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.



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