Friday, October 30, 2009

Lekh Lekha (Aggadah)

For more teachings on the parashah, see the archives to my blog, at November 2005, as well as 2006, 2007, and 2008. For teachings on Shlomo, see all of the above, as well as the archives for October 2004.

Avraham and Honoring Parents

I find that I must already depart from what I said just last week about focusing here on aggadah from the Talmud. I find the following passage from the Midrash Rabbah sufficiently interesting and highly pregnant with meaning, that I decided to make it my first text for this week. Genesis Rabbah 39.7:

“Go thee forth” [Gen 12:1]. Because Avraham our father was afraid, saying: I will go out and people will profane the name of Heaven on my account, saying: He left his father in his old age and went off. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: “You shall go forth”—you I exempt from honoring your father and mother, but I do not exempt others from honoring father and mother.

The problem faced by Avraham, according to this aggadah, is a perennial one. It often happens, in various historical settings, that individuals who set out to do something new, radical and different need to leave their parents or other family members behind. The halutzim who established the first settlements in Eretz Yisrael at the beginning of the Zionist enterprise came, by and large, by themselves, as young people unfettered by family responsibilities, establishing new communities that played the role of extended families (and in due time, by and large, also established their own nuclear families). The same holds true for the young Jewish immigrants to America at the beginning of the last century, who saw that there was no future for them in Europe—and, unknowingly, helped to establish what was to become the largest and one of the most important Jewish centers in the new world; political radicals and revolutionaries who broke with their parents to follow a path intended to create a better society for mankind at large; those who blazed new paths in religious life, often involving bitter confrontations with parents and community, as in the conflict between Hasidim and Mitnaggedim; or, in contemporary life, those who return to traditional observance from secular or assimilated homes—and many other examples could be brought. Almost anything new, innovative, valuable in human civilization may involve a certain break with the older generation. Does the Torah categorically prohibit any action which will take one away from one’s parents?

Nevertheless, we are told here, Avraham was troubled by the consequences of leaving his elderly parents behind. Kibbud horim, the principle of honoring and caring for one’s parents, is a central command of the Torah—and one that applies, primarily, when children become adults and parents are in their declining years. It is, more than anything else, a concrete embodiment of the idea of hakarat hatov, of recognizing the kindnesses that have been done to one in the past—of the hundreds and thousands of hours parents devote to their children during their growing years—and attempting to repay in kind. This point is particularly important in contemporary society, which tends to emphasize the individual and at times derides extended family ties as “old-fashioned” and needless burdens on the individual. Here in Israel, one can find elderly people who are more-or-less neglected and abandoned by their children, even if the latter may be at least moderately comfortable individuals. In traditional religious families, at least in theory, care for parents is still regarded as a central value, and those devoted to their elderly parents—even if busy, high-status professionals—are admired. Such models, unfortunately, seem to be becoming fewer in number as time progresses.

In truth, many halakhic questions in Judaism are ones of hierarchy: not a choice between good and evil, between that which is permitted and that which is prohibited, but rather between two goods, two imperatives, to determine which one takes precedence. Both options may involve central values, but due to the exigencies of time or place or other circumstances, a person can only do one of them. In that case, the task of the halakhah is difficult: deciding which of the two takes precedence.

God’s answer to Avraham here is interesting: As if to say, in your particular case aliyah to Eretz Yisrael is a greater mitzvah than kibbud av. This may not be the case of every person contemplating aliyah, but in the specific circumstance of Avraham—the first Hebrew to establish a foothold in Eretz Yisrael, to establish through his own action that Eretz Yisrael was to be the site of the life of the ”household of Israel” and eventually of the “people of Israel,” an integral element in the covenant between God and Abraham and his offspring—“you shall go forth” was clearly the greater imperative.

“Leave your Constellation”

“And he took him outside…” (Gen 15:5). What is meant by “And he took him outside”? Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Avraham said before the Holy One blessed be He: I have looked at my constellation and I am not deserving to have a son. He said to him: Leave your astrological speculations, for Israel are not under astrological signs [lit, “There is no mazal over Israel). —b. Shabbat 156a

The context here is what is known as Berit bein ha-Betarim, the “Covenant Between the Pieces.” The two Abrahamic Torah portions —Lekh lekha and Vayera—may be read as a series of calls to Abraham to a new kind of faith and destiny, a new kind of religious consciousness, a new way of being in the world and of being with God. As is the way of the Tanakh, this way is not presented in a discursive manner or in a systematic theoretical scheme, but is taught by implication, through the description of various events and encounters. Interwoven with incidents and interactions within the family and with neighboring tribes, we have a number of “theological” high points, of direct encounters with God. These are: the call to leave his home and fatherland (Ch. 12); the Covenant Between the Pieces with its Divine revelation and prophecy concerning the future (Ch. 15); the covenant of circumcision and its associated promises (Ch. 17); the dialogue with God about the destruction of Sodom, in which Avraham takes daring initiative to dissuade God from this action (Ch. 18); and the climax in the Binding of Isaac, Avraham’s final test, in which a seemingly inhuman demand is imposed upon him (Ch. 22).

In this context, our midrash adds a significant new religious dimension to our chapter, which is already one of the turning points in the Avraham sequence. Exegetically, this passage is based upon a metaphorical reading of the verse “Go outside.” The aggadic author so-to-speak says to himself: It would be trivial for God to tell Avraham to go outside in the literal sense of looking at the stars; surely, this must refer to him going to someplace that is “outside” figuratively; outside of his conventional way of looking at things, outside of the conventional wisdom and habits of thought of society.

The famous phrase with which this saying ends, “There is no mazal for Israel,” is often misinterpreted as if it meant “Israel has no luck.” But the point is the exact opposite: Israel (i.e., the Jewish people) transcends the world of causality and determinism represented here by astrology and involvement in heavenly signs and portents. The nations of the world, at least according to some medieval authorities, may be governed by such things (which is at times explained as the One God’s means of ruling over His world indirectly), but such is not the case for Israel. Avraham’s direct relationship with God excludes any magical, external elements.

Shlomo Carlebach, ztz”l

This coming Tuesday, 16th Marheshvan, will mark 15 years since the death of Reb Shlomo Carlebach, one of the unique teachers of our generation, the enigma of whose life I find a perennial subject of thought and reflection. This year’s memorial essay will be presented here next week.

Meanwhile, I call reader’s attention to two events marking the Yahrzeit. On Tuesday, November 3, at 2:00 in the afternoon, there will be the annual aliyah lakever at the Har ha-Menuhot Cemetery in Jerusalem. From the main parking lot, follow the right-hand road about 100 meters uphill, and you will see the gathering of scores of his disciples in the grove of trees to the left, adjacent to his final resting place. Then, on Tuesday evening at 7:30, there will be an evening of story-telling, teaching, reminiscence and music devoted to Shlomo’s memory at Yakar, 10 Lamed-Heh Street, Old Katamon, Jerusalem. Strongly recommended.


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