Sometimes the Jewish calendar is a complete mystery to me – the complexity of the efforts to coordinate the cycle of lunar months and leap years with traditional observance has kept Jewish scholars, astronomers (1, 2 ) and astrologers (1, 2, 3) busy for centuries …
Carved on stone tablets, paved on ancient synagogue floors, illuminated, or printed, surviving images of the Mazzaroth (Zodiac), charts, tables, moveable wheels testify to our predecessors’ zealous search for the new moon and pursuit of the exact measurement of time for practical, ritual and mystical use. (A click on any of the images above should lead to their sources).
A recent explanation of the calculation of leap years by way of reference to the Western musical scale (major mode), while intelligible to the musician in me, leaves me doubtful on the spiritual front.
What does register is the sense of “space” I feel in the month of Cheshvan. Sometimes called “the empty month”, Cheshvan is the only month in the Jewish year with no holidays. The “emptiness” of Cheshvan is welcome not just as a respite from the concentration of holidays during the month of Tishrei (Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Succot, Simchat Torah), nor the extra time I have to indulge my taste for Jewish iconography, but primarily because the energy committed to finding meaningful paths to observance during intense holiday season can now be devoted to the renewed study of Genesis.
This year, committed to studying the connection between tradition and social action, I am especially interested in the the language of action – what the biblical characters do, and what circumstances do to them. I am listening also to the ways in which Torah describes what God does, in particular, how God engages in a range of relationships with all mankind (not just with the Israelites).
Lech Lecha: call and response
Noah’s story may be central to the education of children, but Abraham’s is one of the defining narratives for Jewish adults:
And the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth [lech lecha] from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and those who damn you I will curse, and all the clans of the earth through you shall be blessed.” And Abram went forth as the Lord had spoken to him …. Bereshit 12:1-4 (from Parshah Lech Lechah, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, pp.62-63)
Richard McBee‘s The Call of Abraham, (1980), expresses the ability of Avram of Haran to hear “the still, small voice” calling to him. Avram acts, following divine instruction to “go forth”. Gathering his wife, nephew, and extended household, Avram sets out on the open road. This journey is geographical, eventful, and spiritual. Avram and his household travel through Canaan, into Egypt, and back.
Along the way, Avram:
– persuades his wife Sarai to allow herself to be taken into the Pharoah’s harem as a wife (for which the Egyptians are punished with plagues and Avram is enriched greatly) (Gen. 12:10-20)
– parts ways with his nephew Lot following a dispute over grazing land (Gen. 13:1-12)
– battles the four kings of Canaan, and makes peace with Melchizedek, king of (Jeru)Salem (Gen. 14:1-24)
– performs the Covenant Between the Pieces (Gen. 15)
– fathers his first son, Ishmael, by his wife’s servant Hagar (Gen. 16:1-16)
– executes the covenant of circumcision on himself, his son Ishmael, and all the other men of the household (Gen. 17).
An event-filled journey, but with profound spiritual consequences. Throughout the trip, Avram continues to hear the voice of God, who reiterates a set of similar promises. In Haran, Avram is promised land and successors (Gen. 13:14-18). Later, Avram is promised the land and descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15). Finally, God promises to multiply [him] greatly’, for righteous conduct and circumcision, and Avram and Sarai are thus transformed into Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch (Gen. 17).
I wonder why these repeated promises are necessary. Recognition that Avram’s journey is, from the outset, uncertain and full of risk is a commonplace in traditional interpretation of this week’s portion. Rashi addresses the triple blessing God promises Avram at the first call in verse 2, “And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing”:
2. And I will make you into a great nation. Since traveling causes three things: 1) it diminishes procreation, 2) it diminishes money, and 3) it diminishes fame (lit. name), therefore, he required these three blessings, namely that He blessed him concerning children, concerning money, and concerning fame.
But why so many promises, why the repetition of rituals of covenant? A traditional answer is that Avram’s journey is one in which, like that of all Jews, traverses the path from (immature) loyalty to family to (mature) personal loyalty to God (ie. Rav Avraham Fischer, discussing Rav Levi’s midrash Bereshit Rabbah 39:11, in”Leaving or Going?“).
On the Road: risks and rewards
John Strotbeck, from Congregation Or Hadash, PA, slips sideways from this narrative of Abraham’s spiritual transformation; he compares these circumstances to “Let’s Make a Deal” (Behind Door #1, 2003, TorahQuest).
