Tag Archives: Monotheism

Parshat Lech Lecha (2013)


Genesis 12 – 17

That Time the First Jew and the First Priest Went Out for a Drink

Have you ever wondered who this Melchizedek character is? Why is he mentioned in the Torah, and what lesson does this personality have for us? In this week’s parsha we have this character just seem to drop into the story out of nowhere, and disappear just as quickly as he came. But there is a unique interaction going on here that is very curious and has kept the scholars speculating around it for ages.

Let us begin with the key verses of the section that we are going to explore this week:

“And Malchi Tzedek

king of Shalem

brought bread and wine.

He was the priest of the Most High G-d.

And he blessed and said:

‘Blessed be Avram to the Most High G-d,

Maker of the heavens and the earth.

And blessed be the Most High G-d,

who has delivered

your enemies into your hand.’

A tenth of everything was given to him.”

| UMalchi Tzedek

| melech Shalem

| hotzi lechem vayayin

| vehu kohen le-El Elyon

| Vayevarechehu vayomar

| baruch Avram le-El Elyon

| Koneh shamayim va’aretz

| Uvaruch El Elyon

| asher-migen

| tzareicha beyadecha

| vayiten-lo ma’aser mikol

Genesis 14:18-20

In this story we see Avram (the person later to be known as Abraham) meeting with a priest. We are told that he is the priest of El Elyon – literally the G-d Most High. We don’t know a lot about this person other than that he is a king and priest, and that Abraham feels obliged to show charity to this priest. Likewise this priest pronounces one of the first blessings ever recorded in the scriptures, recognizing Avram and pronouncing a blessing declaring him holy on to G-d.

melchitzedekThere is much known about Abraham, he is the father of the Jewish people. He is the patriarch of monotheistic tradition. We have plenty to explain his background in the scriptures, and in the midrashim and folklore that has grown up around his story. He is revered by all three of the major world religions as their root.

But of this Melchi-Tzedek there is such little to read about him, he is only ever mentioned in three verses of the Chumash, four verses in the entire bible. Everything else we think we know about him comes from interpretation and oral tradition. But there are a few things we for sure know about him, he is the king of a city named Shalem. Not only is he a king, but he is also a priest. He seems to be a dual spiritual and civil leader, along the lines of a Julius Caesar and the early Roman kings who served not just as emperor but also as Flamen Dialis, the high priest to Jupiter with official ritual duties. He is the first priest mentioned in the scriptures.

The scriptures don’t offer us much information about this king, nor his city. Other than his city is named Shalem. We do find another reference to this city of Shalem in the scriptures, “In Shalem is also set His tabernacle, and his dwelling-place is in Zion.” (Psalm 76:2) Shalem is thus equated with Jerusalem. Melchi-Tzedek is understood to be one of the Canaanite kings. The first king of Jerusalem.

His name also provides us a few ideas. It is not a simple name, it is actually two distinct words malchi and tzedek. It appears more of a title. In the Hebrew language there are two seemingly easy to recognize words, one is “malchi / my king” and other is “tzedek / justice.” However, Hebrew scholars note that ordinarily putting them together in this way is not with the normal rules of Hebrew. It appears more close to Aramaic, and therefore hints of possibly being derived from the closely related Phonetician and Canaanite languages.

This understanding leads modern scholars to believe that this king might have indeed been the first king of Jerusalem (though just merely known as Salem in those days). This city would have most likely been dedicated to the chief god of their pantheon, Tzedek, which we know as the planet Jupiter. In the Talmud we also see that the planet Jupiter is indeed called Tzedek in Hebrew as well. (Talmud Balvi, Shabbat 156a) Jupiter as a planet of huge mass and gravity would by Roman times be characterized as Zeus, the head the pantheon and the supreme authority among lesser gods.

This is a position that is very different from that of the most famous of midrashim. Our Jewish tradition most often equates Melchi-Tzedek with Shem, the son of Noah that is the patriarch of the Semetic peoples, the peoples of the temperate middle-east. Shem is believed to have eventually lived such a long life of success that he set-up the city of Shalem while the newly arrived Avram dwelt in the rough lands. In order to explain why our saintly father Avraham shows honor to Melchi-Tzedek the rabbis explain that Shem was also a great man with a saintly mission, even going as far as to suggest that Avraham learned at yeshivot he established. He was Abraham’s ancestor. With this in mind people would like to believe that like Abraham, Melchi-Tzedek was the last of a dying breed of monotheists. (see Parshat Lech Lecha 2011)

The truth probably lays somewhere in between the scholarship and the folklore. It is fair to assume to that Melchi-Tzedek was a Semite. It is also very likely that he was king of the infantile city of Jerusalem. Avram as a Semitic stranger would do well to show deference to this man. But what we do need to take notice of is that he only ever refers to G-d as “El-Elyon.” He does not refer to Him by Havayah – the distinct Four-letter Name of G-d. He instead seem to understand El, the well known god of the region as being his god; not just divine, but the most supreme (elyon) god (el).

I believe that we have enough proof to agree with the scholarly understanding, that Melchi-Tzedek is not a pure monotheist. Yet his status and faith is respected by Avram, and likewise in our tradition that it should make its way into the Torah.

