Monday, October 25, 2004

Lech Lecha

"Change your place, change your luck" this phrase is at least as old as the talmud, which notes that Abraham was told to leave his land so that the decree of childlessness would be lifted from him. But why would God insist that Abraham need to leave everyone and everything he'd ever known to start a family?
Our portion starts with the verses

1 .And the Lord said to Abram, Get out from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you;
2. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing;
3. And I will bless those who bless you, and curse him who curses you; and in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.
In these verses we find a parallel of movement and blessing: there are five directions that Avram is given: 1. Go to yourself (as some rabbis understand "Lech Lecha" to mean) 2 from your land, 3.from your birthplace 4.from your father's house, 5. to a land I will show you. These directions are paralleled by the blessings: I will bless you; you shall be a blessing; I will bless those; who bless you; in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.
What is this connection between movement and blessing?

The chasidic commentator the Sfat Emet says that the Torah uses the word הלך- the root from which לך comes- because human beings need to be movers, always going to the next spiritual rung. When a person doesn't move on, they get used to the way things are, and whatever the status quo is seems natural. He continues, "This sense of 'nature' hides the inner light. This is true ven of Torah and the mitzvot when we do them out of habit, they become normal, and we forget their inner meaning." Therefore we need to always seek out new understandings, and try to increase the mitzvot that we do. Anyone who stands still is not renewed, because they gets stuck in what is "natural," and can't see when God requires more of them.

Rabbeinu Bachya has a much more negative view of Avram's commandment to move out. He tells us that the reason God had to order Avram out of his native land was because Avram was like someone who stands in a filthy place and can't smell the stench. He says that the Torah's use of "לך לך(lamed- chaf lamed chaf) is related to the word לכלך-dirty- spelt the same way. A person who stands in a foul place gets used to the odor and can't smell it anymore. Similarly, Avram had to be ordered to leave his birthplace so that he wouldn't absorb the stink, and become like the people of the place here he was from.

A 19th century commentator, the Malbim, gives a less graphic and more psychological, but similiar, explanation. He notes that a person is influenced by the places he lives, by its environment, its customs and character traits - when I read this, I thought of, for example, "environment" might be like Cancer alley in Louisiana, where very poor people live downriver from a number of chemical plants and there are extremely high rates of cancer in certain towns. That's not a character trait, obviously, but the environment in which many people become ill certainly will affect the civic life of the area. Or an example of how a place influences traits might be how North Americans are known for being extremely personally fastidious about their bathing habits all over the world - obviously there are Americans who don't bathe every day, but the culture encourages the behavior. Thus Avravm had to leave because God didn't want him to continue to live in a place whose customs affected him adversely. He wouldn't be able to raise a family as Jews surrounded by the culture to which he was born.

But the Slonimer rebbe offered one of the most interesting suggestions. To him, Avram represents the nation of Israel, and says that the reason that Israel is blessed is because unlike the other nations, Israel isn't stuck to a place. He says that those peoples who are linked to a particular land get stuck in the physicality of their places, and only work toward the fulfilment of their physical needs. But Israel, because we are in galut - exile- are able to pursue the shekhina, God's presence. This is a stunning comment for a number of reasons - first of all, it flies in the face of that strain of Judaism which says that the highest goal is to settle in the land of Israel. To the contrary, it suggests that settling in Israel might distract us from our true goal - unity with God, through following the mitzvot. But it also suggests that galut, exile, itself is a positive thing, that it is through our movement, our הליכה - walking- that we will be blessed.

From these commentaries I suggest that there are five lessons, paralleling our blessings, that we can take away from Avram's call to leave his homeland.
First of all, sometimes you have to smack the bottle against the table a few times to get the top loose enough to get out what's on the inside. There's a midrash that suggests this idea: It says, "When God told Abraham 'Get out of your land and away from your birthplace,' what did Abraham resemble? A bottle of perfume with a tight fitting lid put into a corner so that its fragrance could not escape. As soon as it was movd from that place, its scent began to waft out. So God said to Abraham, 'Abraham, many good deeds are in you. Travel around from place to place, and the greatness of your name will become known in the world." -so that you may become a great nation. Getting a little shake up was necessary for Abraham to become the person he was. Staying at home, he could never have achieved the greatness of which he was capable.
Second, our culture forms us, but doesn't constrain us. While Rabbeinu Bachya compares the bad effects of the culture Avram lived in to a vile dirty place, we don't need to use such hyperbolic language. We all know that in secular culture, there are a lot of things that we as Jews can't agree with. In some ways, Judaism is the original counter culture. Avram had to physically leave in order to let this new culture take root, but we can "move" in a more metaphorical way.
This is because of the third point:
Avram was sent out of the land, not to be isolated from the rest of the world, but to bless it. "In you shall all the nations of the world be blessed." This does not suggest to me, someone hiding out in a self-made ghetto, hiding from the pernicious effects of other cultures, but rather the beginning of "A light unto the nations." We should be proudly different, that is, we should be "kadosh" in the sense not only of holy, but of th root it comes from which means "separate," -separate in the way we live our lives, living lives of holiness, choosing to make our physical needs serve our spiritual ones, and not the other way around.
Fourth, you can be be a blessing anywhere. Even in the land that Avram was sent out from, the Torah tells us that when Abram left חרן (Haran) among those he took with him were את-הנפש אשר-עשו בחרן "all the souls they made in Haran," which the rabbis understand to mean all those that Abraham and Sarah converted while they were there.Yes, even in that apparent cesspit that God drove them out from, there were people who joined them, and followed their example.

Finally, when you get a call, go. As the Sfat Emet reminds us, when we stay in one place - when we get used to the status quo- we can't see beyond "the way things are." We lose the ability to imagine other ways of doing things, and the light within those things we already do well dims, because it becomes just "natural."
Dropping everything to go somewhere new and start over is a big request - even from God. But the midrash tells us that until Avram made his way into the wider world, God was ruler only in heaven. We know this because Abraham would refer to when he was young by saying, "The Lord, God of heaven, who took me from my father's house (Gen 24:7)." but after he made his way into the world, he would say that God was sovereign over both heaven and earth (Gen 24:3) - such as when he told his servant Eliezer "I will make you swear by the Lord, God of heaven, and God of earth." If Avram had not gone out into the world, God would still be God, but perhaps even now we would not recognize God's greatness. We certainly still have a long way to go before we achieve the hopes that we state in the aleinu that כל בני-בשר -all flesh- will recognise God, but if, as Kurt Vonnegut says, we all "do one thing every day that scares us," we may be further along towards that goal of a better world to live in, one in which God is sovereign.

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