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Parashat Lech L’cha 5775 — 10/29/2014

Parashat Lech L’cha 5775 — 10/29/2014

Hashem appeared to him [Avraham] on the plains of Mamre as he sat at the entrace to his tent in the heat of the day (18:1).

The Midrash asks why Torah sees fit to mention that this revelation took place on Mamre’s property.  After all, Mamre was a Canaanite, a member of a nation that Gd had promised Avraham would be driven out before his descendants because of their depraved behavior!  The answer that the Midrash gives is even more astounding than the question: Mamre advised Avraham to circumcise himself and his household, as Gd commanded.  In other words, the implication is that Avraham was prepared to disobey a direct command of Gd’s to him!  This from someone who, according to Rabbinic traidtion, intuited and followed the whole of Torah before it was given, including Rabbinic enactments that would only be made hundreds of years later.

How are we to understand this?  Rav Kook gives us some insight:

Abraham was afraid that if he circumcised himself, people would no longer be drawn to seek him out.  The unique sign of milah would set Abraham apart from other people, and they would naturally distance themselves from him.  …  This then was Abraham’s dilemma.  Perhaps it was preferable not to fulfill Gd’s command to circumcise himself.  On the personal level, Abraham would lose the spiritual benefits of the mitzvah, but the benefit to the entire world might very well outweigh his own personal loss.

   Mamre advised Abraham not to make calculations regarding a direct command from Gd.  Gd’s cousel and wisdom certainly transcend the limited wisdom of the human mind.  (Gold from the Land of Israel)

There is actually another test in which Avraham was faced with the loss of his life’s work, and that is the Akeidah.  Avaraham was 137 years old and had already sent Ishmael away (although Rabbinic tradition identifies one of the “two lads” that he took with him to Mt. Moriah as Ishmael, who was 50 at the time).  He had received a promise from Gd that his posterity would be through Yitzchak, yet here he is instructed to sacrifice Yitzchak!  Not only would he have no posterity, but who would take anything he said seriously after having performed an act that was diametrically opposed to everything he had been teaching up to that point.  Yet we hear no hint of any argument from Avraham, neither in the Biblical text nor in the Midrash.  The Midrash just tells us that Sarah, whom Avraham knew to be a greater prophet than he, protested that killing Yitzchak was in fact not what Gd wanted.  Yet Avraham went ahead with it, and of course Sarah was proved right when the angel stayed Avraham’s hand at the last moment.

Both the Akeidah and the Covenant of Circumcision are considered to be two (of ten) tests that Avraham was put through in his life, “and he withstood them all” according to Pirke Avot (5:4) (see for a list of 11 tests – the actual list of 10 is in dispute).  My high school French teacher, Dr. Woodrow Wilson Smith, never gave us tests.  He gave us an “opportunity to write,” to express ourselves.  Most of us could express ourselves just fine, in English of course.  Dr. Smith’s opportunities were there to draw out our ability to express ourselves in French.  Some of us found that we had more potential than we thought – alors!

Ramban tells us that this is the purpose of all of Gd’s tests – to allow us to express a potential quality in our own nature that might otherwise have lain dormant.  This is true of each of us, for Gd is continually testing each of us.  It is similar to what is called “adaptive learning.”  You take a test, based on the incorrect answers you are given more knowledge, or an alternative approach, until you get it right.  Once you get something right, it more or less drops off the screen – you don’t need that test any more.

In the case of the Patriarchs, and especially Avraham, the stakes are much higher.  Gd’s tests for us are for our own personal evolution.  Gd’s tests for the Patriarchs are to activate qualities that the Jewish people will need throughout the ages.  How can we understand the two tests we have been discussing?  Perhaps they form a progression, a kind of adaptive learning, if we can even speak of such an idea by the Patriarchs.  In the test of circumcision, Avraham questioned Gd’s command, and wondered whether or not to perform it, as it would negatively affect his calling.  Gd sent him a message via Mamre, not to make calculations when it comes to Gd’s commands.  When the Akeidah came around, 38 years later, Avraham woke up early the next morning and just set out to do what he had to do.