Because of the mysteriousness of this character, Melchi-Tzedek has been commented and embellished upon. It was so in the times of Josephus and even in the Christian writings. By the time of the Talmud there had been a multitude of stories that attribute something almost supernatural about his character. In absence of information ridiculous claims are made, for example the Christian bible states that because we don’t hear of his mother of father mentioned this Melchi-Tzedek must have been divine; he just wasn’t born of humans. People write a lot in between the lines.

For a moment we need to step away from all the dogma and look at the facts as presented in the Torah. The reason we don’t see a lot mentioned about Melchi-Tzedek is because the story isn’t about him at all. It is clearly evident that in this story he not the star, he is just an extra on the set to help carry the story along.

To understand the story we need to go all the way back to the beginning and read it in context. It begins at the top of the fourth aliyah. Most readers only look at the verses that mention this guy’s name, but they are the last three verses of our actual reading!

The fourth aliya begins at the top of the 14th chapter of Genesis. To save us the pain of all the mental work and identifying each party, all we need to understand is that the first half of the chapter is about how the kings of Mesopotamia and the kings of the Jordan valley come to war against each other. It appears that tribute states are rebelling against their regent and their allies. (v.1-9)

The second half of the chapter is about a literal quagmire of war, the rebels being hunted down and slaughtered in marshes as they tried to escape. Among the escapees were the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah who ran for their lives. (v.10) The rest of the chapter is about the aftermath of their defeat after the capture of these towns. We are told that the Persian king and the vassal kings sack the towns and take away pretty much anything they could carry. (v.11)

Now ordinarily this would have nothing to do with Avram, as he doesn’t live in either area. He dwells in the plains of Mamre among the Amorites and their allies. (v.13) However his most beloved nephew Lot dwelt in the city of Sodom, and his family and his possessions were captured as part of the plunder. They are likely to be killed or sold off into slavery. (v.12) One of the refugees from this war comes and reports all this to Avram.

Now here we see him described as Avram haIvri – Avram the Hebrew (עברי), the descendant of Ever (עבר), son of Shem. Ivri also means “to cross over,” here we see that Avram is different and separate from the rest of these Semites that are waring here. He is understood to be a distinct clan already. His own had already become a separate people, even though Avram has no children of his own.

And this is the key issue, Lot is an orphaned nephew that he was very close to. Not only are they endeared to another as family, but Lot stood to be the full inheritor of all Avram’s estate. (see the Parashiot of Lech Lecha and Vayeira 2012) Lot is Avram’s only heir as he had no son. What Avram did have was 318 trained disciples that had been born into his clan, men that he mobilized in rescue of his heir. (v.14)

The young men follow Avram to war, they follow them up through the valley of the river Dan in the north, until he surrounds and defeats the Mesopotamians just west of Damascus. (v.15) All that was sacked is brought back by Avram, all the people and possessions. Men and women both are delivered from their captivity. Among them are also Lot and his possessions. (v.16)

Now here is the one point that most people miss, on Avram’s return we have the runaway king of Sodom coming out to meet Avram. It is the king of Sodom that first goes out to meet Avram and his returning army.

And then in the middle of this the most striking thing takes place. Someone else walks into the situation and steals the spotlight just for a brief moment. Melchi-Tzedek just walks in out of nowhere, without any introduction. He offers Avram bread and wine, and extends his blessing. We hear nothing more about Melchi-Tzedek, other than that he receives a tithe from Avram from the captured booty.

Now notice no explanation is given for the tithe, and we have to assume it is Avram giving the tithe because the language itself doesn’t explicitly say so, just that a tithe “viyaten-lo / was given to him.” We assume Melchizedek is the “he.” The question comes in because we aren’t even sure why he is here at all, he is not king of one of these town nor was he even present in the battle. None of this concerns him. Is he coming out with symbols of hospitality and benevolence out of fear of Avram, or does he want something?

I think the latter point is the greater motivation. Avram is now returning with his small army and his captured spoils, and the local kings want their cut. This is such a major point that we begin a whole new aliya just to make this point. And at the head of the fifth aliya the first thing we read of is the king saying to Avram, “Ten-li hanefesh veharechush kach-lach / Give me the souls, and you can keep the goods.” (v.21) This point seems simple and maybe understated with few words, but in the reading of the Torah it stands out as one the driving points of the parsha.

The coward king of Sodom now comes out to meet Avram and he immediately and brazenly bark out his demands. He wants all the living souls, the people. But Abraham can keep of the other material spoils, for his trouble. He wants back all his people just as much as Avram wanted back Lot. There is no celebrating and praises as with Melchi-Tzedek, nor is there even a simple “thank you” given. He just wants what was taken from him.

According the orthodox female scholars Nehama Lebowitz, of blessed memory, Mechli-Tzedek is merely a character used as a device to contrast the unbefitting demands of the king of Sodom. To show the arrogance of his demands, and to display the lack of honor given to someone he should feel indebted to.

So what we see here is that Melchi-Tzedek is a person that who isn’t involved at all, but he shows respect to Avram and gets a portion of the spoils. We would expect the king of Sodom to show the same respect, in order to get back what he wants. But instead he just alarmingly barks a demand, before Avram starts giving away more of what he sees as his.

