Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Walk Article


Lech Licha-5771

Rabbi David Walk


In Jewish tradition we consider seeing more significant than hearing.  I say this because there are many natural phenomena which require a blessing when observed, like lightening, rain bows, blooming fruit trees, oceans, shooting stars, and the list goes on.  However, there is only one natural phenomenon which requires a blessing for hearing, and that's thunder.  I think that our tradition considers auditory experiences generally to be more subtle, more under the radar than sight.  Of course, the exception is thunder which is hard to ignore.  On the other hand, generally it's easy to ignore attacks on our ears than on our eyes.   I mention this reality this week, because every year we try to understand what was unique about Avraham our patriarch.  What was it that made him God's partner in the development of a covenantal community here on planet earth?  I believe it was in his powers of observation.

We have a clear example of this when we compare the observations about Israel of Avraham and of his nephew Lot.  In chapter 13 both men look over the Holy Land, but arrive at very different conclusions.  Let's set the scene.  Both men have been through a lot together.  They traveled from the other end of the Fertile Crescent to arrive in the Promised Land, and together they descended to Egypt to survive the famine.  Now, their collective wealth made it impossible for them to dwell together.  Apparently Lot won the coin toss, and had first choice of territory in which to inhabit.  This was in spite of the fact that God had bequeathed the land to Avraham.  Now to decide Lot: raised his eyes, and he saw the entire plain of the Jordan, that it was entirely watered; before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, as you come to Zoar (verse 10).  Lot looks at the land like a real estate agent.  He sees only economic value, and, therefore chooses the corrupt but wealthy neighborhood.

A few verses later, God tells Avraham to do the same activity:  "Please raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward (verse 14).  However, Avraham then chooses the area around Hebron in which to live, not because it was the most desirable financially, the coastal plain was more fertile, but because he saw spiritual significance.  This was the highest location in the central part of the country, and had a holy aura.  This would become Israel's second most holy city, after Jerusalem.  Even though they had so much in common, both genetically and experientially, they couldn't see in the same way.

I believe that this information helps to explain the great quandary:  Why did God pick Avraham and not, Chanoch, Noach or even, Malkizedek?  Normally to answer this question traditional authorities refer to Midrashic sources, referencing stories not recorded in the Torah.  They tell stories of Avraham noticing a burning palace, which represents this world which must have a master, there are tales of Avraham working in his father's idol emporium, and one myth describes Avraham being thrown into a fiery furnace for his anti-polytheism positions, sort of a prehistoric witch burning.  These legends each teach important lessons about Avraham's devotion to God and the cause of monotheism, which we are expected to emulate.  However, I find this approach problematic, because it seems to me that such an important question, such as the choice of Avraham to represent God in this world, must have evidence in the text.  It's just too central to our belief system to leave it to the Midrash and rabbinic lore.

Therefore, let's go back to our premise that Avraham noticed things that others didn't quite become aware of.  The S'fat Emet (Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the second Gerer Rebbe, 1847–1905), who himself seems to have noticed things other commentaries missed, makes a remarkable observation.  He suggests that the announcement which opens this week's Torah reading was a general call.  When God said: Go forth from your country, And from your relatives, And from your father's house, To the land which I will show you; And I will make you a great nation (Genesis 12:1-2), the message was available to anyone who tuned in.  Only Avraham did.  I think that we disagree with Robert Frost.  It's not about roads less traveled.  It's about what you pay attention to on the road you're traveling, even if it's Times Square, Crossroads of the World.   

Spiritual greatness derives from this ability to recognize divine opportunities in the most unlikely settings.  If Avraham came to New York City, he would miss the concrete canyons and observe the homeless and hungry.  At the Grand Canyon, he would pass up the souvenir and snack stand, instead reciting the blessing, Blessed is the One who created this world.  Our great grandfather processed data differently than the average human to intuit the Godly and holy.  That's what made all the difference.

We've just completed our heavy holiday season.  During those precious days we recited the Yizkor prayer twice, less than two weeks apart.  Since I started reciting Yizkor 27 years ago, I've felt that this was an opportunity to reconnect with my dad and try to remind myself of ways to emulate his many good qualities.  We should do the same with these Torah readings until the end of the book of Genesis.  We must read these sacred stories with the aim of learning how to behave in the turbulent world.  Avraham can be seen as an example of how to look at the world around us with a different filter than mundane society expects.

Let's look at the world the way of Avraham did; let's see and hear things too ethereal for normal eyes and ears; let's notice opportunities to bond with God and to connect to our fellow man.  He saw these prospects everywhere, so must we.              


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