Jerusalem — 24 October 2018
Dear D –
This week’s Torah reading (Gen. 12:1–17:27) introduces the character of Abraham. I have struggled to say something useful about this portion without losing my patience with thousands of years of what I consider very poor teaching on the person of the father of our religions.
God tells Abraham, “Go forth from your land…” My struggle is with the widely accepted interpretation that Abraham is special because God chose him. To which I say; God, if people achieve greatness only because you foreordained it, then You leave nothing over for the rest of us. If the greatness of our leaders is predetermined, then the Torah requires the rest of us to be mindless automata, blindly doing as we are told. Most insidious of all, it means that Abraham is not a role model; if God chose him, predetermined that he would attain spiritual greatness, then Abraham is not, in fact, great. Greatness is attained through struggle, through meeting challenges. How is Abraham challenged if he is playing out the cards dealt from a stacked deck?
If God created us in God’s image, then we are meant to think, to create, to change the world each of us in our own unique way. Which becomes impossible if we are mere victims of fate.
There is so much to discuss in this portion. I will focus only on one small piece. Early on (Gen. 13:16) God tells Abraham, “I will make your seed as the dust of the earth, such that if a man could count the dust of the earth, so your seed shall be counted.” Later, God tells Abraham (Gen. 15:5) “And He [God] took him [Abraham] outside and said, ‘Look up to the sky and count the stars if you can count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your seed be.’”
Which is it? Are Abraham’s descendants like the dust of the earth, or like the stars of the sky?
A hint comes from the Biblical text itself. The dust of the earth is undifferentiated. God begins by creating the heavens and the earth. The Upper World and the lower world. The pure spiritual world, and the purely material one. What kind of person will you be, God asks. Will you be a spiritual person, like the stars of the heavens? Or will you be dragged down into the dust?
We know that the sand on the beach is made up of millions of tiny grains, yet they appear as an undifferentiated mass. But look up at the night sky. What do you see? As countless as the stars may be, each star appears separate from the others. There are just as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on the beach. Yet on the beach they are indistinct, while in the night sky each one stands apart. In one of the Psalms read each morning in the Jewish prayer service, King David says, (Ps. 147:4) “He counts the number of the stars; he calls them all by their names.” As the Biblical text makes clear, we are faced with a choice: we can be dragged down by our own material selves, or we can rise up to our unique spiritual greatness. When we give in to the material — to our ego, to our appetites, to our fears and desires for pleasure — we become as the dust of the earth. Leaden, weighed down and undistinguished. When we rise to embrace our spirituality, we set ourselves apart — and it is then that God will know us by name, for we will have risen to God’s dwelling place.
This is the challenge Abraham takes on, and I refuse to accept that Abraham is capable of succeeding only because God foreordained it. If that is the way God operates, then we are all the dupes of an eternal cosmic joke.
And here’s the more insidious hidden side of this image. Because our spiritual teachers do real harm by insisting on the unattainable greatness of our spiritual heroes. Whether it is Abraham, or Moses, Joseph or David, whether Paul or Mohammed — or Buddha or Gandhi or Krishnamurti or Martin Luther King, Jr. — we are each one of us capable of attaining the same level of spiritual excellence, capable of becoming true spiritual and moral leaders. There may not be much in life that is under our control. No one has a choice in being born woman or man, black or white, begin born in Bangladesh or in the United States; being born to wealthy parents or into a life of utter poverty. But each one of us has the choice to behave morally, or to behave wickedly. And make no mistake — and here is the harsh teaching of the great Hassidic masters — there is no In-Between. There is no act that is morally neutral. Our every action is either moral, or it is immoral. Nothing we do — no smallest act or word — is devoid of moral content.
Chapter 13 describes the interaction between Abraham and his nephew Lot. Verses 5–7 say Abraham returned to Canaan from Egypt, rich with flocks and possessions. Lot came along with him, and the land could not support them together, so weighted down were they with wealth. Verse 7: “And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abraham’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock — and the Canaanite and the Perizzite were dwelling in the land at that time.”
