This week's parashah / Torah portion opens with the rather peremptory divine command: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה' אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
"God said to Avram: get yourself out from your country, from your homeland and from your father's house to the country I will show you."
No, "hi, my name is . . . ." No, "I've got an interesting opportunity for you." Not even an "Ahum, let me introduce myself . . . ."
Just "get up and go."
As stunning as God's opening to Avram is, the patriarch's response is even more breathtaking:
So, Avram got up and went as God commanded . . . and took with him his nephew Lot and his wife Sarai and all their possessions . . . .
For this tremendous act of faith, our tradition lauds Avram (at the end of this week's Torah reading, re-named Avraham / Abraham) as "the faithful servant of God." In this week's haftarah, God refers to Avram as "my friend." Over and over, we will see Avram/Avraham respond unquestioningly and with alacrity to every command of God's save for one: to warn the residents of S'dom and Amorrah that they are facing destruction. At that moment, Avraham, the faithful, unquestioning servant, challenges God's judgment.
But at this moment of "you don't know Me, but get up and leave everything and everyone you know and I'll make you a great nation" Avram simply does. And we hear no protest from his wife, Sarai either. The text leaves room for us to posit that they may have been of one mind. Getting up, going, not knowing to where.
We need to pause for a moment in the narrative to appreciate the depth of courage this took: My son and daughter-in-law, both raised in Israel in bi-lingual homes, moved to the States over the summer so that my son could go to graduate school. Aryeh and Michal both speak and read English. They've both visited the States to meet American relatives. They knew before they landed that they had a maternal back-up-system in place should anything go awry. and yet, I watch the irm confront all sorts of cultural challenges. Things are just done differently. Organizations work differently. People's expectations of exchanges are not the same.
Aryeh and Michal are way ahead of the game of cultural transition compared to Avram and Sarai: Aryeh and Michal spoke the language, could look up New Hampshire on a map, had a welcoming committee at the airport . . . Avram and Sarai simply left home and had no idea where they were going and what would happen to them. And yet they left.
Lots of people have faith. Few of us who describe ourselves as people of faith would be willing to simply place our fate and future, and the well-being of our families in the hands of the Unseen.
When I moved into a new neighborhood in Beit HaKerem, Jerusalem, when I became the rabbi of the Masorti congregation there, I became friends with my upstairs neighbors: the American basketball player Billy Thompson, his wife and young children. Billy was playing basketball for the Jerusalem Ha'Poel team at the time. Having a 6ft. 7in. upstairs neighbor was very handy when it came to building my Sukkah!
Billy and his wife are passionate Christians. Their faith is very deep. When Billy's unrenewable contract with Ha'Poel expired, he and his wife prepared to return to the States. He had no offer from his previous NBA team or any other. We were having coffee one day and I asked: "Aren't you nervous? Just packing up and going back to the States with no job? No means of supporting yourselves?"
With perfect calm and tranquility Billy replied: "God will show us where we are to go and what we are to do." This wasn't a sound byte for a Christian radio station, this was the way these people lived their lives. I found myself wondering if, under similar circumstances, I would be as sanguine about placing my life and the lives of my family members in God's hands.
Avram and Sarai (and Billy and his wife, for that matter) found that stepping out into the unknown and trusting to God to show them the way to a fulfilling and meaningful life worked out just fine. Perhaps opening ourselves to a little of that kind of faith will enrich and deepen our own lives . . .
We Jews tend to be a little territorial about the Torah. After all, on a daily basis we acknowledge that the gift of Torah was an expression of God's love for the people who entered into the covenant of Sinai.
But the Sinai covenant is not the first in the Torah: in this week's parashah/Torah portion, we read of the covenant God forged with Noah: the waters of the flood had receded, Noah and his family and the animals they had saved in the ark had emerged. God paints the sky with a rainbow and declares:
12 God said, This is the sign of the covenant which I am making between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all successive generations; 13 I set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a sign of a covenant between Me and the earth. 14 It shall come about, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow will be seen in the cloud, 15 and I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and never again shall the water become a flood to destroy all flesh.16 When the bow is in the cloud, then I will look upon it, to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. 17 And God said to Noah, This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth. Genesis 9
This is a covenant between God and "all flesh". . . not just Jews, not just human beings either. God's commitment is to "all flesh that is on the earth."