In the face of this demand Avram gives back everything that is taken, he didn’t really want it anyway. All he went out for was to retrieve Lot and his possessions from the mess he had gotten himself caught up in. All he claims for himself and his hired men was the food they had eaten. He doesn’t need his money, and startlingly gives everyone and everything back lest anyone say Avram was made rich off of this man’s misfortune.

For a second I would like us to step back and take a look at this parsha, and it’s use of a narrative to get across so much information. Yes we read about a long since forgotten ancient skirmish, one that would be of little relevance itself if it hadn’t been for Lot’s foolish attachment to this wild and lawless region. Here we are only in our third parsha of the Torah, and we are already being forced to have to pick out truths about the character of the persons involved. To learn from their example, both good and bad. Here in this we learn to find truth in even the most seemingly irrelevant of stories by keenly trying to identify with the people.

And the lesson is this, that even the smallest amount of gratitude goes a long way. We are taught the importance of respect and honor, and the uncouthness that there is outside of this code of ethics and morals.

Avram of course gives everything back, because he is a saint. Instead of being reactionary, he shames the king of Sodom with kindness. He shows he’s above this pettiness and hands it all over. Avram not only shows good character, he shows exceptional character. I hope that more of us would follow by his example.

A Battle for the Souls

One of the things that is brought up in this parsha is a contrasting of moral values. The lawlessness of the Jordan valley and their idolatry is contrasted against Avram and his monotheistic moral crusade. That is why Avram is spoken about as the Ivri – the Hebrew at this point, the one who “crossed over” to not be part of this mess and their way of life. What Avram had done instead is found a monotheistic community, a sizable one that is able to exert itself. Their ability to accomplish this campaign attests to their strength and influence.

Our rabbis and teachers often note on this point that here when Avram and his people first clash with the Canaanite kings of the region his issue is a battle for souls. I can’t help but be reminded of this by the language our rabbis use in the Ladino (Hebreo-Spanish language, the Sephardi tongue) translation of the Chumash, “Da a mi la alma, y la ganaçia toma para ti / Take for yourself the souls, and you keep the earnings.” (Constantinople Chumash, 1547)

Normally when we hear the word nefesh and souls used in the Torah we think of the word simply meaning living souls, meaning people. Souls mean people.

When it comes to Avram, the founder of this monotheistic community, the word souls takes on another meaning. Soul can also mean the deeper spiritual person within. We think of him primarily being interested in accumulating souls, in winning converts and growing his force of free men. If we wanted anything to claim as his reward from this battle, it would most likely be the people. He had interest in little else.

From this point of view the face off with the king of Sodom is one of the dethroned leader also telling Avram that they don’t want his religion, he wants his people back so they can live according to their own style as a pleasure kingdom. This eventually happens and it leads to their ultimate destruction later on.

But in the midst of this story comes forward one person of exceptional merit. He is not a Hebrew, he is part of the Canaanite establishment. He has all the makings of a good religious person, but his theology has degraded to being a near-monotheism; a composite form of monotheism. Melchi-Tzedek considered himself a monotheist in the same manner Christians or Hindus would consider themselves monotheistic, while still having a multiplicity of divine forms. Thus his god is designated “the Most High G-d.”

People often read too much into this story, and see the interaction as more than just the giving of gifts between the cheerful and celebratory Avram and Melchi-Tzedek. Though it is essential to recognized that there is a meeting of two great men of different faiths, that both show respect to each other.

Our father Abraham shows us a good example here early on in the history of the development of his faith, he shows how people of different ideas can be respectful to one another. But even more than that, Avram seems to recognize Melchi-Tzedek as a fellow traveler. Even though Avram has decided to take a different path away from the degraded theology that had come to dominate the other Semites of his day. Avram honors and recognized this man merely on the character of his words and deeds, he takes a chance on an unlikely candidate. Melchi-Tzedek is an outsider that is respected by Abraham himself.

For a lot of reasons people of just about every tradition have become fascinated with the story of king Melchi-Tzedek. He serves as an archetypal example for the outsiders. For this reason gentiles and the other religions who honor the bible often feel an affinity with him. He is not just a good gentile, but he is also a respectable non-Hebrew priest.

It should not surprise us that people want to lay claim to Melchi-Tzedek and his legacy, to be inheritors to knowledge about G-d that predates and supersedes the normal Abrahamic and Mosaic system.

The bible actually gives us our first example of a person pining to be honored as such an exception. Even King David wanted to be honored this way, as not just a king but also as a priestly figure in building the temple. He wrote a psalm where he declares that G-d has called him to be priest after the order of Melchi-Tzedek forever. He wants himself, or his messianic descendants be an exception to the rule. To be treated as a diamond in the rough, not just now but forever. (see Psalm 110)

In every moral religious community and stratus of religious commitment we can find these diamonds in the rough. These exceptional characters that by their deeds and words stand out. Their ethical behavior and good form is worthy of being recognized and emulated.

