Sunday, November 2, 2014
PARSHAT LECH LECHA – 2014/ 5775
This week we begin the story of our hero, Avraham Aveinu in Parshat Lech Lecha. We are mindful that this is a pivotal moment in the history of humanity in that we now have evidence and general consensus on different levels that some one who lived around 1948 in our calendar of 5775 years began an ongoing relationship with G-d that was filled with accountability and intentionality. This first intentional monotheist, claimed by the three Monotheistic religions and others as a prophet, Patriarch and so much else is known to us as Avraham Aveinu.
This past week, when we went to visit our son at SUNY Binghamton. we dovened at Chabad. There was something about the avirah that inspired me to really be particularly attentive. So, it was definitely one of those instances where something we have read so many times looked new and novel to us all of a sudden. As we read in the beginning of Shacharit on Shabbat, I noticed a lovely passage in which G-d makes a covenant with Avraham that comes to us from Divrei HaYamim I: 16: 8ff when David brings the Aron HaKodesh into the sanctified space.
… HaShem, our G-d; over all the earth are G-d’s judgments. Remember G-d’s Covenant forever – the word that G-d commanded for a thousand generations – that G-d made (covenanted) with Avraham and G-d’s vow to Yitzchak.
The word that is used to express this action of making a covenant here with Avraham Aveinu is כרת . This would be the word that does not fit if we were playing that Sesame Street game “Which of these isn’t like the rest?” There are four pivotal words in this phrase in the Hebrew text: BERIT (covenant), TZIVAH (commanded), KARAT (made a covenant) and SHEVUATO (his vow). I found this use of this root Kaf-Reish-Taf in the word KARAT interesting as this particular word/root is used copious times in our Tanach and elsewhere to indicate the exact opposite – to cut down or out. In fact this is the word to use for cutting off someone from the people – a most ominous thought. It also refers to a bill of divorcement.
And here it is meaning exactly the opposite of its various derivations and forms. In the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon of word usage in the Tanach, only one other reference is made to this meaning of covenanting in Isaiah 57.8 but is suspected to be a corruption of the text in the RV translation rendered from the Septuagint. In so many cases, all that I have found in fact, this is not the meaning of כרת.
So how do we explain this anomaly? Let us step aside from this question for a moment and we will come back to it. I want to introduce a new question. WHY AVRAHAM/AVRAM? This is an oft-asked query as there are those who posit that Avraham really was not anything special. What do we know about him that so many of us live as his offspring, so to speak?
Consider the following teaching by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks provided in his Parsha thoughts on this reading in 5771, four years ago:
"The most influential man who ever lived, does not appear on any list I have seen of the hundred most influential men who ever lived. He ruled no empire, commanded no army, engaged in no spectacular acts of heroism on the battlefield, performed no miracles, proclaimed no prophecy, led no vast throng of followers, and had no disciples other than his own child. Yet today more than half of the 6 billion people alive on the face of the planet identify themselves as his heirs.
His name, of course, is Abraham, held as the founder of faith by the three great monotheisms, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He fits no conventional stereotype. He is not, like Noah, described as unique in his generation. The Torah tells us no tales of his childhood as it does in the case of Moses. We know next to nothing about his early life. When G-d calls on him, as he does at the beginning of this week’s parasha, to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house, we have no idea why he was singled out.
Yet never was a promise more richly fulfilled than the words of G-d to him when He changed his name from Abram to Abraham:
“For I have made you father of many nations…” (Gen. 17: 5).
There are today 56 Islamic nations, more than 80 Christian ones, and the Jewish state. Truly Abraham became the father of many nations. But who and what was Abraham? Why was he chosen for this exemplary role?"
Sacks goes on to suggest that it is due to the fact that by virtue of his deeds, he shows that he is a worthy human, if not an exemplary “man of his generation” as we learned last week about Noach. He tells us that Avraham does three things that distinguish him:
1. As we learn in the Midrash about him in his father’s idol workshop, he smashes and breaks things that are not meaningful and exposes them for the empty shells they are.
2. In another story from our lore, Avraham comes to realize that the world/universe has One Absolute Ruler, a new concept in many ways as the result of a dream he has.
3. Maimonides tells us that Avraham was quite the philosopher, discerning proof of G-d’s presence in the world before Aristotle and others will even begin to ask such questions.
For this reason, we are taught, Avraham distinguished himself as one who believed. According to Sacks, this was based on his beliefs, which inform his actions, and not the other way around as many may suppose and many more do. If one takes this notion seriously, we begin to understand that while we may question Avraham’s actions as the Monday morning quarterbacks we love to be (Why did he argue on behalf of Sodom and Amorah? Why did he send Hagar and Yishmael away? Why did he agree to the instruction to prepare his son Yitzchak as a sacrifice?), we come to comprehend that we DO NOT have to the ones who understand why Avraham did what he did. He did these things, according to Sacks, Rambam and others precisely because he intuited what G-d wanted from him and was more than willing to play his part, even acting in ways that others around him may not have and certainly did not understand from the vantage point that reason would afford.
It is this that earns him the merit of the three-fold promise bestowed upon him by G-d, indicating that he will be the father of many, will have land and many nations that will be blessed because of him.
Only one who truly had such faith and belief in G-d deserved the multi-faceted ברית that AVRAHAM AVEINU was given by AVEINU BASHAMAYIM. Sacks focuses on this notion – Avraham as father who can stand as a role model of a believing man who has a relationship with his G-d – this is his most salient and powerful role. He is indeed worthy of being the FATHER OF MANY NATIONS, as he is promised and his new name of AVRAHAM will reflect.
We still have not resolved my issue with the word in question – KARAT. So here is what I came up with. To have an opposite meaning of a Hebrew word and its developed root with the change of a vowel is not unusual – it is present all the time to preserve sanctity (e.g. Birkat HaShem; Kadesha, etc.). But I really think something else is going on here. COVENANT IS ABOUT CUTTING ONE SELF OFF…. Let’s think about this. One makes a covenant to marry someone and in doing so cuts one self off from a certain level of relations with all else. The Brit Avraham made with G-d was AFTER he exposed the idols and other objects of false belief and empty value through his actions. In order to COVENANT, to be party to a BRIT, one has to first cut one self off from all others, KARET! Just as a United States citizen, with very few exceptions, cannot maintain allegiances to other countries when becoming naturalized; when one makes this all encompassing affirmation of an exclusive relationship, other ties recede in importance.
So where does this leave us? We are members of the Jewish people. We are part of an entire world. That world is filled with so many nations that come from Avraham and there are other nations from the sons of Noach as well. We are part of this world and AT THE SAME TIME, must separate ourselves from them and their actions when we are consider our role in the BRIT with G-d. We are to maintain our own standards and behaviors as the Metzuvim that we are, regardless of what is going on around us. We are to take needed actions, stand up for others and do so many other things even when, and especially when this is not the normal tone of any society in which we live. This is the lesson of Avraham. This is what makes him worthy of his status in history – that he apparently, as the story is told, understood this and passes this legacy on to us.