What’s going on? The land is rich enough to accommodate two entire nations — the Canaanites and the Perizzites — yet when Abraham and Lot come on the scene there are not sufficient resources for them both. This is like the bad guy in the Western movie who says, “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us!” The resources are there, but the will to cooperation is lacking — fatally so.
And so Lot and Abraham go their separate ways, with Lot shouldering the blame — we see this from Abraham’s offer (13:8–9) “… Let there not be strife between us… Isn’t the entire land before you? Please separate from me; if you go left, I will go right, and if you go right, I will go left.” Rather than make his own gesture of reconciliation, Lot accepts the offer. He chooses the city of Sodom and Abraham is left to wander the open spaces — the place where it is possible to meet God face to face.
One of the greatest concepts in the world is articulated in the Torah (Lev. 19:18) as, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” This it bears directly on our Torah text — and it is widely misunderstood because it is translated insufficiently.
First, to the concept of Love. As Maimonides explains in his Laws of Repentance, this use of the word Love means both less, and much more than having an emotional attachment to someone else. It is not friendship and good feelings between neighbors — though that is all to the good. Rather, it means that we are all responsible for protecting one another’s interests. That we have an obligation to protect our neighbors’ honor, their assets, and their well-being. That without this attitude of forceful positive engagement, our society will fail. And when we individually fail to engage actively in support of our neighbor, then we personally harm our society.
In Hebrew the word commonly translated as “neighbor” comes from the root meaning “shepherd,” or “pasture.” The root word appears famously in the opening of the 23rd Psalm as “The Lord is my shepherd…” Thus this Biblical concept of neighbor is someone with whom you share pasturage, as among nomadic people who do not share a tent, but who come together to graze their flocks. In order for this society to function, each person must take what they need, while being mindful to leave over for others.
Are we like the dust of the earth, grabbing everything for ourselves with no thought for others? Or do we distinguish ourselves like the stars of the heavens, caring for our own, but being mindful of the needs of others?
The Nobel Prizewinning economist Amartya Sen wrote a groundbreaking book in which he argues — with robust statistics to back his position — that throughout recorded history, famine has always been a political phenomenon, not a result of natural forces. There is always food, argues Sen, but there is no political will to distribute it fairly. We shall soon come, God willing, to the story of Joseph in Egypt and see proper management of the nation’s food supply in action. But we have only to look to today’s headlines to see story after story of food being wantonly dumped in wealthy nations, while in nations beset by starvation the trucks full of grain stand within sight of the hungry masses, surrounded by heavily armed militias keeping the food away from those for whom it is intended.
What kind of world will we create? What kind of environment will we mold — for truly, our every action and word has an impact on our environment. The challenge that Abraham accepts is that of taking the decision to act morally in all cases and at every moment. This is staggering, but why else did God put us here?
Our obligation entails loving our neighbor. Caring for our neighbor’s wellbeing is, at the very least, the key to ensuring our own. What the Dalai Lama refers to as “enlightened self-interest.”
The Torah’s message is that if we strike out on our own, for our own self and for our own good — as Abraham does — then God accompanies us. Because it is for this that each one of us was created: God relies on each of us to make our own unique contribution to God’s world.
Not to take from the earth, not to seek to take for ourselves at the expense of others. For then we become as the dust. And what is the dust? The word “dust” first appears in the Eden narrative (Gen. 3:14) when God curses the serpent: “… and you shall eat dust all the days of your life.” Then to Adam (Gen. 3:19) “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread until you return to the earth, for you were taken from it; because you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Take selfishly and return to the dust, or strive to elevate yourself — and to elevate others as well. Look up to the heavens for guidance. Look to the stars for inspiration. Look to God’s dwelling place. Because that’s where you belong too.
God bless you.