This week, Rav Meir Schweiger discusses Parshat Lech Lecha.
This week, Rav Meir Schweiger discusses Parshat Lech Lecha.
The Hasidic master R. Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl, also known by the title of his book Meor Einayim, has this to say on our parsha, Lech lecha:
Rashi comments that God tells Avram that the command to go forth is “for your own good.” This is difficult to understand, since God calls Avram “my lover” because he served God out of love and not for any reward. Later God will call out to Avraham, “Avraham! Avraham!”, just as God calls “Yaakov! Yaakov!” and “Moshe! Moshe!”, because “God’s people is a part of God” — just as we exist in the world below, so our root exists in the world above. We were created with a body in this world only so that even in crude material form we could choose to serve God and not deny God’s image in which we are made. This is why Avraham, like the other righteous men above, is called doubly, to denote his celestial and his earthly self.
It is known that the souls above take their enjoyment from the splendid light of davithe Shekhinah, but since this enjoyment is undeserved, they feel a certain shame. This is why God sent the souls down to this world, so that they may freely choose to serve God Who can in turn pay them with goodness for what they have earned. This is go forth (for your own good), so that you can earn My goodness and not be ashamed. This is why the soul is “garbed” in crude materiality and subjected to material lusts and earthly desires, so that from this materiality it can go forth in the service of God, and this is the meaning of from your land.
King David said, “I will walk before God in the land of the living.” Bodily things like eating, drinking, and sex, if done only for your own pleasure, have no life, but if you do them to satisfy your soul, raising these things up to God with your holy intentions, then you fulfill the verse, “Know God in all your ways,” and all your deeds are for the sake of heaven. Then they are called “Lands of the Living,” for the Life of All Life will dwell in your very earthiness. This is the meaning of to the land which I will show you.
[A fuller version of this teaching is available at hasidismfortherestofus.wordpress.com.]
Sarah Mulhern (Year Program ’09, Fellows ’10) shares her dvar Torah for Parashat Lech Lecha with These&Those. This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
One of the things I find most inspiring about studying Torah is that the biblical characters are human. They may be our valorized, mythical ancestors, but they also consistently make mistakes, leaving a record of paradigmatic human foibles from which we can learn. There is one biblical failure, however, that I have always struggled to understand as a useful example. It occurs Continue reading
Guest Post: Dvar Torah by Pardes Alumnus Rabbi Peter Stein
The Torah is a book that explores what it means to be human. The Book of Genesis, especially, presents story after story that delves into the pain and joy and messiness of the human condition.
In this week’s parshah, we read about Sarai, our ancestor, and the great pain she endures as a result of infertility. When we first encountered Sarai at the end of last week’s parshah, the very first thing the Torah told us about her, other than her being’s Avram’s wife, was that she was barren, unable to have children. This introduction provides us a glimpse of how central this experience of pain was in Sarai’s life.
In this week’s parshah, the Torah gives us rich details that help us understand the depth and texture of Sarai’s pain. When she tells Avram: עצרני ה’ מלדת – “God has kept me from bearing children” (Gen. 16:2) – we learn about Sarai’s feeling of helplessness, her sense that the problem is beyond her control, that it comes from God and that she can’t do anything about it.
We feel her desperation as Sarai gives her servant Hagar to her husband Avram as a wife in a kind of surrogacy arrangement in which her servant’s child will sort of be her own, and her household will sort of be built up through her servant. But only sort of.
And when this plan tragically, predictably backfires, we feel Sarai’s despair as she lashes out at her husband, blaming him for her predicament.
What strikes me about this story is how much each of us can relate to Sarai’s pain and brokeness, for each of us, at some point, has experienced this sort of pain. For some, the pain may be due to inferitility like Sarai. For others who were able to have children, it migh be pain from the choices those children have made in their own lives. For others, the pain might have been a divorce or a child’s divorce. The pain might come from a professional disappointment or the loss of a job or an extended period of unemployment. For some, it might be pain from the untimely loss of a loved one, or an illiness suffered by themselves or a member of their family. And for still others, the pain might be a burden they carry through their lives that none of us will ever know, such as a struggle with anxiety or depression or a history of abuse.
If we pay close attention to the language of Sarai’s story, we can recognize the experience of our own suffering in Sarai’s pain:
As the story opens, we are told: לא ילדה לו – “she did not bear him children” (Gen. 16:1). The text could have simply said she was barren. By using this language - ”she did not bear him children” - the Torah suggests the feeling of personal failure that Sarai felt from her inability to produce children, despite the fact that it was not her fault.
The same phrase says that she did not bear children for him – Avram. It does not say for her - Sarai – suggesting that part of her pain came from not meeting the expectiations of a loved one or a community, or not being able to fulfill what she understood as her obligation.
And in her encounter with Hagar, we are told ותקל גברתה בעיניה – “her mistress was lowered in her esteem” (Gen. 16:4) – and see the loss of social status that often accompanies – and contributes to – our pain and our brokeness.
