A Natural Family with a Supernatural Mandate – Lekh L’kha 5779

The Silicon Valley Introduction to Judaism class began this past week.  It is a wonderful example of collaboration in our Jewish community.  I, along with Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist colleagues, teach this class every year.

Adult students have an opportunity to learn from Rabbis of different denominations.  Classes rotate, depending on who is teaching that night, between the Jewish Community Center, Congregation Sinai, Congregation Beth David, Congregation Shir Hadash, and Temple Emanu-El.

At the first Introduction to Judaism session, students are invited to introduce themselves and share their reasons for taking the class.  Every year, there are a variety of reasons given.

Some students are Jewish adults who either never received a Jewish education, or who feel that they want to learn about Judaism in a more sophisticated way, as compared to the child-focused education they received years ago.  Some are members of synagogues.  Some are not.

There are also non-Jewish students who are lifelong learners.  Their spiritual and intellectual journeys have led them to learn about different faiths and traditions.

Some class participants are interested in converting to Judaism.  This can include those who have a Jewish partner, as well as those who have decided to explore Judaism on their own.

Finally, some non-Jewish students do not intend to convert, but are committed to supporting their Jewish partners in building a Jewish home and raising Jewish children.

As students describe the journeys that led them to the Introduction to Judaism class, there are often incredible stories.

Some share strange, mysterious family traditions.  Often they involve lighting candles at particular times during the year, or avoiding certain kinds of foods. In some families, there are secrets that are known only to the older members from earlier generations, who hush up in seeming embarrassment whenever the topic arises.

Usually, these suspicions of a Jewish past point to a possible Sephardic family connection.  But not always.

With the growing popularity and availability of DNA testing, it is now possible to confirm long-held suspicions of Jewish ancestry.  That is increasingly serving as the impetus for people to explore Judaism as a way to regain a lost family heritage.

Also at the first session, we divide students into small groups and give them an assignment: Write a one sentence definition of Judaism that is grammatically and syntactically correct – no run-ons.  It is a very difficult assignment which students have a tough time completing.  That is kind of the point.

Judaism is not a religion in the way that we typically think of religion.  Simply by being born to a Jewish mother,  a person is Jewish regardless of what he or she believes.  Don’t learn from this, however, that Judaism does not have particular beliefs.  It does.

So does this make Judaism a race?  Not at all.  For if Judaism was a race, it would be impossible to convert.  And yet Judaism has always welcomed converts, as we will see shortly.

Professor Jon Levenson expresses the difficulty in defining Judaism succinctly in his book, Inheriting Abraham.

The people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a church-like body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms.  Having something in common with both of these more familiar identities, it reduces to neither of them.

Levenson has stated the difficulty of coming up with a definition.  Then he offers us one:

Rather, as the call and commission of Abram already indicate, it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.

“A natural family with a supernatural mandate.”  We are family, and we strive to rise above our base nature as human beings to embrace a set of divinely-given, shared practices and values.

This morning’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God instructing Abram to leave behind his home and his father’s household and travel to the land that God will show him.  Without asking any questions, Abram packs up his household and begins the journey.

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Then Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all of their property which they had acquired and the persons that they acquired in Haran, and they went towards Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan.  (Genesis 12:5)

A midrash focuses on a peculiar phrase in this sentence.  v’et ha’nefesh asher asu.  Many translations say “the persons that they acquired,” which refers to the many servants that had joined their household.  Abram had done quite well for himself in Haran, apparently. 

An often-cited midrash (Genesis Rabbah 39:14) understands it a bit more creatively.  Literally, I might translate v’et ha’nefesh asher asu as “the soul that they had made.”  Is it possible to create life?

Rabbi Eleazar ben Zimra explains that if all of the people of the world were gathered together, we could not even make a fly, much less a human being.  The Torah says that the soul that was made refers to all the people that Abram and Sarai converted.  We learn that whoever brings idolaters into the fold is considered to have created them.

In other words, Abraham and Sarah were busy in Haran.  They were teaching their neighbors about God, and leading them away from idolatry.

In Levenson’s terms, they were joining the family.  This family is comprised not of people who are related by blood, but by those who share beliefs and values.  That is who Abraham and Sarah brought with them to Canaan.

Rambam, the great 12th century Rabbi, physician, philosopher, and community leader was the leading authority in his day.  People would write to him from all over the world for advice and legal rulings.

A question was once asked of him by a man named Ovadiah, a convert to Judaism.  Ovadiah notes that the language in many of the prayers uses us or we, in reference to events that occurred to previous generations.

Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu — “Our God and God of our ancestors”

Asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav — “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments”

She’asah nissim la’avoteinu — “You who performed miracles for our ancestors”

Ovadiah asks Rambam if he, as a proselyte, whose ancestors were not part of the Jewish people, is allowed to recite all of these words.  We can only imagine what experiences Ovadiah might have had that led him to ask this question.

Rambam, in his answer, does not mince words.  He wants to make sure that Ovadiah, and anyone else who might think to raise a similar objection, gets the point.  His answer begins: “You must recite it all in its prescribed order and should not change it in the least.”

