Friday, October 30, 2009

For Your Benefit

Parshat Lekh Lekha
Erev Shabbat, 12 Heshvan, 5770 - Friday, October 30th, 2009

     I’m becoming a little obsessed with Robert Crumb.

     Crumb has been, for the last fifty years, America’s great fringe comic artist, producing graphic art far out on the edge of our sensibilities; often on the edge of the law as well. However, for the last four years Crumb has been working his magnum opus and the most unusual piece of art he has ever created: the book of Genesis. Without presuming to know what Crumb’s intentions were for this project, it is clear that, despite his many years as a subversive, satiric expatriate artist, it is his Genesis for which he’ll be remembered.

     The denouement of Crumb’s artistic life reminded me of this week’s parsha, in which we meet Abraham for the first time.* The Holy One’s first words to him are, “לך לך, lekh lekhah, go for yourself” (Debbie Friedman wrote a whole song about this - you may have unconsciously imbibed it a Hebrew school or camp, if you went). In full:

     “And HaShem said to Avram, go for yourself from your land and your birthplace and the house of your father to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Bereishit 12:1-2)

     The most influential commentator of the Torah, Rashi,** picks up on the unusual language of “for yourself,” and reads it as meaning, “for your benefit and for your good.”

     So herein lies the lesson: those things which have the greatest benefit in store for us, require the greatest change. And it is not simply that the external factors of our new situations that change, but that we change. I am not the same person in Los Angeles and in New York. Abraham was not the same in Ur Casdim (his original home) and Israel. Robert Crumb is not the same artist when creating Weirdo and when inking Genesis. Radical changes of context don’t just change what’s around us, they change us.

    A famous phrase comes out of the Talmud on this verse:
שינוי מקום, שינוי מזל - Change your place, change your fate

May the changes in your life be for your benefit.
Rabbi Scott Perlo

* At this point his name is Avram - it will later be changed into Avraham, “the father of many.” And to be precise, we learn Abraham’s genealogy in the previous parsha, Noah.
** The first Hebrew book ever printed, literally ever, was his commentary on the Torah. They even left the Torah part out of the printing - it was just Rashi. In case it’s not yet clear how unreal I think this is, let’s just say it makes a statement when you print this guy before you even print the bible.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Endings - Parshat Bereishit, 5770

Parashat Bereishit 5770
28 Tishrei,
October, 16, 2009

“In the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and of the earth, and the earth was complete chaos.”*
These are the first words of the Torah, beginning creation and the story of the universe’s first week of existence. Each new day brings its own new creations, sometimes with explicit blessings (fish get specifically blessed on Tuesday), always concluding with the phrase,
ויהי ערב, ויהי בקר, יום...
“vayehi erev, vayehi boker, yom….“ And there was evening, and there was morning, the X day.

Except for one.

What makes Shabbat so compelling, to me at least, is not only that the last act of creation is to cease from creating, but that it seems that this ceasing is actually creation’s pinnacle, the apex of the whole story. Lekha Dodi**, which gets sung on Friday night and is a kind of Shabbat anthem, describes it as
סוף מעשה, במחשבה תחילה
“sof maaseh, bemahshava tehila.” Last in creation, first in intention.

The profound truth of this, that an idea’s central revelation is rarely its first expression, is hard for those of us of an often impatient generation to remember. Important things take time to reach fruition.

The great American, progressive philosopher of education, John Dewey (whose ideas still provoke educational revolution, sixty years after he died) wrote,
“The effect of an experience is not borne on its face...Just as no man lives and dies to himself, so no experience lives and dies to itself. Wholly independent of desire or intent, every experience lives on in further experiences.”

So a lesson from the story of Creation, is that every new thing has a future, that experiences do not stand alone, but inevitably develop in their own arc, at their own time. And I bless all of us with patience, and not a little measure of wonder, for where the arc of our own experiences leads.

A Peaceful and Blessed Shabbat,
Rabbi Scott Perlo

* This translation of the first line of Bereishit - Genesis - is different from what most people know but more accurate - the Hebrew word is an adjective, not a noun. This makes sense - God creates for seven days - this is only the beginning of it.
** Lekha Dodi is a mystical poem written in the 15th century by a Shlomo Alkabetz, a gifted if somewhat exhibitionisitic religious poet (the first letter of every stanza spells out his name). Lekha Dodi is extremely mystical, relying on references from Torah and especially Kabbalah in almost every line - very rich stuff. “Last in creation, first in intention” is a quote from an anonymous 14th century mystical book Marekhot haElohut, “Systems of God-ness.”