Lech Lecha — Genesis 12:1–17:27

How often have you taken advantage of a last minute travel deal?

Today, it may feel good not to know where you will travel until the very last minute; it allows you to discover some new, exotic destination at a great rate. In the ancient Near Eastern mind, however, that same sense of journeying without knowing the destination borders on the absurd. To journey in search of an undisclosed place, as later rabbinic commentators emphasize ad absurdum, positions such a seeker as a madman. After all, if you do not where you are going, the route is filled with endless obstacles and surprises. But in stressing just how outlandish a decision Abram makes, the rabbis are drawing our attention back to the remarkable text in Torah: God commands Abram to relocate and take leave — "Go forth form your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)

With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).

Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: "Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth." (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.

Upon completing the "covenant between the pieces" that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. Sometimes these transformations begin with taking that first step into the unknown.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is connected to Abram's moment of calling. "Go forth!" "Leave Chaldea!" James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) describes Philo of Alexandria's interpretation of this episode: "Philo says something happens: 'opening [its] eye from the depth of sleep,' the soul suddenly becomes aware of God's presence. At that point God will say to the soul, as He Said to Abraham, 'Leave Chaldea!' – that is, leave your old way of thinking, in which the human senses are considered to be the only form of perception, and proceed on to a new way of thinking and, ultimately, to the Promised Land of knowing God." Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Noah — Genesis 6:9-11:32

"Who is like you
Who could reach you
Who has seen
Who has been
...When you ride a cherub
And glide on the wind
And wander through thunder
And move within storms
Making your way through the waters...
"

The liturgical poet Yannai here imagines the divine as controlling the universe, "from the sky to the heaven’s heaven." Water and its sacred nature are ever-present in the ancient Israelite imagination.

In our reading this week, as the only righteous person left standing in a world bereft of morality, Noah is called upon by God to design and build a wooden ark to escape the deluge that is about to wipe out all of creation from the face of the earth. Noah gathers his family and two members of each animal species to ensure continuity after the flood.

The ark settles on Mount Ararat after 40 days and nights of rainfall, which recedes 150 days later. From the window of the ark, Noah sends forth a raven, followed by a series of doves to find any traces of dry land. Finally Noah exits the ark, in a sense restarting the process of creation by repopulating the earth.

A covenant of the rainbow is made by God, testifying to never again destroy all of humanity. With the flood’s dramatic destruction fresh in mind, it is decreed that, henceforth, murder is a capital offense, and flesh or blood taken from a living animal is prohibited (while properly slaughtered meat is permitted to be eaten).

Noah drinks from the first produce of his vineyard, and becomes intoxicated. Again this righteous exemplar is being tested. This time, we see how effective Noah has been as a righteous exemplar through the behavior of his offspring: Shem and Japheth cover their exposed father while Ham takes advantage of his vulnerability.

With power comes responsibility, and the power of creativity is manifest through the divine song, channeled and composed by liturgical poets like Yannai who sought to intensify the experience of prayer for worshippers, making the contents of familiar weekly readings such as the story of Noah new again.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: Biblical scholars contend that the Tower of Babel story was not composed as a cautionary tale about universal human overreaching. Instead, they suggest it is a veiled screed against cities. Professor James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) writes, "The whole point is Babylon (babel in Hebrew)...[and] the thing that most characterised Babylon in the minds of ancient Israelites was its big cities with…their massive populations. ... From [the Israelites] standpoint, who were sparsely settled in the Semitic hinterland, such teeming conglomerations and the complex urban culture they made possible…do not find favor with God." Here, we see the Tower of Babel rising from the desert as a towering metropolis. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Korah -- Numbers 16:1 – 18:32

DFacebook_CoverDesign_Korahuring a brief visit to Dublin, the birthplace of Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854), I was struck by the author, playwright, and poet's quick wit and keen observations about human nature. Wilde once quipped that, "Arguments are extremely vulgar, for everyone in good society holds exactly the same opinion."

Torah, on the other hand, teaches us about respecting a diversity of opinions. Such respectful but creative tension [makhloket] comes to be understood in the aftermath of Korah.

By inciting a mutiny against Moses, Korah is justly decrying a hierarchy that he sees as unfair. He proclaims his own brand of spiritual grandeur — "We are all holy!" This is a very real, egalitarian challenge to the hegemony of Mosaic leadership and its preferential granting of the priesthood to Aaron. In the end, Korah and his mutineers are consumed by fire as the earth swallows them up. Why then does Scripture later mention (Numbers 26:11) that "the children of Korah never died?"

The sages of the Mishnah picked up on the cues from Korah and went on to teach the following in Tractate Avot 5:20: "Any dispute [machloket] for heaven’s sake will ultimately endure; while any dispute [machloket] which is not for heaven’s sake will not endure. What is a dispute for heaven’s sake? This is a debate between Hillel and Shammai. What is a dispute that is not for heaven’s sake? This is the dispute of Korah and his assembly." In other words, there is a difference between petty squabbling and good arguments that allow for growth amidst real difference. Shammai and Hillel exemplify what it means to be involved in disputes for heaven’s sake, given that before either one would launch his own argument, his first step was to cite the opposing position; only after having done so would he then make his own argument. This posture displays a deep respect for opposing points of view and the realization that truth is discovered as part of a process that emerges in civil dialogue.

The vibrancy we yearn for in our Jewish lives comes by living in that creative tension between the Mosaic path and the Korahite path. The challenge before each of us is how to create that single vessel within community – to make space to foster the creative tension to enable our moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to be fully lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is an illustration of tzitzit tied with a thread of techelet, wool dyed blue with blood extracted from a sea snail. Why this image? At the end of last week’s parsha, Moses was tasked with telling the Israelites that God commanded them to "make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner." (Numbers 15:38) Many of our traditional biblical commentators believed that this "unbearable law" (Pseudo-Philo) was the final straw for Korah and his allies, and therefore gave rise to Korah’s rebellion. But, as James Kugel points out in his How To Read The Bible (2007), "Korah was not really interested in changing the system, merely in taking it over. He was thus a dangerous demagogue." Here, we see the techelet tied to the tzitzit according to the instructions given by Rabbi Abraham ben David (c. 1125–1198), also known as the RaBad or Raavad. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.