Saturday, December 3, 2016

Don't Just Do Something, Stand There!

In many ways, Yitzchak’s life parallels that of Avraham.  He travels to a foreign land to avoid a famine where he then claims that his wife is his sister to prevent her abduction and is subsequently blessed with great wealth.  He renews the covenant that Avraham made with Avimelekh, affirming his role as Avraham’s heir.  Most significantly, Yitzchak re-digs the wells that Avraham had dug, calling them by the same names that Avraham had given them. In this way, Yitzchak reclaims those wells and the water flows once more.
The message is clear: Yitzchak is the continuation of Avraham.   The opening verse of our parasha sums it up succinctly: “This is the story of Yitzchak son of Avraham: Avraham begat Yitzchak.” (25:19). Yitzchak’s story is that he is the son of Avraham.  Avraham is the initiator, the founder of the faith; Yitzchak’s role is to not initiate.  His job is to reinforce and consolidate, to transform Avraham’s vision into a way of life that can be passed down to future generations.
While Avraham journeys, Yitzchak stays put. Avraham’s mission is to travel: “Leave your land… and go to the land that I will show you” (12:1), “And Avraham travelled through the land until the place of Shechem… From there he moved on to the hill country… Avraham journeyed forward, heading southward” (12:6-9). This continues throughout Avraham’s life culminating with his final journey: “Take your son… Yitzchak and go to the land of Moriah…” (22:2).  Yitzchak’s mission, in contrast, is to put down roots.  God tells him straightaway that he cannot leave the land of Israel: “Go not down into Egypt; dwell in the land which I shall tell you of. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you…” (26:2-3). In the land itself, he travels only when circumstances compel he to do so, and even then, he never travels far: “And Yitzchak settled in Gerar… And he dwelled in the valley of Gerar… And he went from there to Be’er Sheva.” (26:17-23).
In Kabbalistic terms, Avraham embodies chesed, unbounded loving-kindness; Yitzchak embodies gevurah, restraint and self-control.  To say it another way, Avraham represents ahavah, love, while Yitzchak represents yirah, fear. (There is even something of an alliteration here: Avraham-ahavah, Yitzchak-yirah).   How are we to understand the yirah of Yitzchak?  Some view it negatively: Yitzchak is timid, unadventurous, unwilling to take risks; he will only do what is safe, what others have done before him.  I do not agree with this characterization, nor do I believe that it is fair.  There is a fear that can be good, and love that can be bad.  As Sefat Emet states:
For every Jewish person initially dedicates himself to serve God out of love and desires to cleave unto God.  This is the trait of “Avraham who loves me.” But afterwards, this well, the source of love, becomes clogged through love of material things which intermingle [with the love of God].  The correction of this is through the trait of Yitzchak, and this is fear of Heaven; for the sign of true love is that it gives birth to fear.  This is what is meant by the verse, “Avraham (love) begat Yitzchak (fear).
Excessive love and overflowing passion, says Sefat Emet, is not always good.  It may start as pure love, but if one isn’t careful, it can attach itself to inappropriate things and can undermine true commitment.  A man might fall madly in love with a woman, and commit to her and marry her, but then fall madly in love with the next woman who sparks his passion.  One may fight fervently for a cause today, only to put it aside to fight for another cause tomorrow and yet a third cause the day after that.
This happens in the religious realm as well. In his letter to the sages of Luniel, Rambam compares his relationship to Torah to that of young love:
Even before I was formed in my mother’s womb, it was Torah that I knew; and prior to exiting the womb I was dedicated to its study… and it is my beloved doe and the wife of my youth in whose love I was ravished from my young age.  Yet with all of this, foreign wives have become her competitors: Moabite women, Ammonites, Edomites, Tzidonites and Hittites.  The Lord knows that these wives were only taken initially to be  perfumers, butchers and bakers for her… Nevertheless, her conjugal rights have been diminished, for my heart has been divided into many parts regarding all types of intellectual pursuits.
Too much undisciplined love can lead one astray and cause the wells to become contaminated and clogged up.  The solution is to stay put and dig deeper, to put in the effort to get the water flowing once again.  If a marriage has lost some of its zing, the answer is to invest more deeply, to treasure the emotional intimacy that a deep and lasting relationship brings even if it comes with occasional loss of novelty and excitement.
How does this relate to Yitzchak’s trait of yirah? Sefat Emet explains this in another passage:
The meaning of this fear is that a person should fear lest he become disconnected from his intimate love of God.
Yirah is not timidity nor is it fear of doing something wrong.  It is a fear born out of love.  If one’s love is a profound one, one will protect it at all costs. It is the fear of losing that which is so precious that directs and focuses one’s love, allowing it to go deep rather than wide.
This dynamic of love and fear, of journeying and staying put, also plays out in the context of liberalism and conservatism.  Liberals have a vision of a more perfect, more just world which drives them to try to effect change as quickly as possible.  Conservatives argue that change is disruptive; too much change too quickly threatens the foundations of our society or religious community.  As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, in the productive tension created by these two opposite poles.  To be constantly moving, travelling, and seeking the Promised Land, is to be an Avraham without a Yitzchak.  Lacking sufficient traction, the gains that one makes in one generation might slip away in the next.  At the same time, to just stay put, to not do anything differently than the past even when the circumstances change and even in the face of injustice, is to be a Yitzchak without an Avraham.  It is to point one’s vision only downward, never upward and outward.
Our mandate is to join the vision and passion of Avraham with the perseverance and rootedness of Yitzchak.  Only then we will be able to travel to the Promised Land, to remain there and create a lasting heritage. In this way, we will re-dig the wells so that we too can say: “For now the Lord hath made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.”