In his explanation, Rambam refers to Abraham, who taught people about God and urged them to reject idolatry.  Abraham instructed everyone in his household to follow God’s ways by engaging in righteousness and justice.

For this reason, anyone who converts to Judaism, throughout the ages, is considered to be a student of Abraham and a member of his household.  In other words, part of the family.

Not only that, Abraham is considered to be the father of all converts.  Jews-by-choice, when taking on a Jewish name, are considered to be the children of Abraham and Sarah, and are therefore referred to as ben or bat Avraham Avinu v’Sarah Imeinu—“the son/daughter of Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother.”

Therefore, when a Jew by choice recites “our God and God of our ancestors,” it is a true statement.

While discovering Jewish roots in a DNA test may lead a person to explore their roots, it is not a determining factor, at least from a religious point of view.  Halakhah, Jewish law, does not tend to operate on the microscopic level.  

A few years ago, there was a young American woman from a Russian-speaking family who wanted to participate in a birthright trip.  She was asked to take a DNA test to prove that she was eligible.  She was ultimately denied.

This is unfortunate, and is certainly inconsistent with Jewish law.  I hope it is not a precedent.

Jewish identity is not in the blood.  It is in the family stories that are passed down from our grandparents.  It is in the moral lessons that parents impart to their children.  Jewish identity is also something that can be chosen by those who seek to be part of the Jewish family.

Does this mean that there will sometimes be questions and arguments about who is in and who is out?  Absolutely.  But we are a family, after all.  And families are messy.

Faith, Tzedakah, and Hope – Lech L’kha 5775

We take Abraham’s faith for granted.  He has been described as the Lonely Man of Faith.  Jewish tradition sees him as the paradigm for loving God.  Although it disturbs us, the story of the Binding of Isaac is seen as a story of Abraham’s selflessness, his willingness to go all the way in serving God.

But is it helpful for us to hold up such a “perfect” model of faith.  I’m not sure there are many people who can see themselves as truly following Abraham’s example.

On the other hand, maybe Abraham wasn’t the perfect man of faith that he is often presented as.  Perhaps Abraham had his moments of doubts as well.

This morning’s Torah portion, Lekh L’kha, opens with Abram (his name has not yet been changed to Abraham) as a seventy five year old man.  God promises him that he will be a great nation, and will inherit the Promised Land.  Abram obeys, and soon arrives in the unnamed land to which God leads him.  Things are going well at first, but then discord breaks out in the household.  Abram’s only living relative, his nephew Lot, is also a successful shepherd.  Their respective herdsman cannot seem to cooperate when it comes to pasturing the flocks, and so the two branches of the family are forced to split apart.  Abram is magnanimous about it, offering his nephew the first choice about where to settle, but the end result is that Abram is separated from his only family member in a foreign land.  He must be lonely.

Soon afterwards. Abram finds himself in a famine.  So he uproots his household and heads down to Egypt, where food is available.  There, he feels compelled to lie about Sarai his wife, passing her off as his sister rather than his wife.  Apparently, he feels that it would be better for Pharaoh to bring her into the palace under the assumption that she is available rather than risk being killed as competition.

These are not the actions of a secure individual.

Nevertheless, the subterfuge works, and Abram prospers greatly in Egypt.  We do not know about Sarai’s experience in the palace, however.  When God strikes the Egyptians with a plague, the Abram’s deception is revealed.  Needless to say, Pharaoh is not impressed, and Abram is expelled from Egypt.  Back to Canaan he goes.

Meanwhile, war breaks out between several cities in the Jordan valley and an alliance of foreign kings.  In the fighting, Lot is taken captive by the invading armies.  Abram marshalls his household and rides off to the rescue.  After restoring his nephew to safety, Abram once again returns to Canaan.

At this point, how might we imagine that Abram is feeling about his life?  He has left everything – his homeland, his culture, his family, his father and brothers, to follow a voice that leads him to the West with unspecified promises of land and progeny.  By now, Abram has put forth great effort.  While he may be wealthy, he is still a nomad, and he is still childless.  While Abram has been totally silent until now, I would think that he must be feeling his mortality.  “What have I done with my life?” he must be thinking.  “What is my legacy?  What do I leave behind me in the world.”

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, God appears to Abram for the second time in a vision.  “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”  (Genesis 15:1)

That’s it?!

It seems to rub salt in the wound.  All of Abram’s doubts and fears bubble to the surface, and he finally expresses the frustration and disappointment that has been growing in his heart.

“O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezer!”  He then continues, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.”  (Genesis 15:2-3)

In the ancient world, if a couple was childless, their estate could be inherited by a loyal servant.  (Nahum Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis, p. 113)  This is the only time in the Tanakh that Abram’s head servant is mentioned by his name, Eliezer.  It suggests that Abram’s statement is not rhetorical.  He truly is resigned to the fact that he and Sarai will not be having any children.  What then is to become of God’s promise that he will be a great nation?

God responds by reassuring Abram.  “That one shall not be your heir,” God responds, “but your very own issue shall be your heir.”  (Genesis 15:4)  Then God brings Abram outside and instructs him to look up.  “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be.”  (Genesis 15:5)

Would that reassure you?

