As We Continue Our Journey, We Note What We Leave Behind

Earlier this week I had the honor of giving the d’var Torah at the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, a body on which I hold an ex officio seat as President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. This is what I shared:

Thank you. I am honored to share some words of Torah as we begin this meeting together.

It is always interesting to me to share a d’var Torah in the middle of the week. Traditionally we look forward to the upcoming portion, in this case, Lech Lecha. We count time up towards Shabbat—Sunday is yom rishon (“the first day”), Monday is yom sheni (“the second day”), etc. until we reach Shabbat. And traditionally we read the beginning of the next week’s portion at the Shabbat mincha portion. As one Shabbat ends, we anticipate the portion to come.

Yet at the same time, when we are in the middle of the week last week’s portion—and in this case Noach—still lingers with us, it still echoes.

This week’s portion of Lech Lecha is that powerful story of Abraham being called by God: “God said to Abram, go forth from your country, from your native land, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

It is a story of radical change, of transformation, of moving away from what was toward the unknown of what will be. It is taking the first few steps into an unknown future.

It is a story that inspires us, especially as we are reading it so close after the High Holidays in which we all made our commitments to a new future for ourselves.

But as I mentioned, we can also see ourselves as being in between portions, so we can look back at Noach, particularly the end, to help inform our reading of Lech Lecha. And when we read the end of Noach with the beginning of Lech Lecha, as it follows in the Torah, as opposed to just the break that comes with the beginning of the portion, we can understand Lech Lecha somewhat differently.

At the end of parashat Noach, at the end of chapter 11 of Genesis, we have a genealogy leading up to Abraham. And in verse 31-32 we read, “And Terach took his son Abram and Lot the son of Haran is grandson and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and lived there. And the days of Terach were 205, and he died in Haran.”

Abraham, with his family, was already on the way to Canaan, when something stopped them and the settled in Haran. Lech Lecha is therefore less a radical shift and transformation, but the continuation of a journey already undertaken.

So we remember that even what seems like a radical break from the past is still build upon what comes before. We shift, we pivot, but all of what led to this moment in which we find ourselves is what made us who we are, and indeed, allowed us to make the change we need to make.

Abraham may not have been receptive to the call if he heard it in Ur, but he was ready when he heard it in Haran.

There is another piece of this “in-betweenness” of the portions that I want to hold up, and that is the last verse, the verse that speaks of Terach’s death.

Rashi, the classic medieval French commentator, does a close read of the text and notices something interesting. He points out that according to Genesis 11:26, Terach was 70 years old when Abraham was born. And according to Genesis 12:4, Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran. 70+75=145. Terach was 145 when Abraham left Haran to go to Canaan, and he lived another 60 years longer. If this is the case, Rashi asks, then why does the Torah record Terach’s death before telling the story of Abraham’s call if he was still alive?

The answer, Rashi says, is that the Torah wants us to think Terach died before Abraham left. The Torah does not want us to realize that Abraham left his father in his old age, and that Abraham did not show his father the proper respect. And it worked, we don’t realize this fact that Terach was still alive.

Here then, is a lesson about the nature of growth and change. For each new endeavor we embrace, whether individual or communal, whether examining our sense of self or our communal direction, we are also leaving something behind, and with that comes loss. And we do what we can to minimize the sadness, hurt, and loss that comes with that. The Torah does this by recording Terach’s death before Abraham’s call even though the chronological order is different. And we do it on our own ways.

Every opportunity to gather around this Board table is an opportunity to hear the call of Lech Lecha, to go forth towards something new.

And each time we remember that we are really continuing a journey that we have always been on, and with each new step of that journey we embrace what is to come and we also mourn, remember, and offer gratitude for what we leave behind.

We look forward to Canaan, and we don’t forget Haran.


Love Thy (Next-Door) Neighbor as Thyself

It was my monthly turn on the Rabbis Without Borders blog today. Here is my contribution, reflecting on a recent incident. Talking about The Twilight Zone, neighbors, our ancestor Abraham, Halloween and my chickens…

Love Thy (Next-Door) Neighbor as Thyself

The Unclaimed Dead

This week’s Torah portion is Chaye Sarah, and begins with the death of Sarah.

After the ordeal of having to nearly sacrifice his son, Abraham returns home to the death of his wife. (Some commentators connect the two events, saying Sarah died when she heard about what Abraham had done.) Abraham then begins the difficult process of making arrangements, something we all find ourselves in the middle of after a passing. The grief is there, but the mourning can not fully start until the arrangements are made.

The same is true in our contemporary mourning practice. One is not considered a “mourner” until after the burial. Between death and burial is an intermediate time known as aninut during which one makes the necessary arrangements.

