lech lecha, a change of place can lead to a change of destiny

The words we first hear from God to Avram “lech lecha”, are given without introduction or context.  Avram is to make a journey from his birthplace, leaving the security of family and settled place, and to go “lecha” – to or for himself, to a place which is described only as “the land which [God]will show you”. This journey defines Avram, who only two chapters later is called “Avram Ha’Ivri” – Avram, the one who has traversed/ crossed over. (14:13)

This designation “Ha’Ivri”, the one who has crossed from one place to another, has come down to us to describe ourselves (Hebrews) and our language of Ivrit.

The sense of movement, of travelling from one place to another, infuses Jewish history and Jewish identity. As much as we are “people of the book” we are “people of the world”, with a powerful and continuous yearning for the Land of Israel which has retained its centrality in our identity and liturgy, while mostly living in a wide and mobile diaspora.

There is a Yiddish saying “toyshen den platz, toyshen den glick” – “change your place and change your luck”, which must have acted as a comfort as communities were chased out of their villages and towns, or pre-emptively left before the coming pogrom. But the idea comes from Talmud, (Rosh Hashanah 16 b), and this first commandment to Avram is the proof text for it.  We read:

וא”ר יצחק ד’ דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם אלו הן צדקה צעקה שינוי השם ושינוי מעשה צדקה דכתיב (משלי י, ב) וצדקה תציל ממות צעקה דכתיב (תהלים קז, כח) ויצעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וממצוקותיהם יוציאם שינוי השם דכתיב (בראשית יז, טו) שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה וכתיב וברכתי אותה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן שינוי מעשה דכתיב (יונה ג, י) וירא האלהים את מעשיהם וכתיב (יונה ג, י) וינחם האלהים על הרעה

וי”א אף שינוי מקום דכתיב (בראשית יב, א) ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך מארצך והדר ואעשך לגוי גדול ואידך ההוא זכותא דא”י הוא דאהניא ליה

 

Rabbi Yitzḥak said: A person’s sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions. These are: Giving charity, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds for the better. An allusion may be found in Scripture for all of them: Giving charity, as it is written: “And charity delivers from death” (Proverbs 10:2); crying out in prayer, as it is written: “Then they cry to the Eternal in their trouble (Psalms 107:28); a change of one’s name, as it is written: “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. ..And I will bless her, and I will also give you a son from her” (Genesis 17:15-16); a change of one’s deeds for the better, as it is written: “And God saw their deeds, and repented of the evil which God had said God would do to them, and so did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). And some say: Also, a change of one’s place of residence cancels an evil judgment, as it is written: “And the Eternal said to Abram: Go you out of your county” (Genesis 12:1), and afterward it is written: “And I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12: 2). The Gemara explains: And the other one, i.e., Rabbi Yitzḥak, who does not include a change of residence in his list, holds that in the case of Abram, it was the merit and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael that helped him become the father of a great nation. Rosh Hashanah 16b

 

The time honoured ways of changing your destiny – offering prayer and giving charity, changing one’s name and changing one’s actions – these are all methods of acting upon oneself in order to avert consequences of continuing down a particular path. Jewish prayer is a reflexive action, work upon oneself; the giving of charity offers an awareness of one’s own privilege and good fortune, forces us to give up some of our selfishness to help the other. Changing one’s name marks a conscious new beginning for oneself, the name often reflecting the aspiration of what one might become; changing our actions is self-explanatory – if we stop doing something we give ourselves the chance of averting the consequences of doing it. These are all things we can do as we sit in our comfort zone. But the fifth – not part of the list of Rabbi Yitzhak, is, to my mind a different category.  Coming from the imperative “lech lecha”, the anonymous sages draw the lesson that changing one’s residence changes one’s life trajectory. Rabbi Yitzhak disagrees – he sees the country one goes to – specifically Israel  – as changing us.  Such is the power of the Holy Land in his eyes.

Yet I think there is a modern lesson to be drawn for us in this passage. There are ways of working on oneself that can improve our situation, help us become better people, and these ways will impact how our lives unfold.  Whether in modern terms it is better nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, learning good habits – we all try self-improvement at different times in our lives.

But the behaviour based on lech lecha is qualitatively different. Yes, we move ourselves but then it is something external that works on us– the altered perspective of from where we view the world.  There is a tradition in Judaism that a mourner changes where they usually sit in synagogue – the idea being both to signify that life has changed radically, and to signal their experience to the community,  but this shift also literally gives them a different viewpoint, a different perspective on the world which they must come to be part of. Changing ones place is a radical act, leaving the familiar structures of habit and home to strike out away from ones comfort zone means we will experience the world quite differently.

