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.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Noah, Superman and Global Warming

God creates a perfect, self-sustaining planet, teaming with life. God places human beings in it and gives them seemingly divine powers: rule over all living things, and the ability to build, create, transform, and take mastery over the entire planet (Breishit 1:28-29). God demands from them only that they accept some limits and understand that their mastery and control cannot be complete; with every six days of creating comes one day of surrendering control; with the mandate to work the land comes the obligation to protect it as its custodians (2:15). But human beings are not able to live by these restrictions. Appetite and greed drive their actions (3:6). They become mighty and powerful; they believe everything is theirs for the taking: the property of others (6:11), women whom they covet (6:2), and even human life itself (4:8). Even those who do not perpetrate these evils are complicit (Rashi, 6;13). Their own shortsightedness and self-centeredness—or simply their cowardice or apathy—allow them to ignore what is happening, to convince themselves that it is not their business and that trying to do something about it would be pointless. They become passive enablers, the evil continues to flourish, and the entire land becomes morally corrupt.

God realizes that there is no choice but to start again, to bring a flood, recreate the world, and hope that this time, with more guidance, humanity will get it right. Noah works on the ark for 120 years. Maybe he could have done a better job trying to warn people, but his tireless efforts make it clear to anyone listening that he is announcing the end of the world. But this is a message no one is interested in hearing. Even when the rains begin, when the evidence is before their eyes and the water is up to their ankles and knees, they refuse to believe that God will allow the world to be destroyed (Rashi, 7:12). When the flooding starts, when the storms are out of control and their fate is sealed, they finally want to repent; they will do anything to be saved. But by then it is too late.


We tend to react with an air of superiority and incredulity when we hear this story: How wicked must these people have been to act as they did! How stupid to be so willingly blind to their fate! I remember having a similar reaction as a kid, many years ago when I was an avid reader of Superman comics. In the origin story, Jor-El,

Superman’s father, investigates the frequent volcanic explosions on Krypton, his home planet. Realizing that its core will soon explode and destroy the entire planet, he urges the leaders to build spaceships to save their civilization, but the council refuses to believe him. Who is willing to seriously face the possibility that their planet 



is on a path to destruction? As he tells his wife, “Because of their stupidity, a world will die!” In the end, he is only able to build one small spaceship. He puts his baby son, Kal-El, on it and sends him to Earth, where the boy will grow up to become Superman, just as entire planet is exploding from its core.

This is a Noah story, even if I didn’t recognize it at the time. What I do remember thinking was how incredibly stupid and short-sighted the planet’s leaders were. How could anyone not take such warnings seriously? With the fate of their planet hanging in the balance, even if they did not care about anyone else, wouldn’t their concern for their own safety and that of their families compel them to heed the warnings?

But now, sadly, the lack of response and willing blindness fail to shock me, for I see them every day in how we, particularly we Americans, are responding to our own flooding and impending planetary disaster. I am referring,
 of course, to global warming and climate change. The evidence is before our eyes: It can be seen in pictures of polar bears stranded on tiny ice floes. It can be seen in thinning, receding glaciers, like those I saw in the Canadian Rockies last year. It can be seen in the weather, the unprecedented heat waves and hottest years on record, in the droughts, hurricanes, blizzards, and tornadoes. And it can be seen in flooding, which has caused hundreds of deaths, billions of dollars of damage, and impacted millions of lives. People will go to extreme lengths to ignore the evidence or to explain it away; such is the power of self-deception.  But the facts are the facts.  Every day the ice caps are melting, rain is falling, storms and floods are increasing, and the water is rising ever higher, and we, like the generation of Noah, go about as if nothing is happening.


Some carry more blame than others. The energy companies have devoted tremendous resources to disputing the evidence and spreading misinformation and to quashing U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Politicians support and further these efforts by publicly denying climate change, even while many of them acknowledge the reality in private. They are driven by power, greed, or simply cowardice, knowing that they would be attacked or even ousted by their own party if they were to act differently. But we are all complicit: every one of us who uses goods produced by industries that emit high levels of carbon dioxide; every one of us who eats beef on a regular basis; every one of us who decides that there is nothing to be done and throws up our hands in resignation to the fact that our planet is on a path of self-destruction.

One deeply depressing fact—among so many others—from this election season is that climate change was barely addressed in the debates. What does it mean that we as a country can spend hours challenging our candidates on the core issues for our future and treat climate change—the one issue on which the future of the planet depends—as an afterthought?

As this election season draws to a close, let us take some serious time to reflect on how we can elect representatives and leaders who embrace the divine mandate to protect the world, who will work tirelessly to ensure that the world remains good and life-sustaining, that we will have a planet to pass down to our children and grandchildren, leaders who are willing to take courageous stands, telling people what they don’t want to hear, forcing people to change their habits and practices before it is too late, before the doors of the ark close and it floats away forever.

God has taken an oath that God would no longer bring another flood to destroy the world. God will not send another flood, and God will not send another Noah. It is all in our hands now. We will either bring the next flood, or we will save ourselves from it. But the water is rising, and we must act before it is too late. We must be the custodians of the world that God has charged us to be.