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Speaking is Believing

After the climactic event of the akeida, the Torah turns its attention to more quotidian matters: the death and burial of Sarah and the finding of a son for Yitzchak. In this shift, a number of the major characters move off the scene.  Not only Sarah and Avraham, but God as well. In our parasha, God is neither seen nor heard; God is only spoken about.

This shift in God's role is intimately connected to the passing of the baton from Avraham to Yitzchak. Avraham is a visionary, a charismatic leader to whom God has directly spoken. People are drawn to his passion and his person, feeling that they can connect to God just by being in proximity of Avraham. But not everyone can be nor should be an Avraham. For the vision to live on and continue to the next generation, what is needed is a successor who can sustain the vision without the immediacy of God's presence. One must move from charisma to forms and rituals that can communicate and embody the faith. If this can be achieved then the belief can survive and be passed forward.

Avraham heard God's voice throughout his life; but after the akeida, it is seeing that takes central stage: "And Avraham called the name of that place, God Sees, as it is said to this day, on the mount God will be seen" (Breishit 22:14). In future generations, the Torah is telling us, God may not always be heard, but if we try hard enough, then "even to this day" God can be seen.  

The theme of seeing God and seeing as God goes back to the story of creation.  God sees that the world is good.  Adam and Eve fail to see as God would; they see the tree as "good for eating," and not as forbidden and off-limits. The later generations continue to see the world through their lens of self-interest, seeing, coveting and taking whatever they want. As a result, God sees that the world that was good has become bad, and it must be destroyed so it can start over. 

The message is clear - God sees what is good and we must learn to see the world through God's eyes.  Avraham is chosen and given this task. He is told not to go to the land of Canaan, but to go to the land which God will show him; he must learn to see the place that God has chosen. Avraham's story ends with God telling him to take his son, to perform the akeida on "one of the mountains that I will show you," to again strive to see where God is directing him. It is thus at the critical moment that he sees what it is God truly wants from him; he sees the ram and offers it instead of his son.

An essential part of seeing the world through God's eyes is seeing God in the world. This is a choice that we make. We choose how we interpret the events in our lives; are they chance events brought about by an arbitrary cosmos, or are they acts of divine providence, in which God's presence can be seen and felt? The culmination of Avraham's story is his declaration, his hope, that God will always be seen, "that is should be said until this day, on the mount God will be seen'."

