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.

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