DEDICATION: This d'var is dedicated to Selma K. Denburg (z"l) -- Zelda bat Leah, whose yahrtzeit date is 9 Kheshvan. (Thursday eve and Friday of this week).
Selma was Rabbi Rachel Levine's mother. I have met Selma only through her daughter's memories of her -- and I believe she was a very interesting woman. R.Rachel describes her as one who loved her Yiddishkeit and who was extremely charitable. Rachel's ordination was probably one of her proudest moments. One of my strongest thoughts about Selma and Rachel is that the unveiling of Selma's headstone at the cemetary in NJ was scheduled for September 11, 2001 at 2pm. Thanks to that timing, Rabbi Rachel and Rabbi Nomi Oren, who was travelling with her from Rachel's home in Florida, were witnesses to the events in NY that day. They were originally supposed to fly in for the unveiling but took a
train because Rachel's son had a dream that caused him to ask them to avoid flying that day.
If you would like to sponsor a dedication for a week's d'var, please email me.
This has been a most interesting week - a week of blessings and curses, as interesting weeks always are. It is perhaps significant that I am facing several life-impacting decisions this week -- and this is only "hitting me" as I write this sentence -- perhaps there is a message in Lekh Lekha (Go for yourself).
Monday saw a ninth grader say during the class summary that she realized that in Talmud, they were discussing and arguing about the same kinds of things that we talk and argue about today and that the rabbis would not have liked urban legends. Now some might say that she was saying this to impress me, and that may be right -- and if so, she still "got it".
So what kind of inner churning was going on for Avram at the beginning and during the Parsha? There are no indications that his life had been bad for its first 75 years -- and yet, there must have been some emptiness to it, some searching. Or was there?
I have sometimes told people that I was even more stubborn than Moshe at ignoring the work that I now realize I must do to live with myself. And with that wonderful 20-20 hindsight that gets you to look back over life, I have realized that, indeed, there are no accidents and that events do follow a plan. This logic was virtually, if not completely, impossible to see as I lived through the days of my life. Does that negate free will? Not at all.
I have come to understand that life is about seeming paradoxes and wrestling with those paradoxes. I used to do that with a great deal of frustration and now I recognize this quality. So how can things be both a function of free will and a pre-determined plan?
[Mathematically, this can be written Life =fx,y,z(free will, pre-determined plan) ** z = 1 where x,y,z NE 0 -- the engineer still lives in me....]
The model that works best for me is the one that likens the Holy One to a master chess player -- who knows all the possible moves and follow-ons and exactly how to counter your move to make the game go where He/She wants it to. And Spock could play this game (multiples of it, actually) in three dimensions -- and so I extend this part of the concept to an infinite number of intertwined games on an infinite number of dimensions.
We are free to move our piece, our life, in whatever way we want to -- and it will be perfectly countered to keep the overall plan exactly where it needs to be. And so our free will is never abrogated -- we have complete free will within the rules (laws of nature) and some number of choices before us at all times. We cannot, of course, control the actions of other pieces or of the Divine.
And whenever I am ever tempted to think that I might want to control the actions beyond that of my own piece (ie me and my self), I work to remember this model. And sometimes I need that little push to lech lecha -- to move my own piece. If I follow the path laid out before me to do the work I need to do, I will find that the moves become easier and less challenging. And it helps me see why "going with the Flow" results in much less energy expense on my part.... I need to make the moves that are most open before me -- then there won't need to be counter moves to get me where I need to be.
1. Parsha details: Gen 12:1-17:27 ( tri 12:1-13:18 ) [ Haftorah Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16 ]
2. Questions and a few observations
Summary: YHVH tells Avram to leave his home "for a place that I will tell you"; Avram goes down to Mitzrayim (Egypt, the narrow place) and Pharaoh takes Sarai as a wife; Avram and Lot separate; the K'darla'omer wars and Lot's rescue by Avram; the sacrifice and service of Malki-Tzedek; YHVH's promise to and covenant with Avram; Hagar's plight and relationship to Sarai; the birth of Yishma'el; the changing of Avram's name to Avraham and Sarai's to Sarah and the covenant and circumcision.
