October 2010


Marc Mezvinsky and Chelsea Clinton married under a chuppah, with a ketubah and a rabbi.

An irony, or perhaps a paradox, lies at the heart of Parshat Hayei Sarah: On the one hand we have the image of Abraham purchasing an ahuzat olam, an everlasting acquisition of land from the Hittites, permanently establishing a claim for his descendants to the Machpela cave at Hebron. Abraham ties himself and his progeny to the land of Canaan in the process.

On the other hand, in the very next scene, we have Abraham instructing his servant to go back to the land of Abraham’s birth in order to find a wife for his son, Isaac. “I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” (Gen. 24:3-4) Under no circumstances is Isaac to marry a woman from the locals, the very same people from whom Abraham has just purchased land. In one moment Abraham is making his peace with the neighbors; in the next, he is trying to make sure that his son won’t marry them.

In a further wrinkle, the servant asks Abraham the next obvious question: “What if the girl refuses to come with me? Should I take Isaac back there to meet her?”

“Absolutely not,” is Abraham’s answer:

“Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. “The LORD, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’-he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” (Gen. 24:6-8)

So now, not only is Abraham establishing his place among the Hittites and Canaanites and simultaneously instructing his son not to marry from among them; he is also telling that son that, if a wife can’t be found for him from the extended family, he can’t leave the land. It is as if Abraham is binding Isaac once again, saddling him with a potentially impossible choice.

Of course, everything ultimately works out: Rebecca appears just as the servant concludes praying for her to arrive, and she agrees to go with him to the land of Canaan. But what if it hadn’t? This, of course, is the same question we asked last week in reading the Binding of Isaac story: what if it hadn’t worked out?

The simplest answer to this is that Abraham is indeed a man of immense faith, as his answer to his servant demonstrates: God has promised, and God will deliver. There is no possibility that it won’t work out.

But another answer is that the dilemma Abraham finds–or creates–is one that has confronted the Jewish people from that very moment: How do we live peaceably with our neighbors while also maintaining the values and practices that make us unique? How are we to be in the community while not necessarily being of it?

This is a challenge wherever we have found ourselves, in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora. We are committed to living and working with our neighbors, and we are simultaneously committed to maintaining a unique way of life. To do so successfully requires embracing the paradox and finding integrity within it, finding a way to be at home in the world.

Shabbat shalom.

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One of the questions that comes up a lot when I teach Parshat Vayera is this: Why doesn’t Abraham protest when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, when he speaks up on behalf of the people of Sodom? The assumption behind the question seems to be that it is right for Abraham to speak up for the Sodomites, and that his failure to object to God on behalf of his own son is a moral failure. But I’d like to see what happens when we reverse the question: If Abraham doesn’t speak up when God commands him to sacrifice Isaac, why does he speak up for the people of Sodom?

First we should take notice of a remarkable internal monologue ascribed to God, which reveals God’s thinking in telling Abraham about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Then the LORD said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is right and just (tzedek u’mishpat), so that the LORD will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.'”(Gen. 18:17-19)

What is God’s motivation for telling Abraham about God’s plans? Rashi comments here that, since God had indicated that Sodom would be part of Abraham’s inheritance, God was now changing the terms of their arrangement, so God needed to tell Abraham about it. But we can glean a further understanding by looking at the highpoint of Abraham’s objection to God:

Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”(Gen. 18:22-25)

The keywords in this passage are tzedek and mishpat, righteousness and justice. Abraham’s objection seems to be this: If you punish the wicked along with the just, you will be subverting the very meaning of the words righteousness and justice! By implication back to God’s opening monologue, the problem becomes: how can I instruct my descendents to do justice and righteousness if you’re going to change the meaning of those words! It is analagous to the problem Rashi sees: how are we to make a covenant with God if God is going to change the terms of the Covenant? God needs to be a reliable partner, and Abraham’s objection challenges God to keep God’s word.

This doesn’t necessarily help us to understand Abraham’s silence later on at the Akedah. Perhaps we can draw a distinction between Isaac’s potential offering-up as a sacrifice–which the ancients would have seen as an honor–and the fate of Sodom, which was clearly a punishment. Perhaps the issue that drives Abraham at Sodom–the loss of meaning of the central words of his mission–is not present at the Akedah, since the Akedah is not about justice and righteousness, but about emunah, faith and fidelity.

These explanations may work for some, and they may ring hollow for others. The Akedah is one of the most challenging texts in the Torah, and it does not make for easy explanations. But my point in looking at Sodom this way is to help us see that it is not enough simply to ask why someone speaks up in one case but not in another. We have to look at each case individually. And when we look at the case of Sodom, we see that Abraham’s concern is to make sure that certain values remain timeless and not open to renegotiation, the values of tzedek and mishpat, of righteousness and justice, which are to be the core of our people’s covenant with God.

Shabbat shalom.

The story of Genesis is the story of brothers. Specifically, it is the story of the struggle of successive generations to recognize one another as brothers—people who are same and different, common and unique. Beginning with Cain and Abel, and continuing with Shem, Ham and Yapheth, Abraham and Nachor, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, the sons of Leah and the sons of Rachel—all of these relationships and the stories that surround them prompt us to ask: how can brothers live together?