How is this accomplished? Most essentially, by how we speak - "that it should be said until this day". How we narrate and interpret the events of our life becomes the lens through which we see the world. Avraham called out in the name of God everywhere he went. By invoking God constantly, Avraham changed people's perception of reality. People began to see a world in which God shapes all events.  The famous rabbinic story of Avraham drives home this point:

Reish Lakish said, "Read not, 'he called' [in the name of God] but 'and he made to call'." This teaches that our father Abraham caused the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, to be uttered by the mouth of every passer-by. How was this? After [travelers] had eaten and drunk, they stood up to bless him; but, said he to them, "Did you eat of mine? You ate of that which belongs to the God of the Universe.Thank, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came into being." (Sotah 10b)

It is not the intellectual belief - that God provides - which was the most important, but the discourse that Avraham created. By talking about thanking God for the fruit, by encouraging others to "thank, praise, and bless," that is, to talk about this as well, Avraham shaped the way others saw the world. Such talk becomes habitual, it spreads and impacts others, whether they are aware of it or not. "God is with you in all that you do," Avimelekh says to Avrahm (Breishit 21:22). By talking about God, Avraham has made Avimelekh see God; Avraham has brought God into the world. As Rashi (24:7), puts it: "[Avraham says to his servant:] 'God, Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.' [This is to say, while in the past God was only Lord of the Heavens,] now God is also Lord of the Earth, for I have made God's name commonplace in the mouth of all".

This talking about God which leads to seeing God, is the blessing that Avraham passes on to his servant, to Yitzchak, and to the next generation. The God who has taken me from my father's house, says Avraham to his servant, will also be with you to ensure the success of your mission. This will become a reality if you see it as such. The servant has learned this lesson well; he prays and the right woman appears. A skeptic might say that this is luck but the servant knows it is God answering his prayers. When the servant acknowledges God's hand in the meeting of Rivka, he makes it a reality: "And he said: 'Blessed is God the Lord of my master Avraham... as for me, God has guided me to the house of my master's brother" (24:27).  

These events could be understood in a radically different way if seen through different eyes. The Gemara (Hullin 95b) makes a shocking statement: "Rav... said: Any omen (nachash) which is not like that of Eliezer, Abraham's servant... is not considered [the Biblically prohibited act of] divination." Rishonim grapple to explain why, if this were the case, it was acceptable for Avraham's servant to perform his test; did he commit the sin of divination? (see, for example, Rambam, Avoda Zara 11:4, and Ra'avad and Kesef Mishne ad. loc.; Radak on Shmuel I, ch. 14; Gur Aryeh Breishit 24:14). The answer is that it all depends on the framing. Were the servant to have interpreted the sign as magical, it would have been nichush - something which happened "merely by chance, and not through God's providence." (Sefer HaHinukh, mitzvah 249). But by praying, the servant saw what transpired as an answer to his prayers; he saw in the events not chance or magic, but God. 

In the servant's long retelling of his encounter with Rivka, we hear how, through the eyes and in the words of the servant, God is ever-present. "And God blessed my master...", "God will...make your path successful", "And I said, 'God...[she] will be the one that God has chosen for my master's son", "And I blessed God... who led me down the true path to take the daughter of my master's brother for his son."  And it is this discourse that is then consciously or unconsciously adopted by his listeners: "And Lavan and Betuel said, "From God the matter has come, we cannot speak to you bad or good" (24:50). 


We live in a world in which God does not speak to us directly. Despite this, we can in fact choose whether or not to see. Avraham's faith is sustained through learning to see, and how we see is first and foremost shaped by how we talk. Speaking is seeing, and seeing is believing. Indeed, "more beautiful is the conversation of the servants of the fathers, than the Torah of the sons." (Breishit Rabbah 60). It is through such conversation, such daily discourse, that our world is shaped and that God is seen.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why Did God Test Avraham?

Why did God test Avraham with the command to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice?  This is really two questions. First, what purpose was the akeidah meant to serve? And second, how could God have commanded such a reprehensible act, implicitly condoning murder, even if the plan was to retract the command all along? 

Midrash Tanhuma addresses both of these questions. Let's start with the first one.  The midrash asks why God tests only the righteous:

Said Rabbi Yonah - flax, the more you pound it, the more it improves. When is this true? When it is of good quality but when it is of inferior quality, if you pound it, it bursts. Similarly, God tests none but the righteous.

Said Rabbi Yehudah bar Shalom -a potter does not tap on a weak vessel or jar, lest it break. On what does he tap? On a strong vessel...
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Said Rabbi Elazar - this can be compared to a farmer who has two cows, one strong and one weak. On which one does he place the yoke? Is it not on the one that is strong?

