God said to Avram: Go for yourself from your land; from your birthplace; from the house of your father – to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you; I will make you famous – and be a blessing! (Gen 12:1-2)
This has a poetic feel, don’t you think? What if we analyzed it as if it were a poem? What questions would arise?
When you look at Biblical poetry, says scholar Murray Lichtenstein, look for three things: balance, collapsing of time and place, and encouragement of inner dialogue. All three are at play in these two short verses.
Each verse includes three intensifying synonyms and one concluding phrase. Three increasingly dramatic descriptions Avram’s journey are matched by three escalating rewards God will give. Will the intensity of Avram’s risk be matched by the intensity of his reward?
One verse ends by noting Avram does not yet know where he is going. The other ends declaring that he will surely be a blessing. Will the reward come at the destination or en route?
The two verses leap from a proposal to its gift-filled implementation. No details are disclosed about how Avram can move from letting go of the past to finding future fulfillment. Will actual events fill the gap over time, or is Avram only invited to travel a psychic distance? Must Avram travel a psychic distance before he acts? What have we ourselves done to move from the familiar to the unknown? From origins beyond our control to consciously created results? From dysfunctional places to healthy, harmonious ones?
And: Aren’t these questions of the hour???
Three Ways to Find God (2013/5774)
When the Torah introduces Noah, it explains why God singled him out for a special task. “Noah was a righteous person in his generation.” But when the Torah introduces Avram, no such explanation is given. We know only a bit about his genealogy. Why the omission?
Midrash Genesis Rabbah (39:1) suggests the omission is deliberate. God did not choose Avram; rather Avram chose to tune in to God’s message. Normally, the midrash suggests, God seems hidden inside a fortress. Even avid theists may meet only traces of God, through natural beauty or surprising kindness in stressful times. Avram saw those traces and wanted more. He was awed by the beauty of the world and thought, “How can anyone say no one is in charge?” He became outraged about the world’s problems and thought, “Surely, someone ought to be in charge here!” Because of Avram’s urgent questions, the Holy One appeared to him.
But perhaps Torah does not omit the explanation; rather, the genealogy is itself the explanation. At first, we know only that Avram’s father and brother have died, and that Avram and his wife Sarai have no children. Suddenly Avram hears God say, “Leave your father’s house.” Perhaps a heavy-hearted Avram felt a void of grief, as if through multiple family losses his father’s house had already left him. Moving out of the emptiness, he found a companion: God’s voice. He found a direction: forward. He found a meaning: the promise of future blessing.
Whether we find God through awe, outrage, or grief, may we all find our companions as we move forward towards the promise of future blessing.
Mixed Emotions (5772/2012)
One night Avram falls asleep and has a “night terror.” Those are Torah’s exact words, a “night terror.” In this dream, God looks like a smoking furnace. God says, “Your descendants will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years, but I will bring judgment against the nation that enslaves them, and they will then leave with great wealth.” (Gen 15:13-14)
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says this must be Avraham’s most terrifying spiritual moment. In this moment, Avraham sees 400 years of pain and joy all at once. His overwhelm makes it impossible to feel anything. He cannot feel sorrow, because he know joy is on the way. He cannot feel joy, because he knows the suffering that preceded it.
Kushner says he knows this experience well from his own work as a congregational rabbi. As he journeys with people through life cycle events, time collapses. He sees everything at once, in a dizzying, terrifying way.
All of us know these kinds of weeks filled with both sorrow and joy; when what should be clearly happy is confusing; or what we thought would be sad is bittersweet. I imagine Sarah and Hagar feel this way, when their joy and pride in their children mixes with resentment and jealousy for one another. Perhaps their confusion causes them to lash out.
Traditional Jewish teachings suggest we set aside daily time to sort through our joy and anger: reflecting each morning on what we are grateful for, and meditating each evening by on how we might forgive people for the pain they cause us. If we are conscious of our full emotional range, we will act with clarity and good intention.
Be a Blessing! (5771/2010)
On Yom Kippur, Rabbi Hillel Goelman encouraged us to begin the New Year by offering blessings in word and action. He reminded us of God’s words to Avraham in Parshat LechLecha:
“V’h’yeh beracha – Be a blessing!” (Bereisheet/Genesis 12:2).
Our classical Torah commentators have great respect for the spiritual power of blessing. As they interpret God’s words to Avraham, they bend the words into a philosophy of sharing blessings in everyday life. Here are their interpretations of God’s words V’h’yeh beracha:
Rashi: Until now, the power of blessing was in My hands. I chose to bless Adam and Noach. But today, I place the power of blessing in your hands. From now on, you will bless whomever you want.
Degel Machneh Ephraim: The letters of the word v’h’yeh – vav, hey, yod, hey – are the same as the letters of My holy name. I, the Source of Blessing, will flow through your hands. You say the words, and I will enact the blessing.
Ramban: After a time, you, the master of blessing, will yourself be regarded as a blessing. People will use your name as a blessing, saying, “May God make you like so-and-so.”
Their philosophy is clear: We can and should choose to bless. When we bless, we open a channel and invoke God’s Presence – a blessing in itself. As we connect others with the Divine Presence, they will express their gratitude and try to imitate us by passing on blessings themselves.
What blessings do you offer as you enter the second month of the New Year?
Faith or Reason? (5767/2006)
At age 75, Torah says, our ancestor Avraham suddenly hears a voice telling him to leave his past behind and move towards an unknown future. Avraham seems to know intuitively that this is the voice of God. With great faith and courage, he and his wife Sarah embrace the challenge, and leave their past behind.
Some of our earliest biblical scholars were uncomfortable looking up to a role model who embraces God after a single powerful personal experience. They preferred to see the founder of their religion as a passionate investigator into the metaphysics of reality, who concludes — after many years of study — that a higher power animates the world.
They imagined the early life of Avraham the thinker. As a child, he works in the shop where his father sells wooden idols. But he quickly discovers that they don’t move or think, so he smashes them. As a teenager, he studies astrology, so he can learn to predict and influence fate. But he soon discovers that the sun, moon, and stars only move in fixed patterns. After many years of thoughtful study, he concludes that the whole world is animated and sustained by a single power, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Which Avraham is your role model, the “knight of faith” described in Torah or the “knight of reason” described in Midrash (interpretation)? Both models flourish in Jewish tradition, and both types of religious knowing are honoured.
A Living Manual for Inner Growth (5765/2005)
Philo of Alexandria (1st century C.E.) teaches:
Some of our teachers say that the Torah is a book of moral and ethical instruction, through and through. Even the stories of our ancestors are metaphorical teachings about how to grow spiritually.
Avraham’s journeys from Ur to Charan and from Charan to Canaan represent the inner journeys that every human being must undertake in order to become aware of God’s presence. Two journeys are necessary. First, a person must leave behind preconceptions and habits of thought. Then, when one’s thoughts have changed, one must change one’s behaviors in the world.
Avraham’s close relationship with his wife Sarah teaches that no single human attribute is sufficient to elevate us spiritually. In particular, neither reason nor virtue is sufficient, but both should work together.
Avraham’s war against the five kings teaches us about an inner struggle between the alliance of reason and virtue, on the one hand, and the alliance of the five senses, on the other. The senses try to convince us that everyday material life is all there is, while reason and virtue know differently.
If we were adept at that inner war, we would learn that most earthly wars are for material gain and cannot bring to the world anything of lasting value. When we blow the shofar, the war trumpet, at the beginning of each new year, we are reminded of two important spiritual commitments. First, through the use of reason we must seek inner peace. Second, through the exercise of virtue we must seek peace in the world.