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.

The Forward arrives late out here in the hinterlands, so I only just received last week’s issue in the mail. In its pages is a nice piece from Brandeis historian Jonathan Sarna, who takes on Yeshiva University Chancellor Norman Lamm’s prediction of the demise of Reform and Conservative Jewry. Sarna does not address the challenges those movements face. Instead, he turns his sights on Orthodoxy itself, and attacks the triumphalist tone of Lamm’s remarks. He mentions five challenges in particular: Orthodoxy’s high dropout rate; its lack of leadership; its brain drain to Israel; continuing divisions over how far to engage modernity; and the financial crisis, which has acutely affected ortho institutions. Then he offers a zinger of a last line: “In the world of religion, smugness and self-assurance are usually risky. As Reform Judaism, Conservative Judaism and Mainline Protestant denominations have discovered, success in the present provides no guarantees for the future. If anything, saying Kaddish for other religious movements has often been the first sign of a movement’s own impending decline.”

My family is somewhere in this mix, though we experience the challenges of Orthodoxy in ways different from most M.O. Jews, who live in large communities of other M.O. Jews. Right now we mostly feel it in terms of education. Our kids go to a community day school, which poses its own unique challenges, both in an out of school. (In: How do you explain to your kids that, although in school they may include the Matriarchs in the Amidah prayer, in our Orthodox synagogue we don’t? Out: What do you do about Shabbat observance when one of your child’s best friends doesn’t celebrate Shabbat with the same restrictions on behavior that we do? As Jonah once said when he was about 3 years old and we were walking to shul on Shabbos: ‘Abba, are all the people driving today Christians?’)

Of course, if we sent our kids to an Orthodox school, we’d have to do hashlama, compensatory education, on the other side. We’d have to expose them to religious pluralism. We would want them to know Jews of other backgrounds. (And this of course begs the question of public school. It’s a problem to me if all my kids’ friends are Jews.)

In my heart of hearts I either know or hope that something new is coming, some way of being both deeply engaged with the Jewish textual and legal tradition, that habituates its children to the bodily behaviors–in motion and speech–that Orthodoxy does so well (how to say the prayers, how to shake the lulav, how to shukel), and also taking the best of modernity: thinking for oneself, gender equality, openness to languages and cultures, an at-homeness with the world. I live my life hoping, and working, for the day after all these denominational labels lose their weight, and a new Jewish consensus will emerge.

The main theme for my approach to Passover this year is that of opening. Think of the number of times we make openings at the seder: We open the door to welcome our guests, to proclaim ‘Let all who are hungry come and eat,’ and again to welcome Elijah the Prophet. We break open the middle matzah as we begin the Maggid section of the seder, symbolizing our opening up the story and opening ourselves to it and to one another.

The French rabbi-philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin explores this theme in his Haggadah. In his final comment, on opening the door for Elijah, Ouaknin quotes the story in which Elijah goes alone to a cave on Mount Horev in the desert. God brings a great wind, and then an earthquake, and then a fire—but God was not in any of these. Instead, after the fire, he finds God in ‘a still, small voice.’ (1 Kings 19:11-13) Ouaknin comments:

One must have sharpened one’s hearing, to be led to the absolute level of attention, to become capable of perceiving such a tenuous breath. One must have sounded oneself, have explored oneself in the darkest places of consciousness, to the furthest of thoughts, to have made the circuit of one’s inner domain many times, in constantly growing but nevertheless tightening circles, so as to attain the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness, to be able to be stroked lightly, touched, visited by such an inaudible sigh.

The point of concluding the seder with opening the door for Elijah is to signify that this journey in ‘the intimate desert of self-forgetfulness’ is the ultimate intention of the seder. While we aim to find ourselves on seder night, to reconnect with the story of our people and see ourselves as having personally left Egypt, remembering who we are paradoxically requires losing ourselves at the same time.

This paradox is physically enacted in opening the door of our home. Think of the security, the faith, it takes to open the door late at night, or to go to sleep with it unlocked, as is the custom on this ‘Night of Watching,’ this leil shimurim. By doing so to welcome the mysterious Elijah, we demonstrate a confidence in ourselves that empowers us to make ourselves vulnerable. We enact the definition of home propounded by my own Hillel rabbi in college, Jim Ponet: Home is the place we can welcome guests. In opening our doors at Pesach, we show that we are at home.

In The Dignity of Difference, his groundbreaking exploration of globalization and religious identity, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain imagines what faith in a globalized world could look like:

It would be like being secure in one’s home, yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours… It would be to know that I am a sentence in the story of my people and its faith, but that there are other stories, each written in the letters of lives bound together in community, each part of the story of stories that is the narrative of man’s search for God and God’s call to mankind. Those who are confident in their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faith of others. (pp. 65-66)

This is the paradox of Pesach, the paradox of opening the door. Passover is our people’s most nationalistic holiday. At the same time, in order to connect with our identity as Jews, in order to be at home, we have to open ourselves—to the Haggadah, to one another, to guests, to the world.

Chag sameach. My sincere wishes for a joyous, meaningful, and liberating Pesach.