According to Rabbi Yonah, when God tests a person, it is like the pounding of the flax - it is not pleasant for the flax, but the flax comes out stronger as a result.  Similarly, our ability to withstand adversity, to persevere, to keep the faith even in the most difficult of times, transforms us and makes us stronger than we were.  This approach is adopted by Ramban: "The purpose of a test is for the one being tested. God commanded this act in order to actualize Avraham's potential, that he should receive reward for his good acts and not just his good intention." (Commentary to Torah, Breishit 22:1).

Rabbi Yehudah offers an explanation more in line with the pshat. A test allows one to know the quality of that which is being tested, just as a potter taps a pot to know that it is good.  God tested Avraham to know how God-fearing he was, as the angel says, "Now I know that you are God fearing." The problem here is obvious: God is all-knowing, so any such test would be superfluous. Perhaps the point of the midrash is that a potter taps his pot to demonstrate its quality, not to determine it.  The test allows others - Avraham himself and all future generations - to know the quality of Avraham's faith and character. Thus, Breishit Rabbah states that the word nissa (to test) indicates that this test was like the raising of a flag (neis) announcing Avraham's greatness to the world.

Rabbi Elazar provides the third metaphor: placing a yoke on a cow. Here, the farmer is not interested in the cow. He wishes to plow his field and he chooses the animal that is best suited for the task. God has a lesson to teach humanity. The nature of the lesson has been debated through the centuries but according to the pshat of the text it is clear: one must be prepared to give up everything that is dear to him for his love and fear of God. Avraham was commanded in the akeidah not to test him, but because he could be trusted to carry it out. Rambam echoes this position when he states, "Know that the aim and meaning of all the trials mentioned in the Torah is to let people know what they ought to do or what they must believe... The purpose not being the accomplishment of that particular act, but the latter's being a model to be imitated and followed." (Guide, III:24) 

Any one of these three explanations is satisfactory provided that we could find a satisfactory answer to our second question. How could God ask Avraham to take the life of another in God's name?

Tanhuma seems to have this question in mind when it tells the back-story of the akeidah. According to this midrash, Yishmael had taunted Yitzchak that while he, Yishmael, submitted to circumcision at the age of 13, Yitzchak was circumcised as an infant and was not prepared to suffer for God as much as he did. Yitzchak responded:  "Were God to say to my father, 'Slaughter Yitzchak your son,' I would not resist." The midrash continues:

Immediately the matter pounced upon him, as it says, "It was after these
devarim, these words (of Yitzchak), and God tested Avraham."

If Yitzchak was prepared to give his life to God, God is now - in the eyes of the Midrash -off the hook. This point is illustrated in the Talmudic discussion of the need for hatra'a, forewarning, for a person who is about to commit a cardinal sin. Only if the person states that he knows that this sin is punishable by death and is choosing to sin nonetheless, do we execute him, because then he "accepted this death upon himself." (Sanhedrin 40b) A human court can only use violence against another person if that person has given them license to do so. Similarly, according to the midrash, God had license to ask Avraham to do violence against Yitzchak because Yitzchak had given God permission to do so.

The midrash also defends God by positing that God was not the initiator; God is merely following Yitzchak's lead. There is also a subtext that Yitzchak's boast was inappropriate, that would should not be seeking to suffer or give our lives for God needlessly. The command to Avraham was a punishment for Yitzchak, laying the responsibility for the akeidah even more fully at Yitzchak's feet: "Immediately, the matter pounced upon him." 
But, with all this, shouldn't God have refused? This is taking innocent life; nothing should have compelled God to command it! The next passage in the midrash provides an answer to this question:

This is as the verse states, "Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, this is what you should do? He who keeps the commandment shall fear no evil thing (Kohelet 8:4-5).  Whatever God wants to do, He is the ruler, and no one can stay his hand.  But who can tell him, "Here is what you should do"?  "The one who keeps the commandments" - these are the tzadikkim, the righteous ones who keep God's mitzvot, and God fulfills their edicts....

