Searching for humanity

Parashat Lech Lecha

October 30, 2020, 13 Cheshvan 5781

God had a problem. The world God had created was not working out. Despite the fact that they were created in God’s image, humanity had perpetrated disasters. Or, since they were created in God’s image, humanity exercised their most divine gift, the freedom to make horrific decisions.  God, of course knew that this would happen. This was expressed by the rabbis in Pirke Avot: הַכֹּל צָפוּי, וְהָרְשׁוּת נְתוּנָה, וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן. וְהַכֹּל לְפִי רֹב הַמַּעֲשֶׂה: Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted, And the world is judged with goodness; And everything is in accordance with the preponderance of works. (Pirke Avot 3:15) Let’s take this text to mean that patterns of behavior are so deeply ingrained from an exceedingly early age, that true, deep change of character is exceptionally difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, despite how difficult it would be for people to control, direct, sublimate and direct their passions and drive, their yetzer hara, God persisted in the goal of filling the world with people.

Why did God persist, and keep creating people, with such disastrous results? Perhaps this was to create a humanity that would recognize itself as servants of a benevolent Creator. Such a humanity would know its place and its responsibilities, just as every creature follows its own nature. This idea was taught in Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 3:5: [Regarding creating the world] the Holy One sought counsel with the Torah, whose name was “Resourcefulness (תושיה).” [The Torah advised God and said]: If a sovereign lacks an army and its camp, over what should that sovereign rule? If there are no subjects to praise the King, from where will that King’s dignity come? God needed subjects who would be loyal, trustworthy, responsible, brave, resilient, and aware of their purpose in the world. Another possibility was to fill the world with kindness: God created the world on account of divine love and kindness, for God wanted to reveal and actualize that sense of empathy. If God had not created the world, how would the universe ever experience concrete acts of love and kindness? Therefore, God’s creative energy radiated from God’s infinitude through one focused point until that energy manifested itself in the world [we know] of physical existence, precisely for the sake of filling that world with empathy, love and kindness (rachmanuto). (Likutei Moharan 64:1:2) 

From these perspectives, God persisted in creating people in the hope and belief that a humanity could emerge that would truly care for the world and fill it with compassion and righteousness. Dedicated to the project of a humane humanity, God deliberated about balances. As the rabbis imagined, God thought: If I create the world through compassion, empathy and kindness, certainly many people will sin. However, if I create the world essentially from strict judgment, how will that world ever survive? (Bereshit Rabbah 12:15) 

These deliberations bring us to Parashat Lech Lecha. Over twenty generations, humanity had wrought untold destruction and pain in the world. People immediately demonstrated their inability to live with boundaries. The issue of boundaries was embedded in the fabric of creation, and God succeeded in imposing boundaries on every aspect of the world with the exception of people. Barchi Nafshi, Psalm 104, is a magnificent elegy to a perfectly balanced world, with every creature living according to its nature. When the forces of nature rebelled, God stilled the oceans attempting to trespass beyond their shores (Job 26:11). King David wrote that God’s power is manifest in the fixing of boundaries throughout the earth, and the seasons in their time. (Psalms 74:17). Only people, from the very beginning, violated boundaries and needed to gain consciousness of what their nature needs to become. Brothers murdered each other.  Civilization perpetrated sexual abuse in the generation of Noach. Humanity worshipped their own egos and the manufacture of their own hands in the generation of the Tower. The idolatry of that generation resulted in the abject neglect of human life, and violent intolerance of diversity. Bricks were more valuable than people, while everyone needed to conform. God saw how people behaved, yet still imagined a different possibility, since people all came from the same source. The rabbis describe God’s deliberation this way:

Why did God create one human at the beginning of creation? Here are several answers to this question. First, God wanted to minimize the predisposition of the righteous to say, “I am the son of such and such a righteous person,” and the wicked to say, “I am descended from such and such a wicked person.” Alternatively, God wanted to minimize families from competing with each other and claiming superiority over each other. They already behave that way! Imagine if God started the world with two people?! Alternatively, God wanted to minimize the emergence of thieves and extortionists. These already exist. Imagine if God had started the world with two people! Alternatively, starting with only one person exemplifies God’s magnificence of creation. For God started with only one mint, yet every person minted henceforth looks different and is unique! (Tosefta Sanhedrin 8:3)

People compare themselves to each other. They compete. They claim superiority over each other. They extort and lie and cheat and abuse their positions of power in order to gain ascendancy over others. They deny responsibility and claim they are descended from wicked ancestors, or they deny wrongdoing by claiming righteous ancestry. Nevertheless, God saw hope for the future, insofar as we all share a common origin. We all came from the same source. Ultimately, human beings share a fundamental equality that Hashem built into the origins of human existence. If only people could see human existence from that perspective, God’s hope for the world could become manifest.

This perspective is the beginning of Avram and Sarai’s spiritual journey towards the Land of Canaan. The Torah presents the real possibility for redemption, beginning with Avram and Sarai’s sacred journey. God persisted in searching for a humanity that would be kind, and that would celebrate the diversity of creation. Instead of re-creating the world again, however, God decided to wait until the correct human beings emerged. Those human beings were Avram and Sarai. 