Not bad for one week! (Sounds a little like the week I just had...) And I have to wonder if the Holy One had told Avram what the future held for him, would he have answered the call to leave his home and his familiar life? And, at the conclusion of the Parsha, almost twenty-five years later, did he think he was getting a "fair" deal?
Certainly, his life had its ups and downs -- there was probably almost constant fighting between Sarai and Hagar -- at least after Yishma'el is born. If their warring were not significant, Torah would not spend so much time on it. So let's look at the two of them for a moment. Sarai is a princess, a noble woman -- this is what her name means, too. She is beautiful, even at her age. Hagar is a slave, an Egyptian, a stranger, an immigrant -- the 'gar' part of her name is the same root as geyr -- as in a stranger (geyr) in a strange land.
Opposites vying for Avram's attention -- and Torah tells us that Sarai was exceedingly harsh (the Hebrew indicates torture or abuse) when she dealt with Hagar after Yishma'el was born. Of course, Hagar "made light" of Sarai after Yishma'el's birth. This word is usually translated as "despised". We can only guess at what their relationship must have been like -- but obviously they never did get along after Hagar becomes pregnant (it must have been a better relationship before this or Sarai was very foolish to "give" her to Avram as a wife).
And YHVH tells Hagar that her son is part of his answer for her suffering "and shall call his name Ishmael; because the Lord has heard your affliction. And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall live in the presence of all his brothers." Oy! This is a reward or compensation? Now, I'm not a mother -- so I ask you among my readers who are mothers -- is this a description of a son that you would like to hear?
And Hagar responds with calling on the Name of YHVH and saying that the One sees (or perhaps is a mirror to Hagar?) and so does Hagar. So is what the angel tells her more of a warning that if Hagar is not careful, her son will pay a dear price for her attitude? Of course, seeing it and acknowledging it does not mean that she did what she needed to change the situation. Knowing and Doing are worlds apart.
It would be interesting to see how the original audiences of Torah understood this section. Who did they blame for the exceedingly deep rooted animosity between the descendants of Yishma'el and those of the not-yet-born Yitzkhak? And how many more generations will pay the price for this situation -- and what can we do to change things? A few thousand years is plenty of time to work through just about anything -- if we can only find a way...
So the spiral cycles round to lekh lekha -- going out -- away from our history, our pre-conceptions -- to place where the One will show us. Can we leave our baggage behind and trust that the 'deal' will work out in the end?
In order to do it, Avram took the Nefesh (not plural) the Soul, the Spirit, the Living -- that he had made for himself in Kharan and went out into the desert with the One.
3. Some Observations
The use of the word Nefesh in what Avram took from Kharan is interesting. I would have expected that the word would have been plural -- Nafshim -- souls, people. It's not.
So let's look at how N-F-SH is used in B'reyshiyt (there are 207 usages in Torah and 43 times in B'rayshiyt alone) -- It is used six times in the beginning of B'reyshiyt - always as Nefesh Khayah -- once for humans and the other times for breathing animals. The next time we see it is in chapter 12, after the flood. These 7 usages usually refer to animals, although there is a clear reference to Nefesh ha'adam once and we are all together in the promise of the rainbow (kol hanefesh khayah ... 9:16).
The next usage is when Avram takes the nefesh from Kharan and we see it next when he and Sarai are talking on the trip to Egypt -- Avram says"my Nefesh will live because of you" to her. The next usage is after the Kh'dar'l'omar wars when the king of S'dom says to him, "Give me the Nefesh (sing) and take the stuff (14:21)". This pasuk is usually translated as "Give me the persons and you take the possessions." However, people would be part of the possessions in those times..... might this mean that the king od S'dom was asking for the "win" in the war, but that Avram should take the booty? Either way, Avram declines and says that he will take only the food that his men ate and the share of his confederates so that the king cannot say he made Avram rich -- ie, he would owe him no favors. (Either way, Avram did not personally take any stuff, living or not.)
Then there is a reference to soul in 17 where the circumcision is discussed and Moshe is instructed that if a male is not circumcised, that nefesh is to cut off from his people. Two chapters later, Lot and the angels use nefesh three times when talking about Lot's life in the escape scene (to escape for the sake of his nefesh once -- twice so that the nefesh can live).
