Moving Right Along

Parashat Lech-Lecha / פרשת לך־לך

Torah Portion: Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

In the Mishnah, the seminal body of rabbinic literature that developed within the first two centuries CE, the rabbis teach: “With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all–in order to make known how great was our father Abraham’s love [for G-d]” (Mishnah Avot 5:3). Because the rabbis of the Mishnah don’t enumerate the tests, it fell upon later authorities to speculate what they were, and by all accounts most of the trials take place in this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, between chapters 12 and 17 of the Book of Genesis (Bereishit, in Hebrew). (See http://bit.ly/trialsofabraham for the Mishnah text and two interpreters’ lists of the trials.)

One trial, in particular, catches my attention this week. The parasha begins with God famously telling Abram, (God had not yet given him the name “Abraham), “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Abram responds to this command by taking his wife, Sarai, their nephew Lot, and all their possessions on an epic journey to the land of Canaan. God’s call to “go forth” was Abraham’s first test, according to Maimonides, and he passed with flying colors. However, it is the next test that jumps out at me.

No sooner does Abram arrive in the land of Canaan and God promises “I will assign this land to your heirs” (Gen. 12:7) that we read: “There was a famine in the land…” (12:10). Apparently, Canaan was not yet the “land of milk and honey” that Abraham’s descendents would eventually find it to be. Rather, after the long journey from Haran, Abram, et al, find themselves in a barren wasteland. Imagine how shocked they must have been. How would Abram respond to this trial: stay put and inhabit the land or move on to more hospitable environs?

We receive our answer right away: “… and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land” (ibid.). Abram chose to relocate to a land where he and his family could find physical sustenance. Perhaps he suspected from his experience of frequent drought in that part of the world that the sojourn in Egypt would be temporary, as we find in the next chapter it was. We don’t know; the text is silent. Perhaps Abram wanted to tough it out in the barren land but those around him talked him out of it. Perhaps he had no idea if his move to Egypt would be temporary or permanent. Again, we don’t know.

What we do know is that Abram had a difficult decision to make: stay or go? If he stayed, he’d be jeopardizing the welfare of his wife, nephew, slaves and livestock. If he left, he might be betraying his God, who brought him there. Or maybe Abram understood that this initial visit to the land, accompanied by building altars here and there, was just that: a visit. Maybe he knew that eventually the land would belong to his descendents, and he saw this visit as an opportunity to scout out the land, to check out the property that his children and his children’s children would, in the future, occupy and build up into a great nation. In that case, there would be no reason not to keep going. So many possibilities. What to do?

We can’t know what was going through Abram’s mind at the time, but we can imagine his angst because we’ve all been there. We’ve all found ourselves at one time or another pursuing a dream or taking a chance on something that we hoped would bring us happiness and security. And we’ve all had an experience of disappointment when the dream fell short of our expectations or the chance we took didn’t bear fruit. We’ve all been in that place where we’ve asked ourselves “What now?”

What the sages teach us is that Abraham was a man of faith. Whenever God called to him, Abraham answered. He responded to each test, never turning his back on God even though he might have been forgiven for doing so on any number of occasions, such as when God commanded him to sacrifice his son Isaac. Here, too, when Abram was faced with a “what now” situation upon landing in the midst of a famine, we can be certain that he approached his dilemma with the faith that somehow everything would work out in the end. He might not have known exactly how things would work out, but he trusted that God would take care of him and his heirs over the long haul.

When we find ourselves at a crossroads, at a place of despair with an unknown future, do we exhibit the faith of Abraham? Do we act, as did Abram, with the belief that things might be rough now but further down the road they’ll get better? Do we move on, as did Abram, even though we can’t be 100% certain if we’re making the “right” decision? Taking action in the face of uncertainty is the very definition of faith, in my opinion. Abram couldn’t know for sure where his journey would lead, nor could he be sure that God would always accompany him. He couldn’t be sure of anything, but he had faith, and that was enough.

Don’t get me wrong: exhibiting faith doesn’t mean we live without some degree of anxiety. Abraham was human and so are we. There would be something wrong with him and us if we didn’t fret over the future from time to time. I imagine Abraham lost a lot of sleep in times of trial and that he sweat profusely. Who wouldn’t? We shouldn’t think for a minute that Abraham didn’t face his future without some trepidation.

What makes Abraham’s faith so remarkable is not that he didn’t stress out in times of uncertainty — most likely, he did — but rather, as a pioneer in the belief of the One God, he had no experience to go on that would have told him that God would always be there with him through the good and the bad. And, yet, Abraham took action over and over again and found that God WAS there. It is precisely BECAUSE of Abraham’s experience that we know, no matter how bad things get, God will always accompany us on our journey. 