No More Will there Be a Flood to Destroy the Earth?

God creates a perfect, self-sustaining planet, teaming with life. God places human beings in it and gives them seemingly divine powers: rule over all living things, and the ability to build, create, transform, and take mastery over the entire planet (Breishit 1:28-29). God demands from them only that they accept some limits and understand that their mastery and control cannot be complete; with every six days of creating comes one day of surrendering control; with the mandate to work the land comes the obligation to protect it as its custodians (2:15). But human beings are not able to live by these restrictions. Appetite and greed drive their actions (3:6). They become mighty and powerful; they believe everything is theirs for the taking: the property of others (6:11), women whom they covet (6:2), and even human life itself (4:8). Even those who do not perpetrate these evils are complicit (Rashi, 6;13). Their own shortsightedness and self-centeredness—or simply their cowardice or apathy—allow them to ignore what is happening, to convince themselves that it is not their business and that trying to do something about it would be pointless. They become passive enablers, the evil continues to flourish, and the entire land becomes morally corrupt.

God realizes that there is no choice but to start again, to bring a flood, recreate the world, and hope that this time, with more guidance, humanity will get it right. Noah works on the ark for 120 years. Maybe he could have done a better job trying to warn people, but his tireless efforts make it clear to anyone listening that he is announcing the end of the world. But this is a message no one is interested in hearing. Even when the rains begin, when the evidence is before their eyes and the water is up to their ankles and knees, they refuse to believe that God will allow the world to be destroyed (Rashi, 7:12). When the flooding starts, when the storms are out of control and their fate is sealed, they finally want to repent; they will do anything to be saved. But by then it is too late.


We tend to react with an air of superiority and incredulity when we hear this story: How wicked must these people have been to act as they did! How stupid to be so willingly blind to their fate! I remember having a similar reaction as a kid, many years ago when I was an avid reader of Superman comics. In the origin story, Jor-El,

Superman’s father, investigates the frequent volcanic explosions on Krypton, his home planet. Realizing that its core will soon explode and destroy the entire planet, he urges the leaders to build spaceships to save their civilization, but the council refuses to believe him. Who is willing to seriously face the possibility that their planet 



is on a path to destruction? As he tells his wife, “Because of their stupidity, a world will die!” In the end, he is only able to build one small spaceship. He puts his baby son, Kal-El, on it and sends him to Earth, where the boy will grow up to become Superman, just as entire planet is exploding from its core.

This is a Noah story, even if I didn’t recognize it at the time. What I do remember thinking was how incredibly stupid and short-sighted the planet’s leaders were. How could anyone not take such warnings seriously? With the fate of their planet hanging in the balance, even if they did not care about anyone else, wouldn’t their concern for their own safety and that of their families compel them to heed the warnings?

But now, sadly, the lack of response and willing blindness fail to shock me, for I see them every day in how we, particularly we Americans, are responding to our own flooding and impending planetary disaster. I am referring,
 of course, to global warming and climate change. The evidence is before our eyes: It can be seen in pictures of polar bears stranded on tiny ice floes. It can be seen in thinning, receding glaciers, like those I saw in the Canadian Rockies last year. It can be seen in the weather, the unprecedented heat waves and hottest years on record, in the droughts, hurricanes, blizzards, and tornadoes. And it can be seen in flooding, which has caused hundreds of deaths, billions of dollars of damage, and impacted millions of lives. People will go to extreme lengths to ignore the evidence or to explain it away; such is the power of self-deception.  But the facts are the facts.  Every day the ice caps are melting, rain is falling, storms and floods are increasing, and the water is rising ever higher, and we, like the generation of Noah, go about as if nothing is happening.


Some carry more blame than others. The energy companies have devoted tremendous resources to disputing the evidence and spreading misinformation and to quashing U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Politicians support and further these efforts by publicly denying climate change, even while many of them acknowledge the reality in private. They are driven by power, greed, or simply cowardice, knowing that they would be attacked or even ousted by their own party if they were to act differently. But we are all complicit: every one of us who uses goods produced by industries that emit high levels of carbon dioxide; every one of us who eats beef on a regular basis; every one of us who decides that there is nothing to be done and throws up our hands in resignation to the fact that our planet is on a path of self-destruction.

One deeply depressing fact—among so many others—from this election season is that climate change was barely addressed in the debates. What does it mean that we as a country can spend hours challenging our candidates on the core issues for our future and treat climate change—the one issue on which the future of the planet depends—as an afterthought?

As this election season draws to a close, let us take some serious time to reflect on how we can elect representatives and leaders who embrace the divine mandate to protect the world, who will work tirelessly to ensure that the world remains good and life-sustaining, that we will have a planet to pass down to our children and grandchildren, leaders who are willing to take courageous stands, telling people what they don’t want to hear, forcing people to change their habits and practices before it is too late, before the doors of the ark close and it floats away forever.

God has taken an oath that God would no longer bring another flood to destroy the world. God will not send another flood, and God will not send another Noah. It is all in our hands now. We will either bring the next flood, or we will save ourselves from it. But the water is rising, and we must act before it is too late. We must be the custodians of the world that God has charged us to be.


