Friday, November 18, 2011

A Thought on the Parsha

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Parshat Chaye Sara - When God is Seen and Not Heard

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, and in this transition to the next generation, a number of the major characters move off the scene.  Not just Sarah, who passes away and is buried at the opening of the parsha, and not just Avraham, who quickly moves off center stage at the beginning of the Rivka story, due to his death and burial at the end of the parsha, but also God.   For although God is talked about quite frequently, God never speaks to anyone, nor - outside of prayer - is spoken to at any time during the parsha.  It is not until the opening of Toldot, that God again appears as a "character" (as it were) and speaks to Rivka, and then later to Yitzchak.  

These events - the transition from Avraham to Yitzchak and the shift of God from One speaking to One being spoken about - are, I believe, intimately connected.  The passing of the baton from Avraham to Yitzchak represents a critical stage in the success of Avraham's mission.  Avraham is a visionary, a charismatic leader, a person to whom God has spoken, whose passion for God is magnetic, a person to whom followers flock by the hundreds.  But not everyone can be an Avraham.  For the message, for the belief, for the religion to survive, a Yitzchak is needed.  The next leader needs to be someone who can sustain - and teach others to sustain - this Godly approach even without the charisma, even when God has not spoken to him or to them.     If this can be achieved, then the faith can survive and be passed from generation to generation.

Avraham had the blessing of hearing God's voice throughout his life.  But at the end of last week's parsha, at the denouement of the akeida, a shift occurs: "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).   God may not always be heard, but God - even to this day - can be seen.   How one sees is a key theme not only in the stories of Avraham, but going back to the story of creation.  God sees that the world is good.  Adam and Eve see the tree as good for eating, and not - as God would have it - as wrong and forbidden.  The later generations see beautiful women and take them for themselves, and God sees that the world has gone from good to bad.  How we see the world, how we judge and interpret what we see, is key.  We must learn to see what is good, what is truly desirable.  We must learn to see as God.  Thus the Avraham story opens with Avraham being told to go to the land which God will show him, that is, will make him see.  This story is then bookended by the akeida, where Avraham is told to go to one of the mountains that God will show him, that is, will make him see.  To be in a brit with God means to strive to see the world as God would see it.  (I thank R. David Silber for first turning my attention to this theme in these two Avraham stories).

Seeing the world as God would see it requires another type of seeing as well.  It requires seeing God in the world.   Only if God speaks to us, can we hear God.   Whether we see God in the world, however, is our choice.   How we see, how we interpret, how we judge events, is in our hands.   The culmination of the Avraham story is Avraham's hope that God should be seen.  Avraham will have succeeded if he has helped shape a world in which we see God, and thus in which we strive to see as God.

How is this accomplished?  First and foremost, by our discourse - how we talk about things, how we describe and interpret the events of our life.  Avraham, wherever he would go, would call out in the name of God.  He would make it clear to all that God is present in his life, that it is God Who 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 preaching of the message which is key, but the discourse, the talking about God having given us the fruit, and making this a shared discourse, making others talk about this as well.  Once this discourse becomes consistent and shared, it shapes one's and other's perception of events.  So that when Avimelekh approaches Avraham, he says to him: "God is with you in all that you do."  (Breishit 21:22).  Avraham's "calling" has shaped Avimelekh's perception, has made Avimelekh see God in the world.   As Rashi, commenting on Avraham's speech to his servant in this week's parsha, so succinctly puts it: "The verse says, 'God, Lord of the Heavens and the Earth.'  [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." (Rashi, Breishit 24:7).

The talking about God, which leads to the seeing of God, is the blessing that Avraham passes on to his servant, to Yitzchak, and to the next generation, and it is that which is the theme of this week's parsha.   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 is a matter of faith, but also a matter of perception.   And we find that the servant has learned this lesson well.  For he prays to God, and behold the perfect woman appears to him.  A skeptic would say that this is luck, but in the servant's eyes it is nothing less than God answering his prayers, and by talking about it as such, it makes it such.  "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).   And in the prolonged narrative where the entire story is retold, perhaps the most important lesson in its retelling is how, through the eyes and in the words of the servant, God is ever-present.  "And God blessed my master..",  "God[, said my master,] will...make your path successful...", "And I said, 'God...[that woman who passes the test] 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.  Indeed, "more beautiful is the conversation of the servants of the fathers, than the Torah of the sons." (Breishit Rabbah 60).   For it is through such conversation, such daily discourse, that our worldview, our very world, is shaped, and that God is seen.

[A final thought:  It is quite remarkable how radically different these events could be understood, 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 a divination."  This seems to suggest that Eliezer's testing of the girl who offered to water him and his camels, was a forbidden act of nichush, divination.  While some Rishonim interpret the Gemara this way, most disagree, but they grapple to articulate why this was not such a prohibition (see 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, I believe is obvious, and the difference lies not in the test or the sign, but in its framing.  To do what Eliezer did not in the form of prayer, not as a way of making a request of God and of then seeing God in all that subsequently happens, but to do it through a belief in spirits, celestial powers, or mystical powers,  would turn prayer into an act of nichush.  It would be to see the exact same events in a different way,  it would be, to quote the Sefer HaChinkuh on this prohibition (mitzvah 249): "that all things that occur... for bad or good are merely chance, and not though God's providence."  Eliezer saw in his test, in the sign, not chance, but hashgacha pratit, personal providence.  He saw not magic, but God.  He turned a random world into a world suffused with God's presence.]

Shabbat Shalom!

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