Abraham sets out to make the arrangements. Having left his ancestral home, he is living among the Hittites in Canaan.  He goes to see the local chieftain, Ephron ben Zohar, to inquire about purchasing a cave in which to bury Sarah. Ephron knows of Abraham’s reputation as a leader and man of God, and so offers to gift him the cave. Abraham insists however on paying for it, and a deal is struck for Abraham to purchase the cave, and he proceeds to bury Sarah within.

There is much that can be said about the merits of a sale versus a gift. Gifts imply an ongoing relationship (a subtle expectation that the gesture of a gift will be returned at some point) while a sale is a clear transaction. Gifts are open ended. A sale is final.

So while some will read this about land claims, it perhaps has to do more with the need to make “final arrangements” when it comes to mourning a loved one. Part of our mourning practice is to provide some formal act of transition between experiencing the death of a loved one and the beginning of the mourning process. This is the function of the funeral and burial. Sometimes circumstances require a service at a later date, or unconnected with burial. But the need to do right by our loved ones so we can begin to heal is a powerful motivator, the need to honor those who have died with ritual and acknowledgement is a necessary process. Abraham’s actions demonstrate this.

Two weeks ago I had the honor to participate in a commemoration organized by Interfaith Works in conjunction with the Thurston County Coroner’s Office. It was a memorial service—held in conjunction with All Souls Day/Dio de los Muertos—for all the unclaimed dead this past year. These were the people who did not have anyone to care for their bodies, or unbelievably, those whose families did not want to take responsibility and walked away.

The ceremony felt very much like a tikkun, a repair. To leave the dead unacknowledged felt like a tear in the fabric of what is right. These seven people did not have anyone to ritualize their passing, did not have anyone to offer a prayer or some words. Since this usually falls to the family and friends, and there weren’t any, it then falls to the community to do so. We, like Abraham, insist on making the arrangements for our honored dead.

I was asked to offer a eulogy, an interesting prospect for people I did not know and for whom there is no one to fill in the details of the life lived. I opened with the poem “Each of Us Has a Name” by Zelda, translated by Marcia Falk. And then here is what I shared:

We recall the names.

Names are often what we leave behind. A name etched on granite, on a headstone, on a wall, printed on paper.

Or a name etched on our hearts, on our minds.

We know the power of names. Our ancient biblical ancestor Abraham, as we know him now, but his name was originally Abram, his name changed to Abraham, father of many nations, when he was granted by God with the covenant.

His grandson Jacob, also in covenant with God, whose encounter with an angel in the middle of the night resulting in a blessing and a change of his name, from Jacob to Israel, “one who wrestles with God”, a name that will come to define a people for millennia to come.

The power of a name.

Think about your own name. Maybe you were named after someone at birth. Why were you given the name you have? What hopes and dreams were meant for you when your name was bestowed upon you? What family history is wrapped up in your last name? Do you have a nickname? Did you change your name? Did you choose your name, perhaps after some significant life event.

For we know that a name is much more than a name. A name is a life, a life of meaning.

We come to remember these honored dead. Defined, as we remember them here, only by their names. We do not have the stories that made up their lives. But the name is only an entry way into understanding their life.

These people: Annette Paula Emerick, Edward Harvey Epstein, Cleveland Anthony duBois, Jordan C. Silver, Juanita K. Hinchliffe, Christoper J. Rabe, Larry G. Ryan. Someone gave them the name that they have. Someone bestowed upon them this blessing of a name. What was in their minds when they did so? What family history was in their last name? Was the middle name “Harvey” after a beloved uncle? Or what is the story of the “Hinchcliffe” family? Someone thought and cared to bestow upon a name. They are not just individuals but members of a family, a lineage, a heritage.

And as we think about these beloved dead, let us not just stop at their names. Let us think about the person who gave them the name, who held them in their arms and whispered their name. Or used their name in scolding them, telling them to cut it out. Or who called out their name in fear and panic and reminded them to look both ways before crossing the street.

And let us remember the fact that they were called by this name by family and friends. Spoken as an invitation to get a beer after work. Or called out in joy by a young niece or nephew. Or spoken softly by a beloved partner.

Their bodies might not be claimed at death, but throughout life their lives were claimed by anyone who sought them out by name.

It is in this way we can bestow our love and empathy upon them. As we recall what it is like to be called by our names, the love shown when our name is spoken by someone, the pride and heritage we carry when we sign our surname, we can project that same feeling upon these honored dead as we call their names.

And just as they were claimed in life, they are claimed in death. By calling their names. This is what we honor here today. The blessing of their names. The blessing of their lives.

