Monday, October 7, 2013

God in All Things

Shabbat Lech-Lecha
8 Cheshvan 5774 / Oct. 11 – 12, 2013
Bereshit 12:1 – 17:27

God in All Things
Zvi Bellin, MH Director of Jewish Education and Pastoral Counseling

What grabbed my attention in this week’s portion is the use of the word נפש (NEFESH) in three different places. Let me list the verses and then talk about the meaning of the word נפש .

In Chapter 12, verse 5, we read that Abram took all his belongings, including his kinsmen, with him when he left his father’s house. The verse lists that he took his wife, Sarai, his nephew, Lot, all of their stuff, and the נפש  that they all made. The word נפש  here is generally interpreted as slaves and/or people that signed on to the Monotheistic way of life.

Later in the chapter, verse 13, Abram and Sarai are on their way to Egypt to escape a disastrous famine in the Canaan. Abram instructs Sarai to tell the Egyptians that she is Abram’s sister in order that, “it will go well with me, and my נפש  will be saved for your sake.” Abram assumed that if the Egyptians knew Sarai was his wife, he would be killed so that Pharaoh can have marry this rare beauty. In this context, נפש, refers to Abram’s life.

The last use of נפש  that I wish to call attention to is in Chapter 14, verse 21 in which Abram and his warriors vanquished the army of an alliance of kings who were living in Canaan. These kings were warring against another set of kings. The vanquished kings made the mistake of taking Lot, Abram’s nephew, captive – and nobody messes with Abram’s family. Thus, Abram helped the one set of kings (who among them was the King of Sodom) defeat the other group of kings. After all the fighting, the spoils of war belonged to Abram – after all, he lead the charge of victory. The King of Sodom approached Abram and asked him for his נפש  back. This is traditionally interpreted as wanting back his people that were originally captured by the enemy. Abram obliges and declares that he will not take anything that originally belonged to the King of Sodom.

Though נפש  is used here as meaning people or life, there is another mystical meaning. In Jewish thought there are at least 5 levels of soul. The “lowest” of which is called נפש . This level of soul refers to the base physical desires that are present in all living beings – for example, the need for sex and hunger.

I believe that the use of the word נפש  in this part of Abraham’s journey is teaching us about the unique revelation that he lived his life disseminating: Even the most base, physical experiences of the human being stem from the highest spiritual connection. In my understanding of Judaism, believing in one God means that there can be as much holiness in going to the bathroom as there is in fasting on Yom Kippur!

In the first verse, when Abram takes his נפש  with him, it can be a reference to him “taking” the understanding of how intimately the physical and spiritual are connected. After he goes to Egypt (in Hebrew מצרים  (Mitrayim), literally the Place of Constriction) to escape the famine. Here Abram needs help to hold on to his insight and it is Sarai who saves the unique revelation of oneness. And in the third verse, the King of Sodom, asks for his נפש  to be returned. Perhaps he is not ready for that level of Divine integration. It is a scary thought to believe that God is in our shit. Abram does not resist King Sodom’s request to return his נפש, because Abram does not need others to think like him in order to feel justified.

To sum things up, I think this is what we can learn from our Grand Papa Abraham:

1.       As Lauryn Hill said, “Everything is Everything!” Or, everything in this reality is a gateway to spiritual connectedness, even the un-pleasantries that we rather deny.
2.       We do not have to push ourselves to believe in anything new. We do have to live in a way that protects our revelations and perspectives, though.
3.       Differing beliefs and understandings do not mean that you are wrong. There are multiple levels and comforts when thinking about God in the world.


Post a Comment