This audacious passage reads the juxtaposition of two verses in Kohelet to teach that a righteous person can tell God what God must do. This idea that God fulfills the decrees of a righteous person is found in the Talmud (e.g., Sotah 12a) where the Gemara tells us that God fulfills the wishes or pronuncements of tzadikkim. In our case, the meaning is more shocking: a righteous person can tell God how to act even to the point of countermanding God's own wishes. The midrash gives an example: God wanted to destroy the people when they made the Golden Calf but Moshe grabbed God - as it were - by the collar and would not let this happen; Moshe told God what to do! 

Once we have established that God's hand can be forced by the demands of the righteous, God is now totally off the hook for commanding the akeidah. Yitzchak wanted this test and God had no choice but to acquiesce.

Implicit in this need to defend God is the recognition by the midrash that God's command to Avraham presents deep moral challenges. This grappling with the command of the akeidah also seems present in the Rabbis' citation of the verse "Who can tell the king how to act?". In this citation, we can hear the Rabbi's desire to challenge God for commanding the akeidah, and at the same time their acknowledgement of their inability to do so, for who are they to say that God acted incorrectly?  

Breishit Rabbah uses this verse in just this way: "Who can tell the king how to act?... [In the Torah it states,] 'You shall not test God,' [and yet,] 'The Lord tested Avraham'." By testing Avraham, the midrash is saying, God is acting against God's own rule. We can call attention to this, raise questions and struggle with this, but in the end we must accept it and submit to God's authority. 

The irony in the Tanchuma is that alongside their reticence in voicing a critique, the Rabbis have also asserted that a tzaddik can challenge or countermand God. They are willing to state that Yitzchak did this - by asking God to command the akeidah - but they are not prepared to do this themselves and directly challenge God for giving this command. 

In these short passages of Tanhuma, we see the Rabbis offering multiple ways of understanding the purpose of the akeidah, and the moral challenges that it presents. The grappling is subtle and it is expressed through the tradition, not in opposition to it. As we face struggles in our own lives and feel that we are being tested by God, let us pray that we will have the strength to endure, to deal with our challenges constructively and emerge stronger from the process.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Avraham the Weaver