Avraham uses it when purchasing the cave at Makhpelah -- "If (I?) have your nefesh to bury my dead..." (usually translated as mind 23:8). The next usage is 4 times when Yitzkhak is dying and wants that his nefesh bless Esav. In 32:31, Ya'akov says that his nefesh is saved when he names the place where he wrestles with the angel.
Two chapters later it is used to describe the relationship between Sh'khem and Dinah -- Sh'khem's nefesh cleaves to Dinah and longs for her. In chapter 35, we hear about Racheyl's nefesh naming Benjamin Benoni as it exits. The next chapter talks about all the naf'shot (plural) of Esav's house -- it makes a list that goes, "his wives, and his sons, and his daughters, and all the naf'shot of his house, and his cattle, and all his beasts, and all his wealth." (36:6)
In the story of Joseph, we hear Reuven pleading that the brothers not strike Joseph's nefesh (usually translated as kill him 37:21) while in chapter 42, the brothers say that they are guilty of not responding when they saw the anguish of his nefesh when he pleaded with them and they did not listen. The next reference talks about the nefesh of Ya'akov being connected to Benjamin's nefesh as an explanation to why they cannot leave Benjamin in Mitzrayim (Egypt).
In chapter 46, there eight uses of nefesh where it refers to the number of named children and grandchildren of Yaakov. B'reyshiyt's last use is in the blessings of Shimon and Levi, where Ya'akov says that his own nefesh should not be in their confidence and his honor not in their community (49:6).
Like most Hebrew words -- there is not a simple English translation. It obviously has to do with soul, life, name, and perhaps something more. If we use it to represent both our own dignity or presence (as defined by one's name) and soul / life itself, I think we start to approach what it meant then. And this make sense in terms of what Avram took when he left Kharan and what the king of S'dom asked for -- perhaps he was saying something life "Give me the prestige and honor of the battle and you go ahead and take the stuff." And Avram says, "just give the guys some food and the others their share, I don't want anything for me from you because I don't want people to say that I became rich at your expense."
4. Expanding Harmony
The beauty of mercy, the expansion of harmony -- again, that is clearly part of what is going on in this Parsha. With the balance of beauty, as it goes between strength and mercy with clear demonstrations of mercy, this parsha makes us wonder what it was like for Avram. Certainly he needed vast quantities of mercy and yet, he himself could often find the point of balance between too much giving and too much taking, between too much openness and too many restrictions.
1. Nefesh: Breathe deeply and feel your breath -- what does it mean to have nefesh. How are you defined -- what is your nefesh. What does the nefesh do, feel, see and know. Can you sense your nefesh? With what is your nefesh entwined, what does it seek?
2. Lekh Lekha: When you go for yourself, where do you go? When you leave, what do you take with you? What do you leave behind? How will you know when you have arrived at your new destination?
3. Negev: Avram spent a great deal of time in the Negev, the desert. It is incredibly silent in the desert. Can you hear the silence? Become so silent that you can hear your heart beating. Feel the heart beat and your breath come in and go out. Focus on the breath and the heart until they are both quite loud. Then blank your thoughts for a few moments. What is the first thought that comes in after this blanking?
ADS: ALEPH -- the Alliance for Jewish renewal. www.aleph.org If you aren't a member yet, please give very serious consideration to joining. The magazine, New Menorah, alone, is worth whatever you give. (Plus it helps pay for the rabbinic program where I am studying!)
You can order the Torah Cards and my jewelry through Mercaz at (216)595-0707 -- ask for Larry)
There are many traditional interpretations of the parsha that I neither talk about nor mention. That is done from a position of space. I trust that the average reader is either familiar with these or can find many of them easily in other commentaries readily available.
Thanks for reading this. If I have offended you, please forgive me -- that was not my intention. If you found some joy or happiness in reading this, thank you for allowing me to be a part. If you found a reason to think about something more deeply - kol hakavod and thank you!
And to the people giving me feedback thank you so much! I enjoy all of it. (Including the typos) You have made this weekly practice wonderful.
(c) 2001 Candy Lobb All rights reserved