Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Story of Isaac (Portion Vayera--in memory of Leonard Cohen, z"l)

You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a God
You who stand above them now
Your hatchets blunt and bloody
You were not there before
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father's hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word

And if you call me brother now
Forgive me if I inquire
"Just according to whose plan?"
When it all comes down to dust
I will kill you if I must
I will help you if I can
When it all comes down to dust
I will help you if I must
I will kill you if I can
And mercy on our uniform
Man of peace or man of war
The peacock spreads his fan
                        Leonard Cohen, The Story of Isaac

In this fall’s e-Torah, I’m focusing on midrash on the weekly portion.  For the most part, this means classic rabbinic commentary, but midrash really means “interpretation”—and that process of encountering and wrestling with the biblical text is a living one that very much continues in our time.  In that spirit, this week I’m sharing a text from a song, The Story of Issaac, by Leonard Cohen, z”l, who died on Thursday. 

The Torah portion ends with the Akedah, the account of the binding of Isaac that many know from the reading on Rosh Hashanah morning.  In Cohen’s telling, this terse tale becomes an anti-war hymn and cautionary warning against all the callous ways that we still sacrifice our children.  While God spared Isaac, too many are not granted such a reprieve.  Cohen introduced the song this way in a 1968 session with the BBC: “There's a story in the Bible about Isaac, how his father summoned him to go and climb a mountain, how his father built an altar there after he had been commanded to offer up his son.  And just at the last moment before he was about to sacrifice Isaac, an angel held the hand of the father.  But today the children are being sacrificed and no one raises a hand to end the sacrifice.  And this is what this song is about.”

This week, consider: How are we still leading our children to the altar?  What societal changes do we need to make to better tend to them and their future?

And for a fine performance of the entire song:

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Smashing Idols (Portion Lech L'chah)

Abraham's father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop.  A woman came in with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, "Take this and offer it to the gods.”  Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.
When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. "Who did this?" he cried. "How can I hide anything from you?" replied Abraham calmly. "A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, "I'm going to eat first." Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces."
"What are you trying to pull on me?" asked Terach, "Do they have minds?"
Said Abraham: "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?"
                                    Midrash Genesis Rabbah

The midrash about Abraham smashing his father’s idols is perhaps the best known of all rabbinic tales.   It is so oft-told that many Jews mistakenly believe it’s found in the Torah itself.  In fact, Torah says nothing about Terach being an idolator.  So why is this story so popular?

I believe it points to the centrality of iconoclasm in Jewish life.  According to the midrash, Abraham’s call commences only after he destroys his father’s gods.  One might think that his life journey starts with the command “Lech L’chah!—Go forth!” that opens this week’s portion and bestows its name—but it doesn’t.  Instead, all that Abraham will accomplish begins with an act of destruction.  In order to create something new, Abraham must first question everything that came before him.  He is not content to maintain the status quo for its own sake—he’s determined to blaze his own path.  Abraham’s unwavering pursuit of truth leads him to monotheism, to a belief in the one God who will enter into a covenantal relationship with him and the Jewish people to follow.  We are his heirs.

It is no accident that Jewish iconoclasts have changed the world time and again.  Our prophets had the chutzpah to challenge societal norms—and even argue with God.  In our time, Jewish artists, scientists, and social activists have maintained this proud tradition of questioning established traditions and putting forth visions of a better world. 

This week, consider taking some time to reflect on your own past.  What “idols” did you have to shatter to launch yourself on your own journey into adulthood?