When we change our place we change our perspective and we see differently. Be it by imagining ourselves in the shoes of others or by our physically leaving one place for another; be it by shifting ourselves in time or geography, by taking a long journey or simply sitting in another chair, lech lecha – we can change the route along which our life might otherwise run without our thinking about it.

Sometimes the change is because the place we move to is kinder, calmer, more supportive than the place we left, and this may be the thing that allows us to move from our earlier position. That is the theory of the sanctity of Eretz Israel in the Talmudic source. But more often I think there is interplay. The difference we have to adapt to when we change our physical or mental space forces us into an openness we didn’t allow before. The new space is something we have to grow into, as we see our past from a different perspective, as we notice what we had overlooked, and as we see new possibility.

The practise of Yom Kippur – where we deliberately move into a space where we act “as if dead” – means we see our lives quite differently. What was apparently of critical importance suddenly seems trivial; what was apparently less important suddenly seems vital.

When Avram changed his place, journeying to the land God showed him, he changed the destiny of all his descendants as well as himself. Many of us have family who came as refugees to this country in order simply to HAVE a destiny, as death and hatred stalked their lives in other countries.  We Jews are historically sadly used to changing our place of residence to change our destiny. But the change of perspective does not always need such massive upheaval. Change your favourite seat, your routines and habits, the barely noticed tramlines along which your life runs. Lech lecha, go to your self, go for your self, and encounter a new destiny.

Parashat Noach: when we don’t confront catastrophe we enable it; or -we have to stop taking the world for granted if we want it to survive

The stories within parashat Noach are among the most frightening – and the most relevant – ones we could be reading right now.

While the narratives of the Flood and of the Tower of Babel are well known to us, there is another thread we tend to overlook. It is the story of how, when returned to dry land, Noah built a vineyard, made wine and stupefied himself with it so that he exposed himself in his tent, causing one son to see and tell, the other two to carefully cover him without themselves looking at their father in such a humiliating and vulnerable state.

There is a Midrash that is telling about this post diluvian Noah.

“When Noah came out of the ark, he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said, God, how could you have done this? … God replied, Oh Noah, how different you are from the way Abraham … will be. He will argue with me on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah when I tell him that I plan their destruction… But you, Noah, when I told you I would destroy the entire world, I lingered and delayed, so that you would speak on behalf of the world. But when you knew you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch you. You thought of no one but your family. And now you complain? Then Noah knew that he had sinned” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Noach).

Noah is introduced to us right at the beginning of the story as “a righteous man in his generation”, and quite rightly the rabbis do not see this as a great compliment. The qualifying phrase “in his generation” makes it clear that his righteousness is relative rather than absolute. So this just about good-enough man is enabled to survive in order to begin the world afresh. But as starts to face the future, he realises all that he had not done, that his selfishness and narrow vision had allowed the great destruction to happen, that it didn’t have to be like this.

Noah, facing the new world, cannot actually face the past and his part in it, nor really can he move on into the future. He just gets stupefyingly, paralytically drunk, and his sons are forced to deal with the consequences. The younger one does not know what to do – Midrash suggests that he actually assaults his naked father as he lies dead to the world – but at the very least he does nothing;  the older ones treat him with more respect, but reading the text one has the feeling that they simply cannot bear to see their father lying there, seeing what he has become. By covering him they are also trying to cover up everything that Noah has symbolises – his passivity, his refusal to engage with the situation God tells him of, his lack of compassion for other living beings, his lack of any timely compassion at all and his inability to deal with the consequences of his own inaction.

Upon waking, Noah curses Canaan, the child of his younger son, and blesses God on behalf of the other two, giving them an approximation of a blessing.

Why? Why curse Canaan, the child of Ham who saw him naked? Why not Ham himself? Noah is passing the pain down the generations, to those who are neither present nor responsible for the destruction. His own drunken misery becomes a curse for some of his descendants.