Parshat Lech-Lecha marks a pivotal moment in this narrative. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, is taken captive during a war, and Abraham organizes a militia to rescue him, which ultimately results in the defeat of the kidnapping kings’ armies and victory for the opposing side. Abraham here engages in a bold and risky maneuver, bearing arms for the sake of his nephew. His decision to do so, to put his life on the line on behalf of someone who is not his own son but the son of his brother, is a turning point. The Torah draws our attention to it in its account: “And Abram heard that his brother had been captured” (Gen. 14:14). Lot is not literally his brother—the text should have read, “the son of his brother.” Yet Abraham hears—either through his own volition or through the force of his persona—that his brother has been captured. And he immediately springs to action, acting out of a sense of duty.

It is immediately after this incident (ch. 15) that God appears to Abraham to establish a covenant with him. That covenant will provide security to Abraham’s descendents by creating bonds between members of the covenant. But it will simultaneously challenge all of Abraham’s descendents with profound questions: Who is your brother? To whom are we obligated? For whom would we risk our physical well-being? For whom would we sacrifice? Who is welcome in our land? With whom will we share it? The covenant seems to spring from Abraham’s recognition of Lot as his brother, as one towards whom he has a duty—and it raises the rich questions of membership and obligation that animate so much of Jewish life today.

This past week many of us watched as the Chilean miners were rescued. The entire story was moving. The country spared no expense to undertake a risky operation. The president put his prestige and reputation at stake. And the entire country seemed to become a family in the process. In many ways, the story of Chile and the miners reminds us of the story of Abraham and the captive Lot. From where did the sense of duty to rescue them come? Somehow, the president and the people of Chile heard not that anonymous people were trapped, but that their brothers were captives. And in hearing that their brothers needed help, they took great risks on their behalf.

The story of Abraham and Lot reminds us that the roots of the covenant lie in the consciousness of fellowship, the consciousness of brotherhood. To be a member of the covenant is fundamentally less a question of creed or doctrine than one of family and peoplehood. Do we see other Jews as our people, as those on whose behalf we would risk our money, our time, our prestige, our lives? That is the challenge of the covenant, the challenge that Abraham bequeathed to us all.

Shabbat shalom.

The closing lines of Parshat Beresheet form a preamble of sorts to the events of the Flood in Parshat Noach: “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.” (Gen. 6:4) These men of renown are called, in Hebrew, “Anshe shem,” literally men of the name. And in the very next verse, God comes to realize that human beings seem to lack the ability to live peacefully together–they engage in violence, they cannot control their sexuality, they cannot respect each other’s property. So God regrets having created humans, and decides to start over with Noah and his family.

It is worth lingering over this term “anshe shem,” men of renown or men of the name. Because the word “shem” will recur many times through Parshat Noach. Most significantly, it is the name of one of Noah’s sons: Shem, who becomes the ancestor of Abraham and ultimately the Israelites. It also constitutes a key word in the Tower of Babel story which ends Parshat Noach: “They said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.'” (Gen. 11:4) “V’na’aseh lanu shem,” “and we will make a name for ourselves”–this seems to be a key to why God ultimately confuses their languages and disperses them.

The centrality of the word “shem” causes us to ask: What’s in a name? What does the parsha suggest to us about what names are, what problems they cause or solve, what their power might be?

Names are fascinating. Our parents give us names, and in doing so may have many motivations: honoring a relative, articulating an aspiration for their child, making a cultural statement. When Natalie and I named our sons, we chose middle names to honor relatives. But we chose Jonah’s and Micah’s first names because we wanted them to have names that were the same in Hebrew and English, and, should they ever move to Israel, would be contemporary enough that they would feel comfortable. Thus the choices we made in their names reflected not only our hopes and dreams, but also a larger geopolitical reality of the Jewish people today, in the Diaspora, in America, and in Israel.

But we are not only called by the names our parents give us. We may adopt new names. We may have nicknames, given to us by friends or family. We may have very special names for those with whom we are most intimate. And each of these names expresses something–a relationship and our place in the world vis-a-vis the person who calls us.

The “anshe shem,” the men of renown who lived before the Flood, seem to be powerful men–whose names were known because of their physical abilities. They seem to have inspired fear and awe, and they commanded respect on that basis. In other words, they were something like warlords or mafia dons. They ruled by strength and intimidation, by the threat of violence. And as we know, that is no way for the world to flourish. That is, as God shows, a recipe for its desruction.

The generation of Babel, on the other hand, wanted to make a name for their whole generation. A normative reading of the story yields the notion that within that generation there was no room for individual names. There is a hive mentality, an overwhelming collectivism at play. And this too, is a recipe for doom.

The challenge, then, is to make room for names, to make room for Shem. It is the build a world in which people can be called by their names–the names that make them unique, but which simultaneously make them equal with all others, for everyone else has a name too. Likewise, it is to make room for the possibility that names can change, as we will see in the case of Abraham and Sarah: that names are not idols, they are not static, but are ultimately an expression of our deepest selves.

Shabbat shalom.