Friday, October 31, 2014

Avraham Rocks! - Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5775

(To view other posts on this parasha, click HERE.)

In this week's Torah portion (Lech Lecha, Genesis Ch. 12 - 18), we are introduced to Avraham and his wife Sarah. But who is this guy Avraham? What lottery did he win to get to chit-chat with Gcd and merit all the Divine blessings we read about in these chapters?

The Torah itself seems to simply assume he's exceptional. The narrative begins with almost no preface, picking up the thread of his life when he's 75 years old. In fact, way back in Genesis Chapter 2:4, the Midrash states that, based on an unusual Hebrew construction there, that Gcd created the world in order that there should have existed an Avraham; in other words, the entire universe was created for Avraham's sake. That's pretty fat talk. So again: What is so extraordinary about this guy?

The standard answer that is given, and the reason he is credited with being the progenitor of the Jewish People, is that he was the first person to utilize his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

...and that's great as far as it goes. But could that be the extent of it? 

Lots of people find Gcd. The newspaper is full of people who, after a dissolute life of booze and drugs and burning through enough toxic relationships, finally wise up and "find Gcd." (I am especially entertained by the ones who discover their spirituality just after they're being led away in handcuffs for some perfidious deed or other.)

Avraham rocks, and the key to understanding his greatness and remarkable contribution to humanity lies in a nuanced reading of the Torah text, as well as some assistance from a Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (The Wisdom of the Ancients). "There were ten generations between Noah and Abraham; each one angered Gcd more than the previous one, until along came Abraham and got the reward for them all." (5:3)

The Mishnah is telling us that the key to understanding Abraham is rethinking the generation of Noah, the Great Flood, and the generations that followed.

The world that greeted Noah when the Ark settled on Mount Ararat was very different world than the one he left. Not just physically, but spiritually, psychically. This was because humanity had diffracted into the three distinct faculties that make us human.

Noah had three sons, Shem, Cham and Yafet, whose descendants were to repopulate the world after the flood. They are broadly understood to represent the Asiatic, African and Caucasian branches of the human family, respectively. But these three branches of humanity also represent the three primary human faculties that dwell within each of us.

Shem means 'name' in Hebrew; the Shem branch of the family valued intangibles: the honor of a good name, ideas, ethics, intellect. They emphasized the intellectual/spiritual side of our nature at the expense of physical and emotional human needs.

Cham means 'hot,' and in that branch of the family emotions and passions dominated.

Yafet means 'beauty,' and this branch of the family focused on the physical: aesthetics, corporeality, pleasure.

For ten generations humanity fought a pitched battle against itself, head versus heart versus soul.  One or the other always prevailed, stifled the others, ran to extremes; and so humanity consistently made choices which aggravated Gcd.

It was Abraham who learned to rein in and and harmonize his faculties. Not only that, he harnessed them in the noble pursuit of fixing the world. He utilized them in the service of Gcd and of others, rather than in the venal pursuit of petty self-gratification. He was intellectual/spiritual without being withdrawn; emotional but lacking pathos; physical yet without narcissism. He was the world's first Renaissance Man, a Man for All Seasons.

We see many proofs to this idea throughout the parasha. We see physical bravery, courage and strength in his successful guerilla war against the mighty Four Kings. He demonstrates intellectual prowess in successful diplomacy with the local Amorites. 

He is a spiritual/ethical role model in refusing to profit from the captured riches of Sodom, and the Covenant between the Parts. 

And passion? Witness his unshakable bond to Sarah, despite decades of barrenness. He would have been within his rights to have taken another wife or divorced her, but his dedication to Sarah never wavered. It's clear from the verses that he deeply respected her and her opinions and it is just as clear that they loved each other intensely, understanding that their destinies were intertwined. 

And lastly, the verse states, " have walked before Me and have been perfect." (17:1) The Hebrew word 'tamim/perfect' denotes wholesomeness, completeness, balance, simplicity.

It took ten generations of human development to create an Abraham, who succeeded where the earlier ones failed. He and he alone was able to put the human Humpty Dumpty back together again. And so the Midrash states that Gcd said (so to speak), "that's the kind of guy I created the world for!"

What was the key to Abraham's success? His path began by his using his intellectual faculties to noodle through to the idea of the First Cause. 

As the first Patriarch and Matriarch of the Jewish People, Abraham and Sarah blazed a trail for us. But each one of us has the potential to be an Abraham or a Sarah in our own day, to heed the Voice of Gcd; to employ our unique gifts and talents in the service of Gcd and the service of others, and so doing, leave the world a little better place than the way we found it.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Up on the Roof - Reflections on Sukkot 5775

Mizrachi Family Sukkah 5775
Sukkot fast approaches, and it is anticipated with giddy glee around here. For the uninitiated, Sukkot (meaning huts; singular sukkah = hut) is the most joyous festival on the Jewish calendar. For seven days in mid-autumn, we leave our comfortable, climate-controlled, carpeted homes, and domicile ourselves in a rickety hut with a "roof" that the stars peek through. Crazy, huh? More like crazy brilliant.

