Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Friday, October 30, 2009

Lech Licha-5770


Lech Licha-5770

Rabbi David Walk
            It’s always so comforting to return to warm spaces and pleasant places.  That’s the way I feel every year when we begin the stories of the Patriarchs, and especially Avraham.  I’m embarrassed to mention that I’m sometimes uncomfortable with Yitchak’s misanthropy and Ya’akov’s business dealings, but Avraham is just a prince amongst men.  These are, overall, feel good stories of a great man revered in his own time and venerated for the ages.  Everyone is very eager to be counted as a spiritual heir of Avraham; Jew, Christian, Moslem.  There’s more to being an heir to Avraham than just warm fuzzies.  There seem to be concrete blessings which accrue to those who are numbered amongst his
beneficiaries.   Even before Avraham has
done anything, God makes a list of promises to him, which far outpaces the pedestrian pledges offered to his righteous predecessor, Noach.  This week I’d like to take a look at those assurances and try to understand in what way they continue to affect us.

            Immediately after God has instructed Avraham to depart from his homeland to an unspecified destination, he is told:  And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and you shall be a blessing.  And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2 & 3)."  The great commentary Rashi (1040-1105) based on the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:11), points out that these blessings are an assurance that the normal difficulties encountered by travel to a new locale will not afflict Avraham, because he is heeding God’s word, which never causes loss.  Specifically, moving to a new place diminishes children, wealth and fame. So, Avraham receives assurances connected to those three issues; he will be great in number, blessed with wealth and his name will be increased.  This is the most popular approach to understanding this verse.

            Reb Zadok Hacohen of Lublin (1823-1900) in his Pri Zadok eschews the Midrash and presents the position of the Zohar.  There are (count ‘em) seven blessings in these verses:  1.  to be a great nation, 2.  be blessed, 3.  have a great name, 4.  you will be the source of blessing, 5.  those who bless you will be blessed, 6. those who curse you will be cursed, and 7.  the whole world will be blessed through you.
These seven blessings correspond to the seven traits which make up the seven lower sefirot or mystical levels which connect our realm to the heavenly spheres.  These seven concepts in turn match up with the seven shepherds (known to many of us as the Ushpizin, or guests, who visit our Sukkot every autumn).
These are the seven great leaders of the Jewish nation, Avraham, Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Moshe, Aharon, Yosef, and King David.  This mystical version of the list ignores chronology in favor of compatibility with the seven sefirotic traits, which are chesed (kindness), gevurah (courage), tiferet (splendor), netzach (eternity), hod (majesty), yesod (foundation), and malchut (royalty).  Phew!

            What’s so significant about connecting our impression of Avraham with all this future stuff?  To Reb Zadok it’s extremely significant.  The greatness of Avraham derives from the fact that all of these traits are embedded in him.  No one else, before or since had the potential for all these levels of spiritual attainment.  Even though Avraham mastered in chesed or kindness all of the other characteristics found their source in him.  This phenomenon could be explained that all the other traits were an offshoot or extension of chesed, the first of the sefirot.  However, I believe the real point is about Avraham, not about the sefirot. Avraham was by nature the epitome of compassion and benevolence, but, according to this viewpoint, his true prominence resulted from his passion in spreading the word.  When the Rambam (Maimonides 1135-1204) describes the enormity of Avraham’s contribution to world spirituality, he declares:  Once he achieved his belief in God, he began to reason with the inhabitants of Ur Casdim and to argue with them, saying that by serving idols they were not following the way of truth. He broke their images, and began to proclaim that it is not fitting to serve anyone other than God, and to Him it is fitting to bow down and to offer drink sacrifices and sacrifices to, so that all creation will recognize Him… He went and gathered people together from cities and kingdoms, until he reached the land of Canaan, where he continued his proclamations, as it is written, "...and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God". Since agnostics were coming to him with questions about this matter, he would answer each person in a way so that he would return to the way of truth, until thousands and tens of thousands came to him (Laws of Idolatry 1:3).  All this passion, all this success, and without television, take that Billy Graham!

            I’m trying to root some aravot (willow) cuttings, so that next year together with my students we can shake our lulav it will be with our own aravot.  The growth of these shoots depends on two factors.  First the cuttings must contain the necessary components to blossom, and I have to put in the proper effort to
grow them well.   The same is true of our children.  We learn this from Avraham.  His trait of chesed may be the basic characteristic from which others develop, but he had to nourish this growth with passion, effort and love.

            When we have a beloved legacy from a dear departed, it’s cherished because of what that ancestor put into the item.  Avraham got all these beautiful blessings from God, because he had constructed vessels for containing this bounty, namely his disciples, converts and, ultimately, descendants.  We honor him by not only graciously accepted this awesome heritage, but by emulating his zeal in passing it on.  Pssst, I’ve got a holy message for you…pass it on!                          