The need for ritual at the end of life is so important, whether carried out by a loving husband, as Abraham did for Sarah, or by a faithful community, as we did for the unclaimed dead of Thurston County. It is in this way we give honor not only to those who have died, but to those of us left behind. It is both a final, and a first, step in the healing process. All lives are thus claimed.

Your Impact Is a Blessing

This week we are introduced to Abraham.

Our Torah portion this week, Lech Lecha, begins with God calling Abraham, and inviting him to go forth from his homeland to a new land. But the call to move geographic locations is simply a physical manifestation of a deeper, more spiritual move: Abraham is changing the direction of his life in order to become God’s representative on Earth, to enter into a covenant with God.

Part of this “call” has to do with a blessing. God says:

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase. What does it mean that those who bless Abraham will in turn be blessed? What does it mean that others in the world will bless themselves through Abraham?

God is telling Abraham, here at the beginning of his mission, that he has the potential to make an impact. That he is going to make change in the world, and through his righteous action, that change is going to be overwhelmingly positive. He will be a blessing.

Righteous action brings change and makes an impact. Righteous action is a blessing.

The time has come again for us to demonstrate that we can bring change and make an impact. Election Day is upon us. We in Washington State, of course, have had our ballots for two weeks now as we vote by mail and so the day itself has less of an impact. But the fact of our voting, participating fully in our democracy, is something that should not go unnoticed. At a time that voting rights are being challenged, and the ability to easily vote curtailed, we are mindful that the ability to vote in our system is a blessing. Our acting on that ability makes our actions a blessing.

While it is a “midterm” year as they call it, vis a vis the presidential election, every election is important. This year we vote for Congress, several local elections and the usual slate of referenda and initiatives. One ballot measure, though, jumps out this year: I-594, which will make background checks mandatory on the sale of all firearms.

It jumps out not only because of the plague of gun violence that is sweeping our nation, but because of the plague of gun violence that is sweeping our local communities. The latest school shooting (and even to have to say “the latest school shooting” seems beyond the pale) took place right here in Washington State, in Marysville, north of Seattle. The details are continually being revealed, but 15-year-old Jaylen Fryberg premeditatedly invited his friends and cousins to meet him for lunch in the cafeteria where he proceeded to gun them down. Two people died, three wounded and Jaylen committed suicide.

We may never know all the details, the hows and whys of what Jaylen did. The reports are that he was a good kid, played football, was elected a homecoming prince. Reports are that he was in a dispute over a girlfriend (adding elements of domestic violence to this shooting). No indications of mental illness.

And the gun was legally purchased. This last factor will lead some to beg the question, would I-594 have even done anything? Indeed, that is one of the arguments against the initiative: that it still wouldn’t prevent criminals from obtaining guns.

First, while it may not do everything, it will do something, and that is important. If every piece of legislation had to solve every problem completely, then we would not pass any laws.

But irrespective of what it actually does regarding gun control, passing this initiative sends an important message. By passing this initiative we say this: that as a society, we will not let gun culture go unchecked. That guns are not just about individual rights, but communal responsibilities. That as we honor an individual’s right to own a firearm, we also honor an individual’s right to be able to go to school without fear.

For whatever Jaylen’s motivation, he was clearly comfortable with firearms. We need to stop saying as a nation that we are comfortable with guns. Guns shouldn’t be “comfortable” or “normative.”

A few years ago a mentally ill man attacked the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, killing one person and wounding several. For this reason, among others, the organized Jewish community in Washington has come out in favor of I-594. And if you recall, last year at Rosh Hashanah I gave a sermon on the subject drawing on Jewish sources, you can find it here.

When Abraham set out on his journey, he knew that he had the potential to bring blessing or curse. And that blessing or curse would have wide impact. So I invite you to exercise your ability to make an impact. First, vote. No matter for whom you vote, no matter how you vote on the initiatives, just vote. It is the simplest, most powerful act we have to be engaged citizens of our community.

And I invite you to join me in voting for I-594. Let’s take a step towards tighter controls on guns. For some it doesn’t go far enough. For some it may go too far. But anything we can do to send the message that the right to gun ownership must come with responsibilities, and that measures are needed to ensure public safety, can only be for a blessing.

God Tested Abraham. And Abraham Returned the Favor.

This week in our Torah reading cycle we come to parashat Vayera. While in the first couple of portions we have discrete stories being told each week-first about creation, then about Noah-and later in Genesis we will tell the Joseph saga over several weeks, this week’s portion is packed with several very dense and powerful stories about our ancient ancestors.

This week’s Torah portion also takes us back a few weeks to the High Holidays, for these are the stories we read as part of our Rosh Hashanah services. These stories of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael, Sarah and Isaac are told and retold, and are some of the most familiar in the Torah. We recently wrestled with them, and we will wrestle with them again.