When we find ourselves in lands that are parched, in promised lands that promise us little more than privation, may we remember how Abram pushed forward with faith. With Divine love always with us, let us overcome our occasional fears and doubts and keep moving right along. One day we just might find ourselves dwelling in a land flowing with milk and honey.

Shabbat Shalom

Moses Strikes Rock. God Issues Pink Slip.

Parashat Hukkat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1)

The Israelites are at it again: complaining about the lack of water in the wilderness and waxing nostalgic about their life in Egypt (Numbers 20:2-5). This time, God patiently instructs Moses to order a nearby rock to yield water (20:8). Rather than emulate God’s patience and understanding of the people’s needs, though, Moses ignores God’s instructions and, instead, addresses the Israelites as “rebels,” asks them “shall we get water for you out of the rock?” and then hits the rock, not once but twice.  The water does come forth, and the people’s thirst is sated (20:9-11). However, Moses and Aaron fare less well. In response to Moses’ behavior – whether it is berating the Israelites or defying God’s instructions – God punishes Moses and Aaron by informing them that they “shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (20:12). God essentially delivers the leaders of the Israelites a proverbial pink slip. Moses and Aaron are doomed to perish in the wilderness along with the rest of the generation of the Exodus, save Joshua and Caleb, never to step foot in the land God had promised their ancestors.

What exactly does Moses do to set God against him and Aaron? In his article on Parashat Hukkat this week, Rabbi Shai Held, director of Mechon Hadar: The Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas, summarizes the vast array of biblical commentary on Moses’ sin, highlighting a millennia-old disagreement among scholars over the nature of the sin. In the end, Rabbi Held hones in on a particular lesson about leadership, a lesson that can be instructive for all of us. I encourage you to head on over to Rabbi Held’s article at http://goo.gl/hVlsYO and learn for yourself the value of keeping an open heart and an open mind during times of adversity. May we carry this lesson with us into our places of work, into our communities, and into our homes.

The Sin of Avoidance

Parashat Shelach Lecha — Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach Lecha, tells of one of the greatest catastrophes to befall the People of Israel during its sojourn in the wilderness. Commonly referred to as the “sin of the spies,” this incident becomes the very reason it would take the people 40 years to enter the Promised Land. During those 40 years, the entire generation of Israelites that left Egypt, save two men — Joshua and Caleb — would perish. Only the generations born in the wilderness, those who never experienced slavery in Egypt, would merit possessing the land.

In chapter 13 of the Book of Bemidbar (Numbers) God instructs Moses to “Send men to scout the land of Canaan” (13:2). In fulfilling God’s bidding, Moses says to the scouts (or spies), of which there was one from each tribe: “‘Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land'” (13:17-20).

What Moses asks for is “just the facts.” However, what the scribes bring back is a report with too much commentary. The scouts effectively undermine the people’s faith in God and once again ready them to return to Egypt: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (13:32-33).

Incensed at the scouts and those who joined them in fearing that Israel would never be able to possess the land that God had promised their ancestors, God declares that the generations of Israelites that left Egypt would be doomed to wander for 40 years, one year for each day the scouts were on their mission. This would be enough time to ensure that younger, more faithful Israelites would eventually take over the leadership of the tribes and then conquer the land of Canaan. The People needed optimistic leaders who wouldn’t easily be swayed to abandon their divine mission only to bear the shackles of slavery in Egypt once again.

For a brilliant interpretation of why the generation of the scouts was punished by God as it was, I urge you to read the article by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks at http://www.aishdas.org/ta/5772/shlach.pdf. Rabbi Sacks was Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth of England from 1991 to 2013 and is one of the most astute readers and teachers of Torah in the world today. In answering his own question — “Why did the spies err so egregiously?” — Rabbi Sacks shares a Hassidic train of thought that the spies preferred the wilderness life over the life that would come with building a nation in the Land of Israel (http://www.aishdas.org/ta/5772/shlach.pdf). In the wilderness, the people felt close to God and they could focus on serving God free of responsibilities like plowing and harvesting, self-defense, maintaining a welfare system, etc. In reality, though, Rabbi Sacks writes, “The Jewish task is not to fear the real world but to enter and transform it. That is what the spies did not understand” (ibid.).

As we go through life, we often face obstacles that initially feel insurmountable, and it is tempting to simply back away from the obstacles and abandon whatever it was we were hoping to achieve. Had the spies had their way, the People of Israel would have returned back to Egypt, leaving Canaan for another nation to conquer. But that was not God’s plan. So eventually a generation arose with the resolve to see God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to fulfillment. We must show similar resolve in our lives to do the hard, sometimes frightening work required to enjoy a life of meaning and to make the world a better place for all humanity. It is our task to make God’s love manifest for all God’s creatures; this can only happen when we overcome isolation and avoidance to engage the “real world.”