As I get older, I have become increasingly aware of how many people in the communities I spend time in wrestle with this type of pain. It is pretty hard to reach – name an age – 30? 35? 40? 50? – without experiencing some form of deep pain and brokeness. And so the question becomes: How do we deal with this pain and this brokeness?
On an individual level, the parsah does not offer us a resolution. Sarai’s story itself does not suggest a healthy way for dealing with this type of pain and suffering. But what the parshah does do is tell the story in the first place. It does not hide Sarai’s suffering. It puts it out in full view and says: This is what people go through. And in doing so, it gives us permission to acknowledge our own pain and our own brokeness. That first step of looking inward and acknowledging that we are suffering can often be the hardest step, for connecting with our suffering brings that pain to the forefront and hurts and threatens our feelings of security and self-sufficiency; it damages our pride. Reflecting on our pain may lead us to think about all the things we could have done differently that might have prevented the pain. Or we may realize there was nothing we could have done, and feel helpless.
As a community, dealing with pain and brokeness can be an even bigger challenge.
I am reminded of a story I heard in my final year of rabbinical school, when a rabbi came to speak to our class about the experience of losing her husband to cancer when they were both still in their ’30′s. Her husband had been the cantor of a synagogue and, after moving out of the parsonage following his death, she settled down in a new neighborhood and a new synagogue community. She recalled that what made all the difference for her in dealing with her grief was the community’s ability to make room for her brokeness. If she needed to cry in the middle of the service, she just sat in her seat in the middle of the sanctuary and wept.
As a community, I think that Jews do pretty well at handling the pain and the brokeness of death. The loss of a loved one is something almost everyone experiences at some point. Although there are awkward moments, to be sure, we have highly structured rituals and protocols and routines that help us cope with the loss and provide support to those who are in need. But we face a bigger challenge when people in our community face other types of suffering, such as a divorce or the loss of a job. For these, there are no communal rituals, no routines that provide guidance for what to say or how to act. There is no shiva for a failed marriage, no “HaMakom yinachem etchem”* to say when someone loses a job. Dealing with these types of pain can be difficiult and awkward, as we are not sure exactly what to say or how to act, or if the person even wants us to say anything, or just to be left alone.
I think that our challenge in dealing with this sort of pain is made more difficult by the fact that people in our syngagogues are, for the most part, middle class. Being middle class in America brings with it a whole set of expectations about our families, our professions, our financial success that make it very difficult to admit when we are suffering. If we let our pain show in public, we risk being seen as a failure, as not having met those expectations.
In my years in New Haven, I have spent a good deal of time in the poorer neighborhoods of our city and one thing that has always struck me is how open people in poorer neighborhoods are to sharing their pain and their brokeness. It is not uncommon for people at a public meeting to talk openly about a teenage child who is pregnant or a family member who is struggling with drug addiction or to share their experience as a grandparent forced to raise their grandchild. I suppose this openness is largely due to the fact that when you are poor, it is harder to hide your suffering. If you live in a poor neighborhood or can’t afford nice clothes or a decent car, it’s much harder to hide your pain and struggles, so there is not the pressure to maintain a facade that everything is okay, even when it is not.
In the religious Jewish world, I think the challenge of dealing with our pain and our brokeness grows even harder yet. Most religious Jewish communities have a very clear picture of what life should look like. We are commanded to get married and have children. There are expectations about money, education, professions. But when life departs from these expectations, our communities don’t always know how to respond. They don’t always know how to make room for our pain and our brokeness.
As we continue our journey through the Book of Genesis, as we read about our ancestors and their struggles, let us use this opportunity to look inward and connect with our own suffering. Let us build communities that make room for pain and brokeness, communities where someone can sit in their seat on Shabbat morning and simply cry if they need to. Let us build communities that recognize that the complexity of life – the pain and the brokeness, together with the joy – is what it means to be human.
Delivered at the Westville Synagogue, New Haven, CT, November 5, 2011
* At the conclusion of a visit to a house of mourning, it is customary to comfort the mourner with the words “HaMakom yinachem etchem b’toch shi’ar avlei Tzion v’Yerushalayim” – “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.
Originally Posted for Shabbat Lech Lecha:
Wilt Chamberlain? There is not doubt that he was great. But, Bill Russel? He’s the best that ever was.
In sports, greatness cannot be measured in simple statistics–if that were possible, Chamberlain would easily be the greatest player in NBA history. But, as any sports fan knows, there is so much more. You must consider competition, era, teammates, and, potentially most of all, championships. Chamberlain was incredible for his generation, but Russel’s greatness transcends time.
In last weeks parsha, Parshat Noach, Noach was described as אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו, a wholehearted righteous man in his generation. This description seems to suggest that while Noach wasn’t necessarily a tzadik by objective standards, compared to dor hamabul (the morally perverted generation destroyed in the flood) he was exemplary. This description stands in stark contrast to Avraham, who first appears in this weeks parsha, Lech Lacha. Avraham seems to be righteous by any standard. He stood on high moral ground, and lived with amazing moral clarity.
This week on the podcast, we hear from Rav Landes as he discusses the beginning of Avram‘s journey – don’t forget the handout if you are listening.