 I have recently begun learning Midrash Tanchuma weekly with Rabbi Avi Weiss, and this week, I share some reflections on the two opening passages of Midrash Tanhuma to parashat Lekh Lekha.
In the middle of the first passage, the Midrash portrays a classic rabbinic image of Avraham as a devout Jew who kept every detail of the halakha:
We find with Avraham, that he was punctilious in observing the mitzvot and therefore he was called the beloved of God, as it is written, “The seed of Avraham my beloved.”… Even eruv tavshilin was observed in the household of Avraham our father… God said to him, “You are punctilious regarding my mitzvot and you are sitting among the idolaters?!  Get out from their midst, “Lekh lekha mei’artzekha…,” Go out from your land…
In this telling, Avraham kept not only the laws but did what was necessary to safeguard them, even adopting the practice of eruv tavshilin to protect the honor of Shabbat and Yom Tov.  Avraham must leave his place of birth not to bring God’s message to the world, but to extract himself from the corrosive influence of his surroundings so that he can fully observe the mitzvot.
Midrash Tanchuma precedes this description of Avraham with the following halakhic discussion:
Let our Master teach us: May a person accept the yoke of the kingdom of heaven (i.e. recite the Shema) when he is walking? … It is forbidden for a person to accept upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven when he is walking.  Rather, he must stand in one place… with fear, dread, trembling and sweating…and recite “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” … and when he begins “And you shall love [the Lord your God…], if he wishes he may stand, or walk or sit…
The first verse of Shema expresses recognition of God as king and is rooted in fear of God – submission to God’s will, awe and trembling of being in God’s presence, and fear of transgressing God’s commands.  It is an act of standing still. Fear paralyzes; it roots you to your spot terrified of doing something wrong.  When submission to God’s will requires action, you take meticulous care to get everything exactly right.
This, says the Midrash, must be the starting point.  Only after reaching this state may a person move on to vi’ahavta.Loving God propels movement; it drives a person to seek God at every moment, to find God in every mundane action, whether standing, sitting, walking, or driving a car. This is the love of God that Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev chose to see demonstrated by the wagon driver who davened mincha while changing the wheel of his wagon.  “Master of the Universe,” he said, “See how much your children love you!  Even when their hands are filled with grease, they are thinking of you!”
These two components – awe of God and love of God – complement each other. Love of God is nurturing, inspiring, and motivating.  Love leads to grand gestures but not to a punctilious care of details.  Fear of God brings about dikduk bi’mitzvot but it can freeze a person in place.
Avraham is the figure we identify most often with love of God, with movement – lekh lekha – with finding God everywhere and calling out in the name of God – va’yikra bi’shem HaShem (12:8, 13:4, 21:33, 22:14).  This midrash reminds us of Avraham’s other essential quality; it was fear of God, not love, that compelled Avraham to bind his son to the altar, “For now I know that you fear God, seeing that you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” (22:12).
The greatness of Avraham was found in the combination of these two traits.  Love of God gave Avraham the confidence to argue with God in defense of the people of Sodom; fear of God made it acceptable for him to do so: “Behold I have begun to speak to God, and I am yet dust and ashes” (18:27). Fear of God brought about scrupulous observance of mitzvot; love of God names this scrupulousness an act of love, not slavish obedience. “You find that Avraham was a punctilious in observing the mitzvot and therefore he was called the beloved of God…”    While Avraham exemplifies both traits, for this midrash it is fear of God that comprises his core characteristic and identity.
The second passage in Tanchuma draws a different picture:
Rav Berakhya opened, “We have a little sister…” (Shir HaShirim 8:8).  To whom is the verse referring?  To Avraham. For when Nimrod cast him into the furnace, he was little; God had not yet performed miracles on his behalf.  And why is he called a sister (achot)?  Because he stitched / united (eecha) the world before God, like a person who rends a garment and then stitches it…
You find that Terach, Avraham’s father, fashioned idols and would worship them.  God said to Avraham, “Lekh lekha mei’artzekha,” Get out of your land [and your birthplace and your father’s house].”
In this passage, Avraham is one who is driven by love of God and seeks to spread the word of God throughout the world.  As Rambam writes: The mitzvah to love God includes the directive to call to all people to serve God and to believe in God.  For when someone loves another, he will sing the other person’s praises and call others to love him as well… as we find by Avraham… as it says, ‘The souls that they made (the people that they converted) in Haran’ (Book of Mitzvot, Positive Mitzvah 3).
Here Avraham is called achot, a sister, midrashically, a weaver.  This echoes what we find in the Torah, where Avraham is described and describes himself frequently as an ach, a brother: “Behold we are brothers” (13:8), “And they separated one man from his brother” (13:11), “Avraham heard that his brother was taken captive” (14:14) and, of course, “Please say that you are my sister” (12:13).
Avraham is not out to conquer the world with the belief in a single God. In this midrash, he is not Avraham ha’Ivri, standing on one side with the rest of the world on the other.  To see those who act or think differently as enemies to be vanquished is to be driven by fear.  Rather, he is portrayed as Avraham ha’Ach, a person who sees everyone as members of his family, as potential partners, as people with whom to share his passion and whom to inspire.  Avraham the brother dreams to unite people, to stitch them together with his love of God.
It was this love of God that drove Avraham to preach in the land of Nimrod and to be prepared to martyr himself for the God he believed in.  But this love could not succeed in the land of his father.  He could not form a new family built on love of God, when his own father rejected all that he stood for, when his message was undercut from within his own house. Hence, God instructs, lekh lekha, go to a new place where your message can be heard and you can truly transform the world.
These two portraits of Avraham present two different aspects of a Jew’s mission in this world: the first Avraham is the frum Jew, committed to his own practices and way of life; the second Avraham is the visionary seeking to create a universal Godly community.  Both models are essential. In the aftermath of this election, we all need Avraham the weaver to unite us during these divisive days.  If we continue to invoke an “us/them” narrative, to see those with whom we disagree as evil, we will only deepen the divide. At the same time, we cannot pretend and act as if we all are, or should be, the same.  We need to also be the first Avraham, to value and deepen our own particularistic commitments and identity. And we need to respect this in others, even when those others have identities, commitments and values that differ significantly from our own.  Our own rootedness, and that of others, will give us all the confidence and the strength to build a more global, universal community, seeking not to conquer one another, but to cherish our differences and to find the common ground that weaves us together, brothers and sisters before God.