Abraham’s predicament seems to me more like ‘The Lady [Patriarch?] and the Tiger”, in which uncertainties are reduced at each stage in the journey, but the stakes are raised, made more personal, and more physical. For the departure from family and homeland, Avram is promised the abstract blessings of fame, land, and progeny. The promise becomes more specific in the context of dealing with the “family business” of sheep herding: share the land (for now) with Lot, have it all, and progeny (this numerous) later. Matters are most concrete and immediate following the birth of Ishmael: walk with Me now, circumcise all males now, get your son now, father the nation. Uncertainties are resolved, for the time being.
What strikes me is that each of these encounters follows Avram’s engagement with “others”: his family and neighbors of Haran, the Egyptians and Canaanites, the Egyptian concubine Hagar. Author Ken Goffman sees Abraham as a countercultural dropout, a “divine dissenter” (Counterculture Through the Ages, Villard Books, 2004, Radical Torah). But it seems to me that Torah sets him up as a pragmatic pluralist, negotiating the tension between living with multi-cultural reality and maintaining a personal relationship with God. This tension is never resolved: to his death, Abraham is challenged to deal with both the real and the ideal – his world must be grounded in relations with “outsiders”, even to the level of sexual relations; he shares his wife with the Egyptians, and shares a sexual relationship (and first, long-awaited parenting experience) with an Egyptian concubine. Intimacy with his non-Israelite neighbors, his “others”, seems to be an integral part of the journey to which Abraham is called.
This intimacy between Abraham and his neighbors is a special model for the challenges of our time. I’d thought first to explore recent reports of the relationship between the Fayetteville, Arkansas Jewish community and Fayetteville’s sole Palestinian-American contractor, collaborating to build the town’s first synagogue (1, 2, or 3). But the visit to Philadelphia by Naomi Chazan on October 17, 2007 offered a more pressing opportunity.
Brit Tzedek v’Shalom: the covenant of justice and peace
Chazan, former member of the Israeli Knesset (representing the Meretz Party), scholar of political science, advocate of women’s rights, civil rights, religious freedom, and pluralism in Israel, spoke at the Philadelphia Constitution Center on behalf of the New Israel Fund (NIF). With extraordinary clarity, Chazan addressed the four challenges she identifies for the future of Israel:
- The challenge of identity … to create a multi-cultural ethos for modern, multi-cultural Israel, and to inject into this identity what makes multi-culturalism truly productive: respect for others, tolerance, human dignity, pluralism, and genuine belief in equality
- The challenge of development … to curb the growing economic disparities within Israeli society, to maintain a middle class, to develop economically with social sensitivity, recognizing the connection between social justice and societal cohesion
- The challenge of democracy (or government) … to build on the real democracy undergirding Israeli government, but limiting the effects of corruption and endemic political instability; to create rules for coexistence that enable Israelis to live together rather than struggle against one another
- The challenge of “the state” … a challenge of citizenship, or confidence … to respond to the growing mental and physical disengagement of Israelis in political life by creating better policies, policies which can provide the moral spine of the state and a genuinely civil society.
Chazan candidly asserted that Israel’s efforts to meet these challenges could not be separated from its conflicts with indigenous and neighboring Arabs. She acknowledged the ‘humanitarian nightmare’ of conditions in Gaza and the West Bank, and suggested that – like American approaches to homelessness, even on the steps of the Constitution Center – Israel must relieve the distress of Palestinians in the occupied territories at the same time as efforts are made to change the political and economic conditions that contribute to such distress. Chazan stressed unequivocally the urgency of the need for peaceful resolution of “the conflict”, expressed her confidence in the possibility of success of the approaching peace conference, but proposed that “peace is not an end in itself, but a vehicle for a just and normal society.”
If Abraham’s journey on his open road is to teach anything this year, it will be how to juggle engagement with the diversity of the world with the pursuit of a singular relationship with Judaism. If Jewish Israeli and Palestinian militarists can put down their weapons and work together for peace (Combatants for Peace), if bereaved Jewish Israeli and Palestinian parents can comfort one another and work together to end the violence that claimed their children (Parents Circle), if Jewish Israeli and West Bank women can work together to produce and distribute olive oil, soap, and needlework (Sindyanna of Galilee), if Jewish Israeli and Palestinian children can study together in Jerusalem (Hand in Hand School), or in the village of Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, if the New Israel Fund can commit its human and financial resources to the development of a just society with a moral spine, and if a prominent female Israeli scholar and politician can challenge an American Jewish audience to confront its own issues of identity …. then surely there will be a path to my engagement with “others”, and I’ll look to share this trip.
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