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Parshat Bechukotai (2012)


Parshat Bechukotai (2012)
Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”


And you will flee when no one is pursuing you” (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם, Lev. 26:17) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

With this weeks parsha we are completing the Book of Leviticus. This year this parsha is paired together with Parshat Behar as a double-parsha. This entire book of Leviticus has been related to the establishment of the Miskhan (the Tabernacle) and detailing the service and expectations that was laid upon the people of Israel. As we start this parsha we notice that all of a sudden the tone switches from talking about the responsibilities of the nation, to stating what the benefits and consequences of adherence to the Torah’s commandments are.

This parsha is quite short, less than two complete chapters in it’s entirety. And the aliyot (the individual readings) are also quite short as well. Normally people would be thrilled that they have a shorter section to learn to lein (Yiddish meaning cantillation, read in its proper melody from the Torah scroll), but this is not an easy reading. The sections that detail the curses and judgments are most often read by the most competent reader, because according to our tradition it is to be delivered in a very different fashion from any other Shabbat Torah reading; it is to be read in a whispering tone, and as quickly as possible. We read it this way in order to not arouse or incite judgment, and so that we do not dwell on negativity.

Though the differences become apparent even before the reading begins. Normally being called up to the Torah is the greatest honor one can have. In our tradition we are so repulsed by the idea of leveling judgment against people that the person who is called up to read these sections of curses does not allow themselves to be customarily called up by name to honor them for their reading. No matter how “qualified” one is in Torah learning, we are never to take pride in being associated with the calamity that befalls someone for their wrongdoing.

The world-over it is the general custom of the religious leaders to make themselves famous for preaching fire and brimstone. People literally yelling from the rooftops, with great satisfaction in themselves, all the ways that one can be harmed and punished. But here when it comes to delivering the tragedy of punishment we as Jews are not allowed to raise our voices, nor are we to linger upon the suffering of the sinner. We discuss it because we must, but G-d forbid that this happen to someone. We mildly and quickly get through this task as we take no joy in it.

The difficulty of reading this parsha though really is more in the message, more so than being an issue of skill. It is especially difficult for the Jewish people because it really does seem to begin going through a point-by-point presentation of the sufferings Jews have experienced, even though this was written long before the expulsions and persecutions in exile.Sadly we know the Torah is right about this because it really happened, and so recently in our history that it pains people greatly still to this day in a very raw way. These things can happen, it’s a tragic truth. In light of this the discussion then naturally seems to lead to asking “why,” instead of debating the “if.”

But if we are to answer the question that is expressed as “Why did this happen? Did we really deserve this?” we must first deal with an even less sophisticated question that goes, “How can a good G-d do this? Why did He make this happen?” It’s almost seems like a fair question because the horrors in this parsha are so extreme it seems inconceivable that G-d would do these things to His people. The key error lies in the understanding of the words “do” and “make,” implying such calamity is the work of G-d.

But unsophisticated questions tend to demand equally ill-formed answers. The way the gentile nations have generally answered this question is by turning to polytheism, good gods do good and bad gods cause evil. Their attempts at monotheism are still even colored through this perception, in which evil is personified in “the devil.” However, as Jews we are not permitted this luxury of dualism. We are challenged to have to deal with G-d’s role in all this because the scriptures clearly tell us that both good and evil are caused by Him alone. We read in book of Isaiah the profound declaration:

“From the rising of the sun and from the west

there is nothing besides Me

I am Hashem, there is nothing else.

I form light and create darkness,

makes peace and creates evil;

I Hashem do all these things.”

| “Mimez’rach shemesh umima’aravah

| ki-efes bil’adai:

| ani Hashem v’ain od

| yotzer or uvorei chosech,

| oseh shalom uvorai ra;

| ani Hashem oseh kol eyleh”

Isaiah 45:6-7

Traditional Judaism has always maintained this understanding of G-d, because logic naturally dictates that if G-d is omnipotent (all powerful) then everything must be ordered by Him alone. However, orthodoxy is neither naïve nor trite. It does not place G-d in the position of a tit-for-tat enforcer nor does it over simplify the nature of individual suffering, our tradition can’t because the scriptures do not suggest this at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it really is basic Judaism; but something I can go into volumes with. Verse 7 above is paraphrased as part of our liturgical reading of the morning, it is said daily as part of the blessings to the Shema (our most holy confession). We recognize that G-d creates the world daily. G-d is active in the world, not in just some distant point in history but still today and everyday renewing the act of creation. However this is a distinct difference between what is formed and made, and that which is merely created. In the void He formed the world, fashioning it; G-d made the universe. And when He formed it He created it in a balanced state of fullness and light, He provided everything that was needed to sustain that world. However, evil and woe are like darkness. They not necessarily a thing, it’s the void and aftermath that is left as a result in the breakdown of the proper function and order in our lives. Other times its just a the absence of the good stuff getting to that place yet. There are two lessons in that: 1) that just like life has good times, there are also bad times, 2) woe and hardship are not a formulated response, but merely the unfortunate result of things not going according to ordered plans.

G-d as creator made us to function well, under good and optimum circumstances just like any good designer would. G-d created this world as a brilliant form of craftsmanship, with all the features and accessories needed to help us get the job done. For us to be mad when life breaks-down is like being upset with a manufacturer because our plans for using their product didn’t pan out or we just didn’t use it properly. It isn’t realistic or proper for us to look at the world that way. The responsibility of the Divine was to give us the best chance in real situations, not to vow to save us against from every possible annoying fluke.

