Monday, October 29, 2012

Saying NO to God

Parshat Vayera
Bereshit 18:1 – 23:24
18 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 2-3, 2012

Saying NO to God
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

How do we begin to understand the story of the binding of Isaac (Akedat Itzhak)? To imagine that Avraham had the “faith” to kill his son is simply terrifying. I get a chill when I read the verse (22:10), “Avraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slaughter his son.”  Was he really planning to kill his son? Was Isaac really just able to hop on an alter to be bound and killed by his father? These questions have been occupying the minds of Torah scholars forever!  Some say that child sacrifice was a common practice back then and that this story displays a defining moment in monotheistic religions. Some say that Avraham actually killed Isaac, and then God brought him back to life! There are so many ways of reading this story and I would like to introduce the idea that in this story, Avraham learned to say NO to God.

When Avraham gets the command to kill his son (22:2) it contains the now familiar phrase: Lech-Lecha (simply translated as, “Go!”). This is the same phrase that Avraham perceived when God told him to leave his father’s house and take his family to Canaan. Perhaps Avraham heard this commandment as a continuation of his original journey. He showed faith in leaving all that he knew behind him and so he will show faith in offering his son to God.

In the plain text reading, as Avraham was about to slit his son’s throat, an angel beckoned from heaven to stay his hand (22:12), “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad nor do anything to him…” I really hope that Avraham’s greatness was NOT in hearing the commandment to kill Isaac, but in his ability to hear this opposing call.

Our past actions set up our present behavior. And it is very easy to make choices simply on past decisions. Why vote for one party over another? Because my family votes for this party! Why don’t you like a certain food? Because I tried it once didn’t like it. We can become enslaved by our past and give up our freedom to act authentically in a fresh new moment!

This week we have the opportunity to consider our path through decision making. Do you rely so heavily on your past and so ignore critical new information that is presenting itself to you? Or the opposite, do you immerse yourself so fully into the present moment that you fail to consider the effort that has been put in by others that came before you? How can you be more balanced in your decision making?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cradle of Our Civilization

Parshat Lech Lecha
Bereshit 12:1 – 17:20
11 Cheshvan 5773 / Oct. 26-27, 2012

Cradle of Our Civilization
by Kyle Berlin (MH New Orleans)

It is just weeks past Simchat Torah. The stories in the Book of Genesis, which will shape the narrative and viewpoint of the Western world, have begun in earnest. Parshat Lech Lecha begins with God commanding Abram and “the souls that he has made” to move to the land of Canaan, a journey that is spiritual in importance but resolutely physical in its movements and description. To my mind, the passage marks a definitive turn away from the folklore of Creation, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah. Gone are the mysterious compulsions—the eating of the apple, the murder of the brother, the building of the Ark. Gone is the cosmic scale—an entire world born, drowned, and resurrected. Gone are the grand characters, their legends burnished by incredible, irreversible deeds and personal opacity. Think of Bereshit and Noach as a prologue, a wide-angle panorama of the stage that Abraham and his descendents will inhabit for the rest of the Torah. 

The stage, as it happens, is smaller. God still plays a very large part in driving the narrative, but the squabbles are domestic, the feelings credible, the motivations human. Abram and his entourage move to Canaan, but it’s already occupied. Abram is afraid that the Egyptians will covet his wife, perhaps to a violent degree, and attempts to pass her off as his sister. That fails, and so instead he leverages her beauty to his advantage. Sarai leaves all of Egypt agog. Abram leaves rich. Abram and Lot’s possessions—in money, people and livestock—become so numerous that their respective followers begin to butt heads. “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us,” that kind of thing. They part ways. Lot takes up residence in the Jordan River Valley, near the Bacchanalia of Sodom. Sarai, like a character in some decadent French novel, encourages Abram to take up with her slave, Hagar. Hagar has a son. Sarai becomes jealous and banishes her. God reappears, makes a covenant whose one end involves the multiplying of Abram’s seed as the stars in the sky, a romantic notion, while also marking each new soul with the circumcision—a violent, fleshly reminder of our identity and difference. Here are the heavens and the earth, where death and transcendence line every metaphor.

Some mystery remains, though. Why Abram? The Rabbis tell a story in which Abram’s father goes out for the day and leaves his son in charge of the shop. Abram destroys all the idols in the shop, excepting one, in whose hands he leaves a stick. When his father comes back and demands to know what Abram has done, he replies, “Why, look at the stick in his hand. The idol did it!” His father, in a rage, says that idols are capable of no such thing. And Abram, rather cheekily, says, “Think about what you’re saying.” But I think this is little more than showing off, and there is hardly a clear line of logic between Abram’s clever indictment of his father’s idols and the immense leap of faith he takes in choosing to follow another sort of god. 

No, Abram’s initial desire to follow God’s commandments is as inexplicable as anything in the beginning of Genesis. His faith, however, is rewarded, and in this we, as Jews, are both marked and comforted. This story is the cradle of our civilization. We feel God’s covenant in a continual state of becoming, a truth in the fact of our bodies long before we know the words and the story. We watch Abraham, “Father of Many,” take this journey that we’ve already taken, and begin to understand how we are here.


Monday, October 15, 2012

Parshat Noach
4 Cheshvan 5773 / Oct. 19-20,2012
Bereshit 6:9 - 11:32

Let it Rain (Just not too much)!
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

The flood waters of Parshat Noach bring a sharp contrast to the holiday of Sukkot that was celebrated only a week ago.

Sukkot is the holiday when we turn our focus to our fields and pray for rain. This is both actual – as we need rain for our food to grow – and symbolic. Water represents the flow of blessing into our lives. So whether you are in need of healing, money, or love, Sukkot is the holiday where we ask for the flood gates of mercy to burst forth. We ask that good fortune will rain down from the heavens and burst forth from the deep wellsprings of the Earth. A week after we pack up our Sukkahs and store them away for next year, we encounter the destructive flood of Parshat Noah. 
In Parshat Noah, as we are well aware, G-d gets angry with humanity and lets loose all the waters of the sky and ground to destroy every creature that has the breath of life in it. (Except for Noah and his crew of course!) I find these contradictory themes of Sukkot and Noah perfectly Jewish. On Sukkot we pray for rain and blessing to rain on us. In Parshat Noah we are reminded that every blessing is only a blessing in moderation. Too much of a good thing just ain’t that grand!
When I think over the Torah portions from the past several weeks there is a rhythmic warning about the corruption that is inherent in having too much bounty. With the world’s economy hanging in the balance of transition, I feel particularly attuned to this message. It may very well be that the imperfect economic systems that govern our world are being forced to evolve by the tidal wave force of the current international outcry for change. Kein Yehi Ratzon! (May it be willed as such!)