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

PERFECTION - Noach-5770

            Every year we read about Noach again, and I agonize over him.  More than any Biblical character I’m perplexed by this enigmatic hero.  Part of my perplexity can be blamed on our Sages.  When I read the verses unembellished by rabbinic punditry, I get the sense of a positive force in story of humankind.  However, the Rabbis seem to have an anti-Noach agenda, which I find a bit daunting.  This makes sense on a certain level because, after all, he wasn’t offered the covenant that Avraham signed on to, and we descend from Avraham.  B’nei Noach is the designation for those outside our tribe.  Nevertheless, every year I rethink this character, so here’s this year’s attempt.

            Perhaps the most characteristic approach of our rabbinic forebears is clearly laid out in the commentary Kedushat Levi of Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809), who is probably the most popular Chassidic leader after the Ba’al Shem Tov.  Reb Levi Yitzchak;’s first comment on parshat Noach explains that there are two types of zadik, righteous one.  The first sort serves God with great devotion and intense enthusiasm in the attempt to bring the zadik himself closer to God.  It’s a very passionate relationship between this creation and the Creator.  The other kind of devoted worshipper not only tries to deepen their own connection to God but also endeavor to bring others into the fold.  The Type II Zadik is described in the Talmud (Kiddushin 40a) as ‘good to heaven and good to people.’  The reason that Noach doesn’t get the appointment as the carrier of God’s covenant to the world is because he had the wrong zadik style.  Avraham had it, and then some.
Rabbeinu Bechaye (ben Asher, d. 1340) wrote a very important commentary on the Torah in the last decade of the thirteenth century.  In this influential work, Rabbeinu Bechaye not only explained the Torah on a verse by verse basis, but also prefaced each Torah reading with the exposition of a verse from King Solomon’s book of Proverbs.  These introductions give the reader a head’s up on the most powerful idea in the upcoming parsha.  This week he presents:  He who walks innocently is righteous; fortunate are his children after him (Proverbs 20:7).  There’s no mistaking Rabbeinu Bechaye’s purpose this week.  He chose a verse which parallels exactly the description of Noach.  Each verse has the following key words hit’halech (walk), tamim (innocent or perfect), and zadik.  We’re being taught that King Solomon’s description of a zadik is Noach.
To help in his exposition of the verse Rabbeinu Bechaye quotes extensively from Rabbeinu Yona of Gerona (d. 1263, the cousin and father in law of Nachmonides), who wrote a majestic commentary on the book of Proverbs.  This explanation suggests that there are three levels of righteousness, represented by the three terms zadik, walk and tamim.  The first expression is zadik which means that the individual works hard to do the right thing.  No small feat.  The next stage is tamim, which implies success at this endeavor to be good, no flaws in this diamond.  The crowning achievement is called mit’halech and evokes this awesome image of going forward in life in the presence of the Cosmic Director, figurative hand in metaphoric Hand.  According to Rabbeinu Yona this entails performing mitzvoth or righteous acts with love and awe for the Creator.  There is absolutely no concern for the greater glory of the performer.  This person would never mention these deeds with their lips or have them engraved in bronze.  This level of virtue is very rare and hints at a stage in human accomplishment in which goodness is its own reward; an extraordinary fulfillment of the Mishneh in Pirkei Avot that the reward of a mitzvah is the mitzvah.
Obviously, why does Rabbeinu Bechaye introduce our parsha with this verse and exposition?  Because Noach was that singular individual who really reached that apex of human spiritual triumph.  There is clearly much that we can gain from studying the life and exploits of Noach.  This answers an implied question about our parsha.  Why do we have these stories in our Torah?  They precede the Jewish nation and the giving of the Torah.  What is their relevance?  Well, we can learn from this extraordinary personality, and hopefully emulate at least a fraction his feats.
However, there is still a fly in the ointment, or a stone in the chulent.  If Noach is so marvelous how come we aren’t the Children of Noah, instead the descendants of Avraham?   The real question is how come God didn’t make the eternal covenant with Noach?  With Noach the verse says:  And I will set up My covenant with you (Genesis 6:18).   With Avraham God says:  And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. (17:7). Why is Avraham’s deal for ever and Noach’s only lasts out his lifetime?  It’s not because there was a deficiency in Noach, who was perfect, but because of the special quality of Avraham, who went way beyond the job description of zadik, to spread the belief in the one, all powerful God to the entire known world.
When you come to think of it, Noach seems very similar to our patriarch Yitzchak who was also a great zadik, but not a great campaign manager for God.  So, this week, when we again fulfill our annual revisiting of this amazing story, let’s not strain to find flaw with our illustrious ancestor, Noach. Instead let’s celebrate his greatness and accomplishments.  As Rabbeinu Bechaye has pointed out, there is much we can learn from this great man.  He is the prototype for the perfectly innocent zadik who walks with God, and there’s a lot to emulate.