When we comprehend that, then we can be a bit more adult in our ways of looking at the words “do” and “make.” G-d doesn’t do anything to us, any more than He makes us do anything; those are very childish words if we use them in this tone. Instead G-d takes responsibility in being the creator who created us to function best when in line with His instructions. He should not been seen as a manufacturer who is designing a product to blow up in our faces at the first wrong step.

So in this mentality G-d nonetheless takes responsibility. He stands behind His product, disclosing what it takes for it to perform properly and warning us of how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because things most certainly do have a habit of going wrong at some point, that is the nature of life.

Troubleshooting Life

Do you need to troubleshoot life? I know I do, and often. Any of you who have ever worked for a help-desk know troubleshooting skills not just requires the knowledge of the complex, but also attention to the subtle. The range of what someone points to as “wrong” can span from a total malfunction to merely just someone’s baseless dissatisfaction.

One of the first tedious parts of troubleshooting is to have to go over the instructions. Are we doing everything that we are supposed to do in order to get the appropriate results? Our text explains to us as follows:

“And if you do not listen to Me,

and do not do all these commandments,

and if you grow tired of My orders

and if you loath My laws

so that you will not do all My commandments

and thus break My covenant,

after that I will make this to happen to you…”

| V’im lo tish’mu li;

| v’lo ta’asu et kol ha mitzvot ha’eileh

| v’im bechukotai tim’asu

| v’im et mishpatai

| tig’al nafshechem l’vilti asot et kol mitvotai

| l’hafrecheim et briti,

| Af ani ei’eseh zot lachem

Leviticus 26:14-16a

The Torah warns us if we do not abide by all these ways we are breaking our “terms of service agreement.” If we do this we are gonna break our lives! No really, look at the text again. It first wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing.

Then the text goes into explaining what to look out for, the warning signs of malfunction:

“I will appoint upon you panic;

with consumption and fever,

and I will completely destroy your sight,

and make you depressed,

and you will sow your seed in vain,

and your enemies will eat it.

|

And I will set my face against you

and you will be defeated before you enemies;

and you will flee

when no one is pursuing you

| V’hifkadeti aleichem behalah

| et ha’mishachepet ve’et hakadachat

| m’chalot einaim,

| umedivot nafesh;

| uz’ra’tem larik zar’achem

| va’achaluhu oi’veichem.

|

| V’natati panai bachem,

| v’nigaf’tem lifnei oi’veichem;

| v’radu vachem son’eichem

| v’nas’tem v’ain rodeif at’chem

Leviticus 26:16b-17

The first troubles that the Torah presents us with as signs of judgment are subtle and mild, but can easily be mistaken for something else all together.

This first wave of curses is very perplexing and even troublesome. What are we saying about G-d; that He causes us to have panic, depression and such? Are we saying that G-d takes control of our emotions in order to wreck them? And these inflictions, are we suggesting that G-d causes illness in us?

In our tradition the points of free-will and the fairness of such a course of actions is not even an issues to grapple with. The Rambam interprets Midrash Rabba concerning creation to be surmised in the idea that “only good descends from G-d above.” (Rambam, Guide For The Perplexed, III:X; concerning Midrash Rabba Chapter 1, p. 266). When G-d creates He makes everything good, just as we read in the creation story the continual phrase is used “and G-d saw all that He created and behold it was good.” And we firmly believe G-d does not give illness nor does He impose on our emotions. How can it be that here we have G-d being described as causing both physical and mental inflictions?

The Rambam, as a physician, gave us a unique perspective in how to interpret this. In fact he gives us one of the only interpretations from among the classics that we have to examine. That is not to say the commentators didn’t deal with these verses, they wrote lengthy commentary on these sections. However, they could only give us a description of what the symptoms were. The Rambam was more concerned with what the cause was. As a physician he realized that in order to bring remedy we must first recognize the cause, as a condition is not merely a set of symptoms that need to be alleviate. The symptoms of illness are merely a reflection of the extent to which disease has advanced.

As pointed out the world was created “good,” and in fact when all the living creatures were created He declared that everything was “tov me’od / very good;” (Genesis 1:31). He created life and the world good, and then some. Nonetheless as we have learned from Isaiah, G-d does say that He causes ra – harm, evil, and calamity. However, as the Rambam point out early on in the Guide, things such as good and evil are only descriptions in relations to something. He says this is like saying “round” or “flat.” Not either physical property is good or bad necessarily, it is just a description of how we perceive something. How it looks to us. Such words are very similar in meaning and relation to the terms emet and sheker; true and false. It’s a description and qualification, not a judgment or characterization.

The Rambam explains to us that this similarly can also be applied to the words oseh and bara; makes and created. When G-d created to world He created, meaning he made something from nothing. There was nothing, no universe or anything to function. Then He created the world purposefully, everything He made has a function. He points out that that G-d also created things such as the mouth, eyes and ears so that we can speak, see, and hear. Though the Rambam points out the following verse to demonstrate his philosophical view of what happens when something goes wrong in this natural world:

“And Hashem said to him:

Who places a mouth in man,

or who makes one mute,

or deaf

or see

or blind;

I Hashem.”

| Vayomer Hashem elav

| mi sam peh la’adam

| o mi-yasum ilem

| o cheresh

| o fike’ach

| o iver halo

| anochi Hashem.