At this moment, the horizons of the Torah are as broad as the horizons of our world: we are encouraged to drill down to the core of our identity: yes, we Jews are the descendants of Jacob and the Jewish tradition we practice today is rooted in the relationship between Jacob and his progeny and God. We are the descendants of Abraham and through our first patriarch we share common ground with our siblings-in-faith, those who practice Christianity and Islam. And we are all, ultimately, the children of Noah . . . we are all the sentient "flesh of the earth" and are thus, in all our diversity of appearance and practice, created in the image of God.
Rabbi Brad Artson concludes, in an essay on this week's Torah reading in his wonderful book The Bedside Torah:
"A righteous Gentile [anyone who is not Jewish] is a full child of God, to be cherished by all who give God allegiance, regardless of their religious affiliation. What matters according to traditional Judaism, is goodness. That same requirement binds Jews as well. After all, we, too, are "Children of Noah."
This week, as we read the opening verses of the Torah, the biblical account of creation, we hope to find insight into the most fundamental questions of existence: what are we doing here? Why did God create at all? Why is there illness and natural disaster and evil if God is all good?
For a long time, now, I've found some sense, if not complete reassurance and comfort, in a specific reading of these opening passages of Breishit/Genesis which I thought I'd share with you as we embark on Shabbat Breishit of our new year 5773:
Most rabbis and biblical scholars will acknowledge that translation is, in large part, commentary. For all that we understand biblical Hebrew quite well, there is often ambiguity in the language canonized as sacred text . . . ambiguity that challenges us and encourages us to bring our own questions and our own insights to the text. That kind of inquiry leads to inspiring and engaging commentary. The tools of etymology and cultural and social history help us get closer and closer to what may have been the original intent of the text as preserved and transmitted to us.
So let us look at the first two verses of the Torah:
א בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ: ב וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָֽיְתָ֥ה תֹ֨הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְח֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם:
If you were asked to recite this passage in English, you would probably begin: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth . . . . " This is a reasonable translation that was well-established in English translations for decades.
I invite you to read this version of these verses from the highly regarded Jewish Publication Society revised translation from 2000:
"When God began to create heaven and earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water--God said, "Let there be light."
More evocative still is Everett Fox's brilliant translation (1995) which reflects Professor Fox's commitment to the sources of biblical translation by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, developments in biblical scholarship since then, and great sensitivity to the literary profundity of biblical Hebrew. The Fox translation reads:
"At the beginning of God's creating of the heavens and the earth, when the earth was wild and waste, darkness over the face of Ocean, rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters--God said: Let there be light!"
Both the JPS translation and the Fox translation reflect a reading of the Hebrew which denies a popular, if perhaps mistaken, belief, that nothing existed before God's first act of creation except for God. Here we read that an "unformed and void" earth or an earth of "wild and waste" existed at the time God began to create. There was "a deep" or Ocean, there was darkness . . . . I am left with the impression of a state of seething chaos.
The nature of the passages which follow embody God's purpose, in my reading of God's creating acts: What follows is an orderly and patterned progression:
God speaks, creates through speaking, names, evaluates, seals each day with setting sun and dawning day and continues the pattern.
Inexorably, painstakingly, a grid of order is imposed on the wild waste and seething chaos that preceded the first act of creation. God created to impose order on the "tohu vavohu" on the unformed void, the wild waste.
When I am confronted with the destructive and frightening effects of randomness: severe illness, hurricanes and sunamis and earthquakes . . . I sense that somehow that premordial chaotic wildness and void seething under the order of God's creation has somehow found a gap in the interstices of the grid and has spurted its venomous chaos into our lives.
We depend on the orderliness of God's creation to move through the world with any confidence. We orient ourselves through the predictable progressions of morning, noon and night, of recurring seasons. Indeed, we end our day with a blessing, praising God the creator for the comforting reassurance of this order: "You create day and night, rolling light away from darkness and darkness away from light. Eternal God, Your rule shall embrace us forever . . ."
For all the uncertainty in our lives, this week's Torah reading comes to reassure us of the eternal presence of God, our Rock in the face of the randomness of life.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.