Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Cosmic Lottery - GRS drasha from Lech Lecha

A few people have asked for copies of the drasha that I gave this past Shabbat at Green Road Synagogue. Unfortunately, I don't write things up before I speak. But I think that I might like a copy too. Dara and I have largely based the Bible and Jewish History curricula at Fuchs Mizrachi on these ideas. So I will try to write it up as best as I can from memory. In addition to any differences of memory, my writing and speaking styles differ a bit. 

The Cosmic Lottery

When I was a kid in school, my teachers used to make a big deal about how difficult the challenge of "lech lecha" was for Avraham. How hard would it be, the asked us to imagine, leaving your home, family and culture to move to a strange new land. What they left out, was that Avraham was already doing that anyway. He and his family were nomadic trader/shepherds, and were already moving from Mesopotamia to Israel. This was the initiative of Avraham's father, Terach, and appears in the text at the end of chapter 11, immediately preceding the lech lecha. 

"And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there." 

The basic route along the fertile crescent 

Whenever you place the Divine command to Avraham, he is basically being asked to do something that he was doing with his father anyway. So why was this challenge so difficult?

Well, maybe it wasn't. Perhaps God is asking Avraham to be the kind of person that he already was, and do the kind of things he already did, but to now dedicate those things to Him. The greater challenges come later, including the ultimate test of the Akeda, the second "lech lecha". But for now, Avraham is simply taking who he is so far, and dedicating himself to God. The text says that he is 75, years old. The midrash tells us that he was already a great iconoclast, (literally!) challenging the prevailing world views of his age with his perspective of ethical monotheism. He does appear in the text to stand different from those around him in many ways. As he grows, even in his later years he demonstrates that kind of sustained subversion against his own ideas as well. He always challenges himself, which is undoubtably why he succeeds in his later tests from God. 

And why is God choosing this man and this land and bringing them together? He says, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed". So it has something to do with blessing all the families of the earth. Through the ages this has been explained to mean building a nation that will be a light to all others. This nation will create a great society of justice and righteousness that will be an example to all others. That is what they are being chosen for. In earlier chapters, God has tried to make covenants with Adam and Noah in order to build an ethical humanity. When this does not work out, God decides to make his covenants with Avraham to be the progenitor of this nation that will follow his example and exhibit his characteristics. 

Now that we are three thousand and a something hundred years into that plan, it seems reasonable to take a step back and see how the mission is going. How have we done as the vanguard of civilization?

Well, a few centuries after Avraham those descendants end up founding a kingdom in that land. They have a nomadic herding tradition, and settle into agricultural life. They are also on the crossroads of the fertile crescent where Asia and Afica meet, between the two great world empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In this cross cultural environment, they do indeed embody the character of Avraham, creating a body of literature that changes the world. It posits ideas that were crazy in the in the Iron Age, when they were written. Among those ideas were concepts like monarchs under the law, the sacred value of every human life and peace as a virtue. It is nearly impossible for us to grasp how tiny and insignificant this kingdom was politically and demographically, precisely because the influence of these works is way out of proportion to the tiny people who generated them. 

The First Jewish State

Although they lose their kingdom in 586 B.C.E. to the Babylonians, they continue to study and expound on their classic canon of sacred literature. In these works, the Jews delve into understand both the values and practices of the Bible. And while the values are probably more important, emphasis is placed on the explication of the laws, so that Torah can be lived and not just learned. In these works, they, like their forefather, constantly and consistently challenge the prevailing assumptions of their ages. They ask questions within their world and without, always thinking that things can and should be made better.

They spend centuries spread around the world in a variety of countries and cultures, constantly weighing values against each other, balancing tradition with progress. Defying all the laws of history, they maintain a coherent identity in exile, and eventually (astonishingly) return to reclaim their homeland and independence. There they continue to struggle like their forefathers, to create a culture of justice and bring values from the realm of ideas to reality. They continue to contribute to arts, culture and science all disproportionate to their numbers

We may wonder that the pace is so slow, but the mission does seem to be ongoing. When we do wonder about the glacial pace, we can question wether it is because of our backsliding, or because God simply works at a scale that we simply can't appreciate. But the plan does seem to be in effect

What does this mean for us? What are the consequences of being part of the .2% of the world's population who are part of this covenant? What is incumbent upon us as winners of this Cosmic Lottery, to be born into the nation destined to be the vanguard of civilization by dint of a contract with the Master of the Universe? What responsibilities fall to those proud few who constitute this amazing people?

I think it comes down to three things.

1) The first is the need to access the great works of our people. To have such an embarrassment of riches at our disposal and ignore it would be a crime. To live without drawing on three thousand years of inherited wisdom is living hand to mouth. To put it into simpler parlance, we should learn more Torah.

2) We should not only learn Judaism, we should live it. Just as with the first factor, we can certainly do better at our practice of halachah, and live more authentic Jewish lives. And if we can, we must.

3) We must do everything we can to move the mission forward. This means building a Jewish state that exemplifies the ideals of tzedek vemishpat, justice and righteousness, so that Jerusalem becomes the city on the hill that is the world's model.

Like our father Avraham, we must constantly challenge prevailing accepted views in search of deeper truth. And like him, this must be directed not only against society, but also within ourselves. His example is one of constant, dynamic growth.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the story of God's plan in making this covenant with Avraham is that we get to write the next chapter. May we make our forefathers proud.

The Great Journey

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