[I might point out that when Avraham argued with Gd on behalf of the residents of Sodom, this was not considered something negative.  Our Sages comment that when we are suffering, we need to strengthen our faith that Gd is behind this suffering and it is for our own long-term benefit.  But when others are suffering, the last thing we do is lecture them on faith.  We become instant atheists in fact, and use every human, earthly means we can to alleviate their suffering.  Thus Avraham prayed and cajoled Gd to try to get him cancel the decree against Sodom.  But when it came to himself, either enduring the pain of circumcision, or slaughtering his son, Avraham didn’t argue with Gd against the decree.]

What is the quality that these two test brought out in Avraham.  I’m certain that there are many answers to this question, but one of them is the quality of simplicity, which Ya’akov (“a simple man, dwelling in tents” – 25:27) would eventually perfect.  Judaism is certainly a religion where intellectual inquiry is highly valued, but it also recognizes that one can think too much for one’s own good.

Our modern, Western culture encourages us to question authority – likely because much authority is illegitimately gained and exercised.  Jewish tradition emphasizes that we are to submit ourselves to legitimate authority, even when we think it is dead wrong.  I am writing this around Shabbat Shoftim.  In Parashat Shoftim we read that we are to take the hard cases to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and we are not to deviate from what they tell us, “neither to the right nor to the left.”  Rashi comments, “Even if they tell you right is left and left is right.”  In the first place, we need to have the humility to recognize just how unlikely it is that our individual intellect is correct and the collective wisdom of our greatest Sages is wrong.  But more important, the Sanhedrin is the duly constituted, legitimate authority, put in place by Gd to guide the affairs of the nation.  Legitimate authority must be obeyed or the result is anarchy, and an increase of disorder (entropy) in society.

Thus, for example, the Talmud tells the story of a dispute between Rabban Gamliel, the nasi (head of the Sanhedrin) and R. Yehoshua regarding the new moon of Tishri (and therefore the dates of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur).  In this case Rabban Gamliel was incorrect and R. Yehoshua was correct.  Nevertheless, when he commanded R. Yehoshua to appear before him with his staff and his wallet on the day R. Yehoshua thought was Yom Kippur, the Rabbis told him to comply, in order to uphold the authority of the Rabbinic leadership.

In the same way, in our Parashah, the Midrash tells us that Avraham questioned the wisdom of circumcision.  He was fortunate to have a wise friend point out to him that the most legitimate authority in the universe is its Creator, and making calculations of the pros and cons of following Gd’s commands is never a good idea.  In fact, Rav Kook tells us that Avraham’s calculations were correct – people did keep away from him.  What he hadn’t counted on was the fact that his circumcision led him to be able to have Yitzchak, and that it was through Yitzchak that the Jewish people would survive.  By the time of the Akeidah, Avraham simply obeys.  We may not be fortunate enough to have Avraham’s wisdom, nor his direct access to Gd, nor even friends like Mamre to help us think through the issues we are dealing with.  We do have our tradition however, and we do have leadership that can interpret and apply our tradition to the changing issues of our time.  We would do well to follow Avraham Avinu’s example and listen to them.

The Sacks Hagaddah

Essay 3: Pesach, Freud and Jewish Identity

I must admit that I especially enjoyed this essay because it confirms a favorite point of mine – that the Jewish people is different, set apart for a special and vitally important mission.  This idea is especially relevant to us in the Diaspora, who have to confront the natural tendency to want to fit in, to be a natural, integral part of our surroundings.  But the question of who we are as Jews goes back at least to Moses.  When Gd attempts to cajole Moses into going back to Egypt to rescue the Israelites, his first question is “Who am I [to go to Pharoah]?”  R. Sacks points out that this question is more than simply an expression of Moses’ humility, or even his lack of self-confidence or readiness to accept this mission.  Rather it indicated a real existential crisis: “Who, indeed am I??  An Israelite, an Egyptian, an amalgam of the two?”  Am I going to continue with my relatively comfortable existence, tending sheep and working on my own personal spiritual development?  Or am I going to identify myself with the oppressed nation of Israel?  Am I going to try to “pass” into the majority culture, or am I going to hold fast to who I really am – my people and my heritage.  If you don’t see the relevance of this question to your life, you’ve already answered it the other way!