So many elements of the previous creation narratives repeat as threads throughout this parasha. They repeat, but as in the relationship between consciousness and dreams, those elements appear in transmuted forms, embedded in new, lived experiences. The creation narrative described the sky, the land, the sun and the stars. All of these elements appear in God’s promise to Avram of children and a future. It is striking that in the Brit ben haBetarim, the covenant of the split pieces, Avram’s trance is described with the word, tardemah, the same word that described the first human’s condition when God opened his body and fashioned a partner for him. That Brit contains so many words that echo creation. The trance includes darkness, light (in the form of a torch) birds, animals, and rivers (the Euphrates and the Nile). These rivers echo the rivers flowing from Eden. God reiterated the expectation that humanity have children and fill the world, p’ru ur’vu u’mil’u ‘et ha’aretz, and God’s promise to Avram and Sarai is for them to have a child. When Avram solves the problem of competition for pasture between his and Lot’s shepherds by suggesting they separate, the point is not only the separation, but also the result of filling the land. God did not want humanity to remain in one place. God wanted the world to be full in every sense–physically, culturally, aesthetically, ethnically. That point was emphasized with the generation of the Tower. Indeed, God came to understand that to counter-act humanity’s nativistic predisposition to worship the sanctity of a place, resulting often in a violent narrowing of the mind (as in the Tower of Bavel), people needed to gain a sense of purpose and meaning through the experience of a journey. Seeing life as a journey generates a sense of “living for,” of “hope for the future” and an optimism that is nourished best in a trusting relationship with another. This divine perception for the world provided the lens for God to perceive who might be the right people to transform, indeed, revolutionize humanity. This is why, perhaps, Avram and Sarai’s yearning for a child was not fulfilled immediately. God needed to test them to see if they could hold on to their yearning, and have that hope nourish a trusting relationship with each other and with the Creator.

The word for “child” throughout lech lecha is zera, meaning, “seed,” another word that repeats throughout the creation narrative. The first humans name all of the animals. The generation of the dispersion built the tower in order to make a name for themselves. God, as a sign of the covenantal relationship with Avram and Sarai, re-name them Avraham and Sarah. The world began in a garden. Lot turns towards the plain of Sdom, likened to an “irrigated garden, like Egypt.” That description anticipates the association of Egypt and Sdom, two societies and civilizations at counterpoint to the world God hopes will emerge. Of course, the irony that Avram and Sarai had a harrowing experience in Egypt only several verses earlier cannot be lost on the reader. Noach built a tevah, an ark, to save the animals and his family. The rabbis teach that Avram built a tevah, a cabinet, to hide and protect Sarai in Egypt. (see, Rashi, Bereshit 12:14) All of the sins of the earlier generations of humanity–murder, idolatry and sexual abuse–reappear in the soujourn in Egypt as well as in Lot’s future experiences in Sdom. 

The rabbis developed Avram’s innate qualities from the very beginning of his life. Looking at the stars from a young age, the boy Avram had already intuited that every natural phenomenon pointed to a mysterious source beyond itself. In Terach’s shop of idols, Avram understood that such a majestic source beyond all reality would be trivialized by being represented with a statue. Several midrashic sources teach that God implanted two large kidneys inside of Avram that served as a course of Torah wisdom, literally “flowing through him.” This image explained how Avram had Torah wisdom, even including the laws of erus tavshilin, prior to the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Unlike the Jewish people at Sinai, who received Torah from outside of themselves, Avram’s spiritual wisdom flowed through him, from the inside out.

The world Avram and Sarai, and their descendants, experienced continued to be filled with abuses of power, idolatry, self-aggrandizement, dis-empowerment, slavery, human trafficing, and despotism. Humanity continued to accept the leadership of scoundrels, liars, thieves, cowards, and bullies all too willing to sacrifice all any modicum of human decency, dignity, humility and respect to assuage their own fears and ambitions. But here was one couple from whom a nation could emerge that could potentially be different. In order for humanity to change, people would have to sin, make mistakes, and eventually, over time, in relationship with God, reflect on those behaviors and change. The rabbis taught that the world could not have been created before God created teshuvah, the possibility for change. 

The events of the famine and Egypt, and the treatment of Hagar speak to this issue. Sarah’s loss of self-esteem was so painful: And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The LORD decide between you and me!” Avram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.” Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her. (Bereshit 15:5-6) This exchange is almost at counter-point with the moment in the garden when God asks the man, “Did you eat from the tree?” He blames his wife. Avram and Sarai have to learn to take responsibility for their mistakes, and transform their hopes and faith in the future into a vision that does not result in harsh and violent decisions. In the famine, Avram succumbed to his fear, risking Sarai’s life. Sarai’s desire for a child resulted in her feeling inadequate and abusing Hagar. But both had the capacity to remain in relationship with God. That was the first step–remaining humble in a lived relationship, regardless of mistakes. That is why God changes their names and re-established a brit through circumcision. Circumcision embossed the body with a sign of servitude, and a willingness to see oneself as a loyal servant of a master. Once the master is God, the servant’s task is to learn how to care for the world in the way that the master desires: fill the world, and fill it with loyalty, trust, faith, hope, compassion, kindness, gratitude, and righteousness. All of these values have to be acquired. Avraham and Sarah, re-named, formed the foundation of hope for the future.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dov

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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