A couple nights ago, I accompanied Rabbi Barry Leff on his monthly visit to the Emmaus monastery near Latrun for Torah study. The monastery sits at the site of a Byzantine church. Couldn’t see much at night, so I hope to go back in the daytime to see the ancient ruins. It was fascinating to take part in the study session with a rabbi, a priest, a group of nuns and a few lay people (sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it was no joke. These people are spiritual, dedicated and quite knowledgeable about Scripture, both theirs and ours. I wish I knew as much as they do). The evening began with a chant in Hebrew and Latin, and ended the same way. In between was a lively discussion of Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion. Much of the conversation centered on Sodom and Gemorrah–what were they? Why were they considered wicked? What were their wicked ways? And also, how did Lot and Abraham lift up their eyes, what were they seeing? Rabbi Leff is active in Rabbis for Human Rights, something else I hope to investigate. In my mind, getting people talking to one another is a good start toward what I hope will be eventual and eternal peace.
This week’s parsha contains many famous and thought-provoking stories, but I would like to focus on what I see as an emerging motif in the Rashbam, where he criticizes his grandfather’s reading of a verse before offering an alternate interpretation which he sees as sticking more closely to the pshat, the simple reading of the text. In the blessing that Hashem gives Avram regarding the sojourning of his descendents in Egypt for 400 years, which will be followed by inheriting the Land of Cana’an, Hashem says: “And the fourth generation will return here because the sin of the Amorites is not complete until now [then]” (15:16). Rashi explains that the fourth generation refers to B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel), as after they are go down to Egypt, there will be three generations, and the fourth will inherit Cana’an. Rashi explains his theory by saying that Yaakov went down to Egypt, and Calev – the only other person besides Yehoshua to enter the Land who came from Egypt and did not die during the forty years in the desert – is four generations removed from Yaakov. However, the Rashbam does not think the verse is talking about Israelites here. There is a simple flaw with Rashi’s logic, in his mind: if the text just finished saying that the Israelites will be in Egypt for 400 years (15:13), why would it then also explain how many generations that works out to – in any case they will be there for 400 years! So instead, the Rashbam sees this verse as referring to the inhabitants of Cana’an, who will be driven out of the land after four generations. Yes, it’s true that B’nei Yisrael will return after four generations, but our verse is speaking from the perspective of the nations (specifically the Amorites) who dwell there currently. And why is it important that four generations go by between B’nei Yisrael going down to Egypt and the Amorites being kicked out of the Land? The Rashbam sees this as Hashem treating all peoples the same. In Shmot 20:5 it says that Hashem “visits punishment on the sons from the fathers for four generations to those who hate me,” which the Rashbam interprets as Hashem giving all sinners four generations to change their ways before punishment is visited upon them. So Hashem, though expecting that the Amorites would be kicked out when the time came, still gave them four generations with the chance that, if they changed their ways, they would not be expelled from Cana’an. I think that this interpretation is all the better because the Rashbam thinks that this is the simplest way to read the verse.
To correct our ways
We are all equal to God:
Reading the beginning of Parshat Lech-Lecha, I was struck by its opening words. God’s command to Avraham to leave his home, his family, his country and move to a place that God will saw him is quite incredible! But it seems that God is demanding from Avraham more than the physical and emotional separation from his home and way of life to date. So, what does God want from Avraham?
A Chasidic commentary, the Mei Shiloach, explains that God commanded Avraham to go to himself (lech lecha) — in other words, to search deep inside himself and understand who he is. But why would God want or care for Avraham to take time for this kind of personal introspection? Doesn’t God want Avraham to dedicate himself to God’s work? I think the Mei Shiloach commentary was aware of this question (at least it seems to me that he did!) and recognized that in order for a person to truly dedicate him/herself to a particular project or idea (in this case, God), s/he needs to be fully aware of her/his abilities, values and shortcomings. This understanding of one’s self can be termed ‘self-awareness’.
And yet, God bids more than self awareness.
It would seem that the God is imploring Avraham–and us as well–not only to know himself–and ourselves, but do use this self-knowledge productively. But, how are we to do this?
God later says to Avraham hithalech lefanai v’heyeh tamim – walk to yourself in front of Me and you will be complete/pure. In other words, God is teaching Avraham NOT to get caught up in his own self reflection (possibly revel in his own greatness?). Rather Avraham must walk to himself while being cognisant of the fact that he is always standing before God. If Avraham can manage to channel his self-awareness to do God’s work (i.e. knowing that he must follow God’s path), he will be pure and complete.
To my mind, this is the greatest challenge: deeply reflecting on ourselves on every level and using that knowledge to reach our potential in order to actualize God’s vision of a world of righteousness and justice. (This refrain, righteousness and justice, is frequently used to describe Avraham’s understanding of his godly mission in the world).
Naturally, as we attempt this process of self-knowing, we will each discover different attributes, obstacles and abilities in ourselves and will thusly find different ways to channel them to do God’s work.
Therefore, once we’ve acquired this self-knowledge, we must ask: how do I actualize this potential in myself in a way that is in congruence with God’s will?
How do I use my self-knowledge to stand in front of God and become pure and complete?