Woven into Sukkot is an extremely rich tapestry of symbolism. The sukkah represents the divine cloud that enshrouded the Jewish People in the desert for 40 years; it represents the Holy Temple itself; it reminds us that our notions of security are ephemeral, that real security comes only with our complete reliance on the A-lmighty; it makes us look skyward, constantly on watch for rain, and rain/water play an integral role in the meaning of Sukkot.

Our Bubbe and Zayde loved Sukkot, positively reveled in it. (Of course they called it "Sookis" in the European pronunciation.) They had this goofy octagonal aluminum gazebo with a domed roof on the patio in the back yard. Come Succot time, Zayde would pry the roof panels off and heave the pine boughs on. Bam - instant sukkah. Then came the decorations: stringing popcorn and cranberries, pictures made by the kids in school, and the strings of little colored twinkle lights (they're Sukkah lights, don't even start...)

We grew up in the Pine Barrens of central New Jersey, where pine was abundant, so we used pine for the roof of the sukkah (the sukkah roof material is called "schach", and has to be done right to make the sukkah kosher). For our family, Sukkot just wasn't Sukkot without the fragrant aroma of the pine; without both noodles - and needles - in the soup. To this day, when I walk by a Christmas tree lot, to me at least, it's the smell of Sukkot.

Bubbe and her lieutenants were bustling back and forth from the kitchen in the house, ferrying all the delicacies of the holiday meal: the gefilte fish, steaming chicken soup, stuffed cabbages, Shake-n-Bake chicken (Zayde loved that stuff), compote. Tea. Cakes. Drinks. It just never ended. Somehow, 15 or more of us squeezed in around the picnic table shoehorned into that little sukkah. 

I think most people today go with purpose-built bamboo mats for schach. They're convenient enough, and they roll up for storage and reuse. But to me (apologies) they're a little...sterile.

For us, it's just gotta be pine schach. So every year, we go to the trouble to source fresh pine - cut it, haul it, heave it up there, and then dispose of it after the holiday passes. It's sticky work, makes a mess of the truck, and is an overall hassle. But it just wouldn't be Sukkot without it.

Why do I bother? Why not hit the "Easy Button" and cave like everyone else with the bamboo schach?

For me, at least, there's three reasons. First, it reminds me of the Lakewood I grew up in, a Lakewood that doesn't exist anymore; the Lakewood before Lakewood became LAKEWOOD, the holy bastion of chareidut.

Second, I stand in quiet opposition to the juggernaut of rigid external conformity, to the "chumra-zation" which has swept over the Torah observant world. I remember great rabbis, tremendous talmidei chachamim, who, back in the day, didn't wear the current de rigueur "uniform" - shloompy black suit, crumpled black hat, tzitzit worn out, long beard. I remember when people focused more on their pnimiut - their personal character traits, and far less on the external manifestations of frumkeit (observance).

Don't get me wrong: if your family tradition is chareidi, good on you. But that's not the only way to live a Torah life. I know of people today who escape to smaller Jewish towns like Allentown for a Shabbat or two, just to get away from the suffocating, oppressive environment of Brooklyn and Lakewood, where any deviation in behavior can brand a person an outcast, an outsider. 

Sorry. I refuse to compete in the frum Olympics, where everyone, it seems, is trying to prove to the world how religious they are, to out-frum the next guy with new and ever more clever chumras (legal stringencies). 

I don't need to demonstrate my religious credentials to anyone. I wear a (knitted) kippah srugah, not a black velvet yarmulke. And I put blue jeans on when I change the oil on the truck. (And shhh...don't tell anyone but I don't even own a black hat.) And I go with pine schach, because it's "hiddur mitzvah" - it beautifies our experience of the sukkah, and is a poke in the eye of bamboo conformity.

The last reason is because that's how Bubbe & Zayde did it. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, guides us unfailingly in the conduct of our everyday life. But overlaid on the Shulchan Aruch is a mesorah, a tradition, that we receive from our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.

I didn't have to look it up in the book how to make a kiddush on Friday night; I had a Zayde to teach me. I didn't have to look up how to daven (pray); I had a Zayde to teach me. It was Zayde who taught me to bring flowers home to my wife every Friday for Shabbat. We learned what we lived. And among the myriad other things, Zayde taught me how to build a sukkah. With pine it was, and so with pine it shall remain.

There is a tradition that each night of Sukkot, a mystical guest visits the Sukkah. Father Abraham the first night, Isaac the second night, then Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, David. But we have two other unseen guests. When I sit at the table, looking up at the pine and around at the magical glow the twinkling lights cast around the sukkah, I know, to the core of my being, that Bubbe & Zayde visit our sukkah, and get as much joy from it as we do.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.