Exodus 4:11

The Rambam explains that this verse teaches that each of the body parts were created for their function. That when the function is withheld it merely means that the body part doesn’t work properly, we don’t jump to the odd suggestion that a person must not have a mouth if they can’t talk, or eyes if they can’t see, nor ears if they can’t hear. But that G-d as maker of those body parts is the one who takes responsibility for the issue as He is he only thing in the universe, He is solely its creator, there is no one else to blame; He is responsible by default and does not shirk that in any way. Then He sums it up with “I am Hashem,” its okay to hold Me responsible; I’m big enough to take it.

But if we consider it, the above mentioned maladies are examples of things that are not necessarily inflictions, but withholding of an appropriate function; example, He gave a mouth but didn’t give the speech. We need to see the terrible things mentioned in our parsha as a mere result of G-d withholding blessing – and not necessarily imposing a causative and active role of punishment. He just isn’t providing what we need for our lives to work right. Nachon, got it?

Not Being Run Out: Sometimes we run from blessing, instead of being driven

I know I have kept you for a long study, with me ranting on. But it is very important for us to look at the symptoms, the characteristics of these maladies caused by us not living properly and according to the rules set out for our lives in Torah. And by looking at them we will also see that they are really things that have their root more in us than in G-d. They are:

Panic (בֶּהָלָה) – literally fear, and sudden terror. Panic and terror will begin to consume you. One will begin to be overcome by fear and frenzy.

Consumption (הַשַּׁחֶפֶת) – literally wasting disease and emaciation. One’s health looks swept away, they being to look anguished. Rashi says this means consumption of the face, so that one begins to look sad in the face due to wasting. People often used this term historically to describe illnesses like tuberculosis, wasted away and pained to that point.

Fever (הַקַּדַּחַת) – this is very simple to understand, it simple means fever, and the results of sever illness like malaria. But the Radak tells us this can be understood as “fire in the bones;” that is how intense the effects are. Rashi also sees this connotation, and says furthermore it can be understood as being fired up to the point one is enraged, and furious (citing Deut. 32:22) The fire inside, be it in our body or emotions, burns too hot and to our detriment. Fever like fury can overwhelm a person to the point of an overwhelming trembling and loss of control over their functions and composure.

Destroy your sight (מְכַלּוֹת) – G-d will allow our outlook to be destroyed. (Rav Hirsch) We begin to experience impairment of our faculties. As we look into our future all we will see is uncertainty and doubt, which leads to the next infliction…

Depression (וּמְדִיבֹת) – we will become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness (Rav Hirsch). We will be overcome by debilitating depression and sorrow.

The parsha continues on describing other things that are less easily understood as being rooted in our own defect; that we will sow in vain, our enemies will reap from our hard work instead of us. But in the last clauses of verse 17 we see G-d does have a undeniable hand in all of this, because He sets His attention towards us and yet we are defeated by our enemies. G-d watches on, as we fall into calamity; not coming to our aid.

But before we get carried away and try to relieve ourselves of responsibility the Torah continues and shows a truly tragic truth of what happens when we live a life outside of Torah blessing, we aren’t run out from blessing; quite to the contrary.

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

In the end, the yeridah – the descent and fall into bondage and foreign oppression is of our own doing. Often times we aren’t carried away, no one forces us out of a place of peaceful living; we are so haunted and hunted by our avoidance of our Torah responsibilities that we run from ourselves until we find we are not longer free to return on our own terms. It further describes this type of paranoia in verses 36-37, that we will become overwhelmed by insecurity, that even the rustling leaves will send us running in fright, like being chased by a sword though no one is there; that we are so overcome by our invisible fears that we, and those that accompany our descent, stumble over each other; running from insecurities rooted in our own conscience.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Though there are all kinds of unspeakable things displayed for us as hardships for improper living and not honoring the Torah, G-d still holds out to us a hand of mercy. Though we might get worse, and worse, and worse yet the more we run from ourselves; in the end G-d says that He will not just write us off. No, instead He declares that no matter how far we run, He is intent on setting us right in the end; not to leave us ultimately to our disrepair.

“Yet even after all that, even

when they are in the land of their enemies

I will not reject them, nor abhor them,

nor grow tired of them

and then break my covenant with them –

for I am Hashem, your G-d

|

But I will for their sakes remember

the covenant of their ancestors,

whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt

in the sight of the nations,

that I might be their G-d:

I am Hashem.”

| Ve’af-gam-zot

| biheiotam be’eretz oiveihem

| lo-me’astim velo-ge’altim

| lechalotam

| lehafer briti itam

| ki ani Hashem Eloheihem.

|

| Vezacharti lahem

| brit rishonim

| asher hotzeti-otam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| le’einei hagoyim

| lihiot lahem le-Elohim

| ani Hashem

Leviticus 26:44-45

Though G-d does not write us off, and promises to ultimately grant redemption to use all, liberating us eventually; it does not necessarily say this life, though. It is true that all Israel has a share in the world to come (Pirkei Avot). But ignoring Torah has consequences. G-d does not cast people out of His kingdom for their humanity and faults; He will make a place for us all, in a way only He understands. It will come about by Him remembering His promise and the merit of our ancestors. This should comfort us. But on the other hand we should be a bit saddened by this explanation; because the truth is the suffering and being run amok could end at any time if we just decided to remember His covenant and the meritorious lives displayed by our Jewish ancestors.