The truth that Noah doesn’t want to face is that he is in a new world now. A world washed clean of the violence and horror of the past, but also washed away – its resources, its people, and its structures all gone. This is no longer the world of miraculous creation, when God walked among the people in the Garden, and oversaw the perfection of the world. We are now in a world that Nechama Leibowitz described as ‘post miraculous’ a world where suddenly there are obligations – the seven mitzvot of the b’nei Noah are given here, … “It was in this renewed world — the world destined to be our world and not in the earlier, miraculous world — that saw the opening of the gate to the conflict between the values of  tikkun olam (perfection of the world) and Humanity .Avraham, who appears at the end of Parashat Noach is the person who takes upon himself the mission of perfecting the world as Kingdom of God, rather than taking the world for granted as Noach had done”

Noach took the world for granted. When warned by God of what was to happen, he took that for granted too. And when the worst had happened and the world was washed away leaving Noah and his family to begin it once again, he failed to do what was necessary, and it took another ten generations – till that of Abraham, for the relationship between God and human beings to flower once more.

It is interesting to me that this parashah began with the phrase, “These are the descendants of Noah,” yet does not go on to list any people, but rather begins a discussion of Noah’s attributes. One commentator suggests that this teaches us that what a person “leaves behind” in the world is not only children, but also the effects of their deeds.

Noah left behind both of course – everyone in the world is a descendant of this man if the flood story is to be believed, and so everyone is obligated to the mitzvot of b’nei Noach. But he also left behind the effect of his behaviours, deeds both committed and omitted.

Noah did not help to perfect the world. He allowed it to be washed away.  He didn’t appreciate the value of the world at all, focussing only on his own family and his own needs. Only after it was gone was he able to understand what was lost, and even then he was not able to deal with this loss. He curses a part of his family into perpetuity, his descendants go on to build the Tower of Babel in order to in some way find a purpose and meaning in their continued existence, and maybe also to challenge the divine using their newly created technology. So they too are forced to confront catastrophe as they are scattered across the world and left unable to communicate with each other. It takes ten generations, with the emergence of Avraham, for the world to begin to heal itself.

Like Noah we too are facing a time when the world seems to be set on a pathway to destruction: climate change, global heating, over fishing, the rainforest which once covered 14% of the earth’s surface now covers less than 8%, with all the consequences of loss of species that involves, years long droughts and famines.  We can see the warnings of destruction, we know the consequences of what is happening now, yet somehow we walk about in a dream, neither warning each other nor challenging what is happening. We spend our time trying to ensure only that we and our families can be safe, that our houses are weatherproofed, that our pantries are stocked. We are behaving no differently than Noah. And if we give it some thought and project our ideas into the near future, we can see than those who survive this environmental tumult will not have the resources to cope.

It is our job to take the story of Noah seriously – not as a good enough man who was saved from cataclysm because he did what God said without question, but as a man who was at least righteous in his generation, someone who hadn’t completely surrendered to the corruption and destructive activities around him. And we should see the consequences of his inactions too – that the world he allowed his children to inherit was damaged and fragile and took generations to heal.

Pirkei Avot reminds us that Rabbi Tarphon said “We are not obligated to complete the task; neither are we free to abstain from it” (2:21). So how do we begin to address the problem? The answer comes from a number of sources – the most clear being that every small step matters. As Maimonides wrote about Teshuvah, “one should consider the entire world as if it were exactly balanced between acts of righteousness and evil. The very next action you take, therefore, can save or condemn the world

Bereishit: men and women created equally and mutually

Genesis has two creation stories, each with a different structure and a different name for God. The first, with the numbered days of the first week, has Elohim create humanity in God’s image at the end of the process, and this humanity is neither singular nor male. “Vayivra Elohim et ha’adam b’tzalmo, betzelem Elohim bara oto, zachar u’nekeivah bara otam” (1:27)

The second, where humanity was created even before the Garden of Eden was made, has one human fashioned from the dust of the earth, and placed into Eden. But it is already clear that one living being is a lonely being, so God creates the animals and birds. The human names them but does not develop a mutual relationship with them, and ultimately God has to create more human beings in the world. To do this, God does not create a new thing, but takes from the existing human to form the being who will be in relationship with it.

How we translate what God takes from the first being is critical to how we understand gender politics. And how it has been translated in the past is a direct outcome of such politics. For God takes מִצַּלְעֹתָיו  – from the side of the first human, and not, as it is frequently translated, a rib from it. This root appears over forty times in bible, and is never translated as anything other than “side” except in this passage, and first found in the Septuagint. If we look more closely we see that the word always describes something that is leaned upon, or (in the case of Jacob) limped upon. So what is bible telling us with this word? When God divides the Adam into ish (man) and isha (woman), the two are equal. One might ask why this understanding disappeared when bible is so clear?

 

(written for “the bible says what?” series for the progressive Judaism page of the Jewish News)