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.


Noah and Small Injustices

This Shabbat we turned to the story of Noah, and small injustices.

The story of Noah and the flood is perhaps known to us. It is a story that is told to us as children and a story that is a part of the popular imagination. (And recently was a major motion picture.) God, dissatisfied with the world that was created, decides to destroy the world’s inhabitants by flood. Noah is chosen to be the savior of humanity (and animal life) when he is called by God and instructed to build an ark to house him and his family, along with representatives of all the world’s animal species. The floods come, Noah is saved, and once the waters subside all leave the ark to begin the world anew.

Its an extreme story, one that is also not exclusive to Jewish teachings. There is the Epic of Gilgamesh in ancient Mesopotamian literature, for example. There was perhaps some ancient catastrophic natural event that led different cultures to develop folklore of a flood story, a fact which makes the story that much more powerful because of its universality. But the key to reading and understanding this story is not to see it as a record of a worldwide catastrophe (although it is hard these days to read the story without thinking of sea level rise caused by global climate change), but to see it as a story of humanity. What are the values present in the story that we as humans are meant to understand?noah wickedness

To think of that question, we turn to God’s reasoning. In the Torah story, the flood was not a random event, but a response. God was responding to the condition of humanity—a condition of evil, a condition of violence. “God saw how great was humanity’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised was nothing but evil all the time. And God regretted having created humans on earth, and God’s heart was saddened.” (Genesis 6:5-6)

But what, exactly, was the “wickedness” and “evil” that is spoken of? This story comes on the heels of the story of Creation, which ends with the first murder. So perhaps that murder and neglect for human life is what is being described. A midrash, however, comes to teach otherwise:

This is what the people of the age of the Flood used to do: when a person brought out a basket full of beans for sale, another would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth [a minimal amount, too small for legal action], and then everyone would come and steal less than a perutah‘s worth, so that the seller had no legal remedy. (Bereshit Rabbah 31:5)

Each person only stole a small amount of beans, but when many people steal a small amount, then all the beans are gone. In other words, It was not the great injustices that led to the destruction of the world, but the small ones. A steady stream of small injustices build to such a crescendo that required a complete destruction and restarting of life on earth.

In recent days we have witnessed an increase in violence in Israel, with seemingly random attacks on Israeli civilians. What is striking to me is the “smallness” of these attacks. During the last intifada, when I lived in Jerusalem for a year as part of my rabbinical studies, the fear was bombings, which would kill numerous people at once. Now the attacks are that much smaller—stabbings in the street, cars driven into crowds. But the smaller attacks join into a larger wave of violence, which must be condemned.

These attacks are carried out in a context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the general absence of peace, which is perhaps defined by many small injustices. As Israelis are attacked, we must not deny the small injustices that are carried out every day against Palestinians, who live under an ever-growing occupation, the constant threat and perpetration of violence, the need to negotiate checkpoints and who are generally not in control of their lives.

In our country, the idea of “small injustices” also relates to our conversations around race and privilege. While we note the wave of African American deaths at the hands of white police, we also need to take into account the small injustices faced every day by people of color, who are denied access, who are routinely stopped in their cars, who are watched in stores and who are perceived as a threat while walking down the street.

And as Jews in America we experience small injustices as well. Recently I was asked about the presence of anti-Semitism locally, and while I noted that we haven’t faced any major overt incidents recently, the scheduling conflicts, ignorance of Jewish calendars and customs, and indifference or hostility towards Jewish approaches remind us of our minority status and are just as wounding.

Many of the ills that plague us are defined by small injustices.

But while we speak of small injustices, we really know that small injustices, carried out by many, are both symptoms of and create great injustices. This is the lesson of the midrash on Noah. Small injustices aggregate, they condition societies to hate and hurt the other, they create societies that are, in the words of the Torah, “evil.” Another flood will not come to destroy humanity, that is God’s promise. But it doesn’t mean we aren’t capable of doing it ourselves.

As we read Noah this year, we take to heart the beginning of the story. We condemn the small injustices.

We condemn violence.

We condemn wickedness.

We condemn evil.

We condemn violence.

We condemn oppression.

Rather, we pray for justice, and we pray for peace.

And we pray to avoid the Flood.

Turning to the Land

The warm weather brings us outside, and for many of us our thoughts turn to gardens and planting. It is time, once again, to till the soil.

Looking at the small section of the earth that is under my care I can’t help but sigh. For the decade I have lived here I have engaged in a somewhat losing battle with the forces of nature, the perennial blackberries make their approach, ready to consume all if just given the chance. The bindweed pokes up from the ground ready to pounce. Yet in spite of it, I look over and see how I have in part transformed this landscape, and made the land arable. With much digging and pulling, and with the help of a few scratching and pecking chickens, I have made space for growing food and flowers.

This is the time to turn to the land, for we are in the middle of the Omer period in our calendar. We count each day between Passover and Shavuot, linking the Festival of Freedom and Liberation with the Festival of Torah, Law and Wisdom. But the Torah origin of this period is agricultural, counting the days between harvests. Shavuot, which we will mark in two weeks, is called the Festival of First Fruits, when our ancient ancestors would take the first fruits of their harvest and bring them to the Temple as a dedication, a gesture of thanks for the forces beyond our control which resulted in a bountiful crop. We can plant, water, weed, tend and till–but nature will determine what grows. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate gratitude.

This is the time to turn to the land, because this Shabbat is parashat Behar. We read as part of our weekly Torah reading cycle the section in Leviticus which discusses shmita. Just as humans have a Shabbat every seventh day, the land is to have a Shabbat every seven years. On the seventh year the land goes fallow to renew itself and regenerate, to take a break from production, to just be. Just as we need a break, our Torah teaches that the land needs a break as well. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate humility.

This is the time to turn to the land, because also in parasha Behar we learn of the Jubilee, that every seventh turn of this seven year cycle is the Jubilee year, in which a complete remission of debts is announced, land is returned to its original holders. We are reminded in our dealings with one another that we must not wrong one another, be fair in business dealings, assist  those who are in dire straits and not take advantage of another for our own financial gain. That our redemption of the land is to also remind us of our redemption of one another. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate compassion.

[It is the time to turn to the land because in our Olympia community this week we draw the connection between land and poverty, between agriculture and sustenance, between sustainability and hunger with the CROP Walk, the annual interfaith event in which TBH participates to raise money for hunger relief in our community and around the world. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate joint action.]

This is the time to turn to the land because next week is a minor, “unofficial” holiday–Rainbow Day. Tuesday is the 27th of the month of Iyyar, which the story in Genesis tells us is the day the flood waters completely abated, the land was dry, Noah alighted from the Ark and God made a covenant with him that the world will not again be destroyed by flood. Noah was to follow simple guidelines–to live in peace with the earth and with others–in order to form a just foundation to the new society he will build after the previous one was destroyed. The rainbow serves as the symbol of that covenant. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate peace and justice.

We are told in the Noah story that God made the covenant not just with Noah, but with the earth. (Genesis 9:13) In parashat Behar, we learn “the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”(Leviticus 25:23) We are reminded that we are of the land, that we are in relationship with the land, and our connection with the land is a path to the sacred. We cultivate the land, and we cultivate holiness.

Remember this as you get your hands dirty.