Parshat Lech Lecha (2011)


Parshat Lech Lecha
Genesis 12–17

Was Abraham the First Monotheist?

As we come into this weeks parsha we step quite abruptly into the thick of a story. Suddenly the narration of genealogies ends and G-d begins to speak once again for the first time since Babel, this time not to a heavenly court but to Avram himself. And here is were we get the powerful words that are the birth of the Jewish people, the foundation of Israel, the start of our religious journey as a people:

“And Hashem said to Avram

‘Go away from your land,

from your birthplace and your father’s house

to the land I will show you.’”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Avram

| lech lecha me’artzecha

| umimoladetecha umibeit avicha

| el-ha’aretz asher ar’eka.

Genesis 12:1

When we begin to tell this story for the novice, for the child, we most often begin simply by saying this is the start of our people, we even say this is the start of monotheism. We over simplify in terms of describing from a position at this point in history. We say this because all religions that hold to be monotheist aside from Judaism have degraded to the point of flagrant dualism and forms of polytheism. It serves our purposes to look at it this way.

Then there is the view of the simpletons who see the story of the generation after Noah being more related to an understanding of the origins of racial grouping. They can only do so because at this point in history religious variances among the nations have also generally coalesced along ethnic and regional lines. But this is a gross generalization. Not that the Torah is not making a generalization, its just not making a racial one.

The story of the generations after Noah are more concerned with explaining the degradation of cultures, not into ethnic groups but instead into world views. The three archetypal groups that our fathers were concerned with is of a religious understanding. The nations of man instead had degenerated from a place of assumed monotheism to breaking into three cultural world views; pantheist, polytheist and animist.

How can I claim this? First off, notice there is no issue of idolatry ever mentioned in this Genesis story even up until this point. Certainly, the people going back in time are assumed to have descended from people who knew the true nature of G-d and had to have deviated at some unknown point along the way. And this rings true in what we know from archeology and history, from China to the Cape of Africa, from India to Iceland the concepts of pure deity with no anthropomorphism and intermediaries lays at the furthest roots of their cultures, only to deviate over time as pure religion sought to explain specifics of their spiritual world in ways that fragmented their view away from a Divine Unity. But this was only generally the case. Zulus and Native American cultures for instance often shocked Christian missionaries with monotheistic values that were even more pure in their understanding of the all encompassing One than even they possessed. This is a fact, read the works of Budge, Horn, Faber, Rawlinson, Waddell, etc.; all the major experts in archeology and history agree on this.

But even our scriptures knows it is making a gross generalization because it explicitly tells us there still remain small pockets of these unadulterated cultures left. One of these remaining pure thinkers is Melchizedek, the king and high priest of Salem; or as we understand him in the Talmud and Aramaic translations of the scriptures, to be Shem the son of Noah, now king of Salem in the land of Canaan; which was the citadels of the prehistoric city of Jerusalem. Though there were those who had not perverted their way, this was generally not the case; most of the people had lost their way.

Instead this story is going to be concerned with explain to us how our ancestors lost their way. And they did so more than just in a philosophical and religious way. These decedents of Shem, our Semitic ancestors were also embarking on a very physical path on the way to a land of promise even before it was guaranteed through a promise. And that is what I want us to talk about today.

Even though the opening command of our parsha begins by G-d telling Avram to get up and go to the land that He will show him, the path to get there had already been embarked on. Let us turn for a second to the closing of our previous parsha (Parshat Noach) and we will read the following:

“And Terach took his son Avram,

and Lot the son of Haran his grandson,

and Sarai his daughter-in-law wife of Avram

his son, and they left together

from Ur Kasdim

going towards the land of Canaan

and they came as far as Charan

and settled there.”

| Vayikach Terach et-Avram beno

| ve’et Lot ben-Haran ben-beno

| ve’et Sarai kalato eshet Avram

| beno vayetze’u itam

| meUr Kasdim

| lalechet artzah Kena’an

| vayavo’u ad-Charan

| vayeshvu sham.

Genesis 11:31

We need to understand that the scriptures are not necessarily telling us a chronological history, and those of us who study rabbinic literature are well aware of this.

The Journey of Abraham from Ur to the Promised Land

Aside from looking at the wealth of midrash we have related to the intermediate years between Noah and Avram, we have a great deal of simple clues to show us that we are only talking in the general sense in this as well. Just as there are ten generations between Adam and Noah, there are ten between Noah and Avram. The meaning of why it gives us this list of generations is apparent if we start at the beginning with the first decedents born in the lineage of Noah; Arpachshad, which is a name of a place today in Turkey that was a nomadic encampment. Names continue to be tied to locations several times along the way (notice other names and seemingly corresponding places are Sereg, to Sarugi; Terah, to Turahi; Nahor, simply to Nahor) until we find that these Semites, decedents of Ever (from which the name Ivri, meaning Hebrew is derived) making their way until they stop in a place that kind of sounds like a person, a place named Charan. I say sounds like because Haran (הָרָן) and Charan (חָרָן) are not the same. Actually they are quite different, Haran the name bares the suffix “har” meaning hills, probably referring to the hilly places the people originated; this is the son of Terach and brother of Avram. Charan though means a dry or parched place; this is a well known city.

