set in their ways. Avraham was willing to
make radical religious commitments, even one which required
pain and sacrifice, late in his life. He was open to the demands
of a lifelong spirituality- not just doing what he already knew, but
going past the “comfort zone” (quite literally) to become
something new.

Heck, there are days when I don’t even want to try a new kind of
breakfast cereal, let alone take on new religious ideas and
moral commitments- but returning every year to the story of the
“founding father” of the Jewish people, I have to ask myself
whether I’m as open to the evolution of faith over a lifetime as
my
ancestors were. Avraham’s example thus becomes not a fact of
history, but an persistent challenge to all of us, right now.

Leave a Comment

Older Posts »