No More Will there Be a Flood to Destroy the Earth?

God creates a perfect, self-sustaining planet, teaming with life. God places human beings in it and gives them seemingly divine powers: rule over all living things, and the ability to build, create, transform, and take mastery over the entire planet (Breishit 1:28-29). God demands from them only that they accept some limits and understand that their mastery and control cannot be complete; with every six days of creating comes one day of surrendering control; with the mandate to work the land comes the obligation to protect it as its custodians (2:15). But human beings are not able to live by these restrictions. Appetite and greed drive their actions (3:6). They become mighty and powerful; they believe everything is theirs for the taking: the property of others (6:11), women whom they covet (6:2), and even human life itself (4:8). Even those who do not perpetrate these evils are complicit (Rashi, 6;13). Their own shortsightedness and self-centeredness—or simply their cowardice or apathy—allow them to ignore what is happening, to convince themselves that it is not their business and that trying to do something about it would be pointless. They become passive enablers, the evil continues to flourish, and the entire land becomes morally corrupt.

God realizes that there is no choice but to start again, to bring a flood, recreate the world, and hope that this time, with more guidance, humanity will get it right. Noah works on the ark for 120 years. Maybe he could have done a better job trying to warn people, but his tireless efforts make it clear to anyone listening that he is announcing the end of the world. But this is a message no one is interested in hearing. Even when the rains begin, when the evidence is before their eyes and the water is up to their ankles and knees, they refuse to believe that God will allow the world to be destroyed (Rashi, 7:12). When the flooding starts, when the storms are out of control and their fate is sealed, they finally want to repent; they will do anything to be saved. But by then it is too late.


We tend to react with an air of superiority and incredulity when we hear this story: How wicked must these people have been to act as they did! How stupid to be so willingly blind to their fate! I remember having a similar reaction as a kid, many years ago when I was an avid reader of Superman comics. In the origin story, Jor-El,


Superman’s father, investigates the frequent volcanic explosions on Krypton, his home planet. Realizing that its core will soon explode and destroy the entire planet, he urges the leaders to build spaceships to save their civilization, but the council refuses to believe him. Who is willing to seriously face the possibility that their planet 


is on a path to destruction? As he tells his wife, “Because of their stupidity, a world will die!” In the end, he is only able to build one small spaceship. He puts his baby son, Kal-El, on it and sends him to Earth, where the boy will grow up to become Superman.

This is a Noah story, even if I didn’t recognize it at the time. What I do remember thinking was how incredibly stupid and short-sighted the planet’s leaders were. How could anyone not take such warnings seriously? With the fate of their planet hanging in the balance, even if they did not care about anyone else, wouldn’t their concern for their own safety and that of their families compel them to heed the warnings?

But now, sadly, the lack of response and willing blindness fail to shock me, for I see them every day in how we, particularly we Americans, are responding to our own flooding and impending planetary disaster. I am referring,
 of course, to global warming and climate change. These things are incontrovertible facts, and it does not require trust in scientists to accept them as such. The evidence is before our eyes: It can be seen in pictures of polar bears stranded on tiny ice floes. It can be seen in thinning, receding glaciers, like those I saw in the Canadian Rockies last year. It can be seen in the weather, the unprecedented heat waves and hottest years on record, in the droughts, hurricanes, blizzards, and tornadoes. And it can be seen in flooding, which has caused hundreds of deaths, billions of dollars of damage, and impacted millions of lives. Every day the ice caps are melting, rain is falling, storms and floods are increasing, and the water is rising ever higher, and we, like the generation of Noah, go about as if nothing is happening.


Some carry more blame than others. The energy companies have devoted tremendous resources to disputing the evidence and spreading misinformation and to quashing U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Politicians support and further these efforts by publicly denying climate change, even while many of them acknowledge the reality in private. They are driven by power, greed, or simply cowardice, knowing that they would be attacked or even ousted by their own party if they were to act differently. But we are all complicit: every one of us who uses goods produced by industries that emit high levels of carbon dioxide; every one of us who eats beef on a regular basis; every one of us who decides that there is nothing to be done and throws up our hands in resignation to the fact that our planet is on a path of self-destruction.

One deeply depressing fact—among so many others—from this election season is that climate change was barely addressed in the debates. What does it mean that we as a country can spend hours challenging our candidates on the core issues for our future and treat climate change—the one issue on which the future of the planet depends—as an afterthought?

As this election season draws to a close, let us take some serious time to reflect on how we can elect representatives and leaders who embrace the divine mandate to protect the world, who will work tirelessly to ensure that the world remains good and life-sustaining, that we will have a planet to pass down to our children and grandchildren, leaders who are willing to take courageous stands, telling people what they don’t want to hear, forcing people to change their habits and practices before it is too late, before the doors of the ark close and it floats away forever.

God has taken an oath that God would no longer bring another flood to destroy the world. God will not send another flood, and God will not send another Noah. It is all in our hands now. We will either bring the next flood, or we will save ourselves from it. But the water is rising, and we must act before it is too late. We must be the custodians of the world that God has charged us to be.