The potential for the future contained in the present.
by Jhos Singer
Shabbat Shalom, Chaverim—
I love learning Talmud. I really do. I love its weird and floaty logic, its flights of fancy and its insistence on facing life’s messiest moments without shirking. I delight at the cast of oddball rabbis and their impressive wisdom; studying Talmud always uplifts and deepens my own spiritual journey. I especially enjoy discovering a particularly outlandish rabbinic idea (for example: If one wall of a sukkah is made by the back of a dead elephant, is the sukkah kosher?) which on the surface seems absurd, only to find that the rabbis have figured out a way to bring forth their sideways point of view while remaining rooted in Torah. This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) yields one such maneuver.
Abraham has left the land of his birth and heads out into the unknown along with his wife, Sarah; his nephew, Lot; and their respective households. At a certain point, it becomes clear that Abraham and Lot will have to go their separate ways—Lot and his crew settle in the Jordanian plains near Sodom and Gemorrah (think of a biblical Las Vegas), while Abraham and his bunch go to Canaan, landing in a grove in Mamre, near Hebron. There are lots of power struggles going on in the region. One day Abraham gets word that Lot has been captured by a marauding army and he decides to take action:
“And Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, and he armed his trained men, those born in his house, three hundred and eighteen, and he pursued [them] until Dan”. (Genesis 14:14)
There is a Talmudic technique called a gezeira shava (literally: “a-narrow-and-secluded-place, joined”) which gives the interpreter license to make associations when an uncommon word or phrase is found two different places in scripture; or to stitch together two separate ideas by way of a common word. The 11th C. commentator, Rashi, pulls one of these Talmudic maneuvers by connecting the verse above to the following verse:
The king (Jeroboam) was counseled and he made two golden calves; and he said to the people, “You have gone up long enough to Jerusalem; behold your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And he set the one in Beth-El, and the other he put in Dan. And this thing became a sin; because the people went to worship before the one, even (all the way) to Dan. (1Kings 12:28-30)
What’s the connection? Rashi’s khop/insight is that Abraham’s strength failed when he got to Dan because he had a vision of that moment in the future when his descendants would set up a station of idol worship there. Contemporary commentators take that even further by saying, “This is one of many instances in the Torah where future events have an effect on current history. The sense of this phenomenon is that the potential for the future is contained in the present. If there was idolatry in Abraham’s offspring, it indicated an insufficiency in him.” (Interlinear Chumash, Artscroll Series, Schottenstein Edition, p. 71)
In my role as a Congregational Leader I struggle to determine how much focus to place on the outside world and the inner world. Strife in our government and society, the threat of climate change, and the problems of inequality on every level scream for our attention and involvement. And yet, my inclination is to go inward, to deal with the strife in my own heart, the threat of being volatile, the inequality between my values and behavior. Perhaps the role of a spiritual practice is as radical and important as political action in making a just and healthy world.
We as a species need to consider the gezeirah shavah between who we are and what we emanate into the future. What if, in addition to signing petitions, voting (I mean VOTING), protesting, canvassing, advocacy, and financial contributions, our activism towards a righteous and healthy future also included meditation, self-awareness, and spiritual practice? What if we recognized that our unexamined shortcomings pass through us and into the future? What if we wrap our heads around the importance of our spiritual integrity?
Dan is a beautiful place—verdant, loaded with waterways, lush—located in the far north of the ancient kingdom of Israel, in shouting distance of the Syrian and Lebanese borders. It is at the extremes and the crossroads. No wonder Abraham was stopped in his tracks. May we be brave and committed to the world outside and inside. May we find balance and healing, freedom and connection, wholeness and peace.
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