One of those stories is the Akedah, Hebrew for “binding,” which is chapter 22 of Genesis. It is in this story that God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah where he is to be offered up as a sacrifice to God. Abraham takes his son and the wood necessary to build an altar and sets off on the three day journey to the location. Upon climbing the mountain, Isaac asks his father about the animal for sacrifice, and Abraham replies that “God will provide.” Once they get to the summit, Abraham builds the altar and binds Isaac to it. Raising his knife to kill his son, an angel calls out and tells Abraham to stop, that he is not to do it. Abraham sees a ram in the thicket and sacrifices it instead, and the angel blesses Abraham for heeding God.akedah

[In a happy interfaith coincidence, we are reading this story this week soon after our Muslim brothers and sisters celebrated Eid al-Adha, the holiday which marks the story in the Koran of Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his son Ismail. The sharing of these stories, albeit in different forms, is a powerful spiritual link between our two faiths.]

This is a troubling story, and a puzzling story. A conventional understanding is that God is “testing” Abraham’s loyalty, and that Abraham, in going through the steps to sacrifice his son, passes the test. God doesn’t want human blood, but God wants obedience.

But as we know, being Jews who wrestle with text and create oceans of commentary, the conventional understanding is only one understanding. When we confront the story year after year, both on the High Holidays and as part of the weekly Torah reading cycle, we do so with fresh eyes, with a new perspective, with another year of life and experience under our belts.

Indeed, one of the blessings of our community is the fact that Howard Schwartz, a TBH member, wrestles with this story year after year on our behalf, presenting new insight and understandings of the story on Rosh Hashanah. Whether speaking from the bimah or leading a discussion on the second day, Howard always has probing questions and challenges for thought.

This year during the discussion I could not shake the idea that Abraham was not as passive as we portray him to be. The person who challenged God over the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, arguing with God to save the cities if 10 righteous people could be found within (Genesis 18); and the person who brought his distress to God in response to Sarah’s request to banish Hagar (Genesis 21); now silently and obediently goes to do what many would consider a terrible act?

But maybe, Abraham is not being passive and obedient. Maybe Abraham is being just as rebellious as ever, demonstrating some of the “holy chutzpah” which has defined his being up until this point. For Abraham is a party to this covenant with God, and knows a few things about the terms of the agreement. Abraham knows that covenant is meant to continue through his descendants, and that his descendants are meant to be numerous. So by allowing Abraham to kill his son, God is either planning to provide a new heir at a later date (probably not likely), or else God will be violating the terms of this sacred agreement. Abraham is betting that God won’t go back on God’s word.

So the story is about God testing Abraham. But Abraham then tests God. What is the nature of the tests?

The story starts out:

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.”  And He said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”  So early next morning, Abraham saddled his ass and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and he set out for the place of which God had told him.”

God tests Abraham, as the text says, by asking him to take his son to Moriah to be sacrificed. But what if, in order to pass the test, Abraham is not supposed to say, “OK,” but he is supposed to say, “no way!” That refusing was not disobedience, but rather in order to pass the test, Abraham was supposed to refuse. God wanted to see if Abraham would abide by the covenant, understanding the need for an heir, especially after Ishmael was banished. Would Abraham uphold the covenant?, God is testing. But by carrying out the request, Abraham is actually calling God’s bluff and thus testing God, to see if God will let Abraham carry out what it is God requested.

In other words, God’s test is verses 1-2. At verse 3 the tables are turned and Abraham is testing God.

The story plays out, and God blinks. Though God told Abraham to do it, God didn’t really mean it, and had to come clean and stop him from doing it. God then has to cover God’s tracks by claiming that is what was meant to happen all along. Or, on a deeper level, by not “withholding his son” Abraham validated and redefined the covenant by proving that the ability to challenge God is a hallmark of what it means to be in relationship with God.

Thus the implications for us reading this story is that the Torah teaches we are not meant to comply with an unquestioning obedience to God. On the other hand we are meant to challenge and to question. We are meant to challenge and question God, tradition, authority and convention.

For isn’t this what has defined us as a people?

From ancient times to now we question and challenge. A recent Pew study of the American Jewish landscape portrays an ever changing people willing to confront the conventions of what it means to be Jewish. It demonstrates that the definition of Jewishness is dynamic. What is static is the connection to Judaism itself. Similarly our own personal relationships with God may change over time. What doesn’t change is the idea of God itself.

Our ancients understood this in terms of covenant. We are in covenant with the divine and we are in covenant with each other. That does not change. But as Abraham demonstrated, what does change is how we understand and define that covenant.