Though Haran is not responsible for the establishment of the city of Charan as one might assume from erroneous juxtaposition of the names (this is the case for most Christians, and always the case for Muslim scholars), he does however seem to be responsible for why the family settled in Charan. What we know is that Haran was born in Ur Kasdim, in the assumed Chaldean city of Ur; this would place their journey as far as the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Haran dies in the place where he is born, there in Ur Kasdim (Genesis 11:28). Then the family, as we read, continues on but doesn’t make it any further then Charan, which takes them probably back to present day Turkey, a distance of a good 550 miles. Despite the name, this path via Charan provides the water necessary to make the journey by following the Euphrates as far as they could instead of having to face the vast dry deserts of present day Iraq and Jordan. And then Terach suddenly stops and settles in holy city of moon worship know as Charan, were he then dies. Terach’s stay could have been there as long as 60 to 100 years in Charan, before he dies; just about 700 miles from the final destination of Canaan.

Though we are not explicitly given a reason for why the journey to Canaan stopped, if we look purely at the composition of the text we are given a clue. There is a setumah break, a pause and break in the text after verse 25, which makes verses 26 through 32 one entire clause. What this sections tells us is that Terach has three sons, the youngest of them is Haran. Haran dies in the presence of his father in the place that he was born, after taking a wife and having a son named Lot. Terach takes the rest of his family, except for Nahor his middle son and his household, and journeys to Charan. We can only assume that because the tragic death of Haran is such a major piece of this section concerning how they got to Charan it must have been Terach’s grief that paralyzed him too much to go on. If we look at it this way, the mentioning of Haran’s death is not out of place at all, as it would appear so otherwise.

Though our midrash is heavy-laden with stories of Terach’s succumbing to idolatry, there is nothing explicitly mentioned about it in the Torah text. However, if we look at the name of the wife he chose for Nahor, for instance, we will see that she outright has a pagan name; Milchah after the goddess Malchatu (the daughter of the god Sin; corresponding to Ishtar or Isis). Terach seems to have lost his way and found himself more at home here in shadow of the ziggurat of the moon goddess, never to move on again. Though if you do the math, and look at the text we see that when Avram moves on Terach is not yet dead. However, our midrash also enlighten us to why Avram, the true master of all Semitic values could do the unthinkable and seemingly abandon his father; our sages tell us because he is as good as dead, there is no use in hoping Terach will continue.

When we look at this story of the travel of Avram, on his path to become Avraham Avinu – Abraham our Father – we see the story of Abraham starting out in the land of Ur Kasdim; this literally means “the light of the astrologers,” it was the Chaldean land of the magi and mystics of the orient who worshiped the stars. He would make his way to Charan, the sacred city baring the pylons to the moon goddess; he would then journey to the land of Egypt, and travel in the shadow of the pylons dedicated to the worship of the sun god. But he would succumb to none of them, in face of all these beliefs he stayed true with his dedication to the all encompassing G-d.

When Hashem speaks to Avram alone and says to him “lech lecha,” to get up himself and go, Avram is not the first to set out on this journey. Avram is the last to continue in pursuit of this aim. Likewise when G-d calls Avram, the last Hebrew true to his ancestral ways, he is not the first monotheist here at this point during his lifetime; instead he is the last. Avram alone has not lost his way, so G-d speaks to him to go and continue on. He continues on the path for us both physically and spiritually.

Yes, I know our midrashim throughly. I clearly understand that we reckon Avraham Avinu as being the father of monotheism, that Avraham was the only one to come to the understanding of G-d as being The One and Only because he ascended to this consciousness from his own reasoning, there was no one left to teach him even in his household of the ways of monotheism. I do not disagree with this midrash at all, however even citing this our tradition points to others who ascend to this knowledge independently as well. One of them being king Hezekiah, the king of Judah who returned to true worship of Hashem even though his forefathers were idolaters, he came to this conviction on his own without any upbringing or direction from his kin in this matter. Through from this side of history its easy to see them as being firsts, instead of being the lone dedicated and faithful of their clan that they truly were.

Though it seems that simpletons and novices of all faiths that hold these scriptures to be holy seem to misunderstand the message of this story, we should be patient with the elementary reader. Quite honestly, even the secular “scholars” tend to fumble over this story only noticing the underlying message that has always rang true in established Judaism, to separate ourselves from foreign heresy; they too look from this point in history and try to write the story backwards. Their hack approach tends to miss the actual intentional message, that the purpose of this journey is to follow through and see our dreams through to fruition. And secondly, as we make this journey its not just about not loosing our way but about not loosing who we are in the process.

For Abraham, finding his way to the promised land was not just about him finding his way to his dream, it was also a journey with him having to find his way without loosing who he was along the way. Abraham was not just finding his way to his homestead, he was finding his way back to his true self.


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