It did reassure Abram.  “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He (God) reckoned it to his (Abram’s) merit.”  וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה  (Genesis 15:6)

Rabbi Jacob Mann Rakovski, who passed away in 2012 and served for more than 50 years as the Rabbi at Hadassah Medical Organization in Jerusalem, comments on the final word of this phrase, tzedakah.  (Iturei Torah, vol. 1, p. 105)  What does the Torah mean when it describes Abram continuing trust, or faith, emunah, in God to be tzedakah?

Rakovski says that by having faith at such a seemingly hopeless moment, Abram offers a tremendous gift to the world.  That gift is the ability to live a life with purpose and meaning, which is only possible through faith.

When a person lives without faith, Rakovski says, that person’s life has no meaning.  When such a person experience difficulties, he or she is inclined to ask, “what good is my life?  Why bother?”

Abram saved the world by demonstrating that there is, indeed, something for which to live, and thus, life is immeasurably precious.  That is why the Torah uses the word tzedakah to describe what Abram did.  His gift is a kind of tzedakah.

Abram may be unique in his ability to maintain faith in God’s promise that he will have children when he has not managed to do for the first 80-plus years of his life.  But the lesson to us is important.

Think about a time when you were disappointed.  When the things you hoped for did not come to be.  Perhaps it was a college program you were hoping to get into, a dream job that you could not get, a romance that did not develop the way you were hoping, not being able to have the family that you imagined.

To be human is to face disappointment.  Our challenge is to keep going when things do not turn out as we are hoping.  And that is where faith comes in.  I found it interesting that Rakovski does not actually specify faith in God, although I imagine that he probably implied it.

But I’ll suggest that when we have faith in something, whatever that something is, we are far better suited to deal with life’s challenges when they come our way, and we experience life’s blessings as far more momentous and meaningful when they happen.

In 2004, the This I Believe project was founded.  It was actually the resurrection of a radio program hosted by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950’s in which famous, and not-so-famous people were asked to speak about the guiding principles by which they lived.

At this point, more than 125,000 people have submitted essays about the values that guide their daily lives and give them a sense of meaning.

For several years, This I Believe essays would be read on NPR, and I had a chance to hear some of them during my commutes to Rabbinical School.  There was one essay in particular that stuck with me.  I would like to share it.  It is by Harold Taw, an attorney from Seattle and the son of Burmese immigrants.  He comes from a totally different tradition than that of the monotheistic religions, and yet the thing in which he believes, gives his life meaning and purpose.

I could say that I believe in America because it rewarded my family’s hard work to overcome poverty. I could say that I believe in holding on to rituals and traditions, because they helped us flourish in a new country. But these concepts are more concretely expressed this way: I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday, something I’ve done without fail for 35 years.

When I was born, a blind Buddhist monk living alone in the Burmese jungle predicted that my birth would bring great prosperity to the family. To ensure this prosperity, I was to feed monkeys on my birthday. While this sounds superstitious, the practice makes karmic sense. On a day normally given over to narcissism, I must consider my family and give nourishment to another living creature.

The monk never meant for the ritual to be a burden. In the Burmese jungle, monkeys are as common as pigeons. He probably had to shoo them away from his sticky rice and mangoes. It was only in America that feeding monkeys meant violating the rules. As a kid, I thought that was cool. I learned English through watching bad television shows, and I felt like Caine from “Kung Fu,” except I was a chosen warrior sent to defend my family. Dad and I would go to the zoo early in the morning, just the two of us. When the coast was clear, I would throw my contraband peanuts to the monkeys.

I never had to explain myself until my 18th birthday. It was the first year I didn’t go with my father. I went with my friends and arrived 10 minutes after the zoo gates closed. `Please,’ I beseeched the zookeeper, `I feed monkeys for my family, not for me. Can’t you make an exception?’ `Go find a pet store,’ she said. If only it were so easy. That time I got lucky. I found out that a high school classmate trained the monkeys for the movie “Out of Africa,” so he allowed me to feed his monkey.

I’ve had other close calls. Once a man with a pet monkey suspected that my story was a ploy and that I was an animal rights activist out to liberate his monkey. Another time a zoo told me that outsiders could not feed their monkeys without violating the zookeepers’ collective bargaining agreement. In a pet store once, I managed to feed a marmoset being kept in a bird cage. Another time I was asked to wear a biohazard suit to feed a laboratory monkey.

It’s rarely easy, and yet somehow I’ve found a way to feed a monkey every year since I was born. Our family has prospered in America. I believe that I’ve ensured this prosperity by observing our family ritual and feeding monkeys on my birthday. Do I believe that literally? Maybe. But I have faith in our family, and I believe in honoring that faith in any way I can.

What do you believe in?  Maybe it’s feeding monkeys.  Or maybe it has something to do with serving humanity, or supporting the Jewish community, or following Jewish law and tradition, or raising a family.  When we can articulate the values and beliefs that inspire us to live lives of immeasurable meaning.  What gives your life meaning?  What gives you strength when things are not going well?  What inspires you to get out of bed each morning and face a new day?