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Lech-Lecha 5775: A Palace Aglow

October 24, 2015 | 11 Heshvan 5776

November 3, 2015

We began to read the story of Abraham this morning. In Parashat Lech-Lecha we read of the journeys of that trailblazer who, together with his wife Sarah, leaves behind his family and his land, along with their culture, beliefs and values. He forges a bond with God that will be passed down for generations. In our portion Avraham Avinu, our ancestor, becomes the first person in the Torah to call Adonai by name. The term אֶמוּנֶה– emunah, meaning faith, first appears in this parashah in connection with Avraham- a paradigm of monotheistic faith.

Ours is a foundational story for formation of the Jewish people and our faith, and yet, part of the story is missing. The parashah opens with Adonai’s call to the aged Avraham and the barren Sarah- לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. “Go forth from your native land and from your family of origin to the land that I will show you.” At this late stage in their lives they are promised an heir who will establish a nation, and great blessing, including a land upon which the new nation will prosper. And they follow God faithfully. Yet this call, this revelation, appears without any explanation or context. The Torah gives no window into the early years of Avraham’s life.

As the 13th Century Spanish commentator, Ramban, puts it: It would not make sense for God to appear to Avraham out of the blue. God would not have selected Avraham, called on him to leave his home and promised him all sorts of gifts without Avraham having first established himself as a person of exemplary character, without some sort of pre-existing relationship between God and Avraham.[1]

The reader is left to wonder how Avraham spent the first seventy-five years of his life. What did Avraham do that made him fit for the task at hand? What sort of relationship did Avraham have with God before God’s call to him in our parashah?

The Midrashim of the classical era provide several homiletic stories that imagine Avraham’s theological and intellectual development in the years before the story in Lech-Lecha. I’d like to explore one such midrash with you this morning- the first midrash on Parashat Lech-Lecha in the collection of Midrash called Bereishit Rabbah. We’ll give it a close reading together to see what it’s author Rabbi Yitzchak (a Talmudic sage who lived around 300 CE) intended to teach us about the nature of Avraham’s faith and what we can learn from him for our own lives of faith.

And God said to Avram: Go forth from your land, etc.”…Rabbi Yitzchak said: This may be compared to a person who was traveling from one place to another, and saw a “birah doleket”- he saw certain palace aglow. The person wondered: Is it possible that this palace lacks an owner? – Tomar she-habirah zo belo manhig?- The owner of the palace looked out and said: I am the owner. In the same way, Abraham our father wondered: Is it possible that this world lacks a ruler? God looked out at him and said: “I am the ruler of the world.”[2]

We see in the saga of Avraham, beginning in this week’s parashah, that Avraham does not stay in one place for long. Our midrash seems to be suggesting that, just as Avraham tends to move from place to place, physically, he is also someone who is not content with intellectual stagnation. He is a seeker, on the move metaphorically, searching for ultimate meaning.

Over the course of his travels, the person in our midrash comes upon a palace- a birah.

He sees before him a grand structure that demanded design and forethought- the work of a skilled architect and builder. He sees that this palace is doleket. For now, let’s translate that word as it is commonly translated in this text. The palace was lit up. The person sees a light inside, as if it is inhabited. Someone, he concludes, has lit the flame that illuminates the space. Someone who is not currently visible has brought the room to life.

Understood this way, Rabbi Yitzchak is portraying Avraham in our midrash as one who explores the world around him, marvelling at its grandeur and complexity. He marvels at the majesty of the palace that is this world- aglow with beauty, shining with light and he wonders about the source of all the splendor. Though he is mired in a world of idolatry in Ur, Avraham concludes that there must be one God who created this world and continues to animate it. Even before the Creator calls on Avraham directly, Avraham is able to experience the Holy One in places like the luminous palace where the light of divine presence still shines, even though it now appears to be empty. Avraham has sensitized himself to experience holiness in places where God has been. Longing to encounter God, Avraham searches until God reveals God’s Self to him.

Maimonides bases his rationalist read of Avraham on our midrash, characterizing him as a philosopher who studies the world around him recognizes in the order and design of the natural world the existence of a single transcendent deity, whose will set the system in motion toward some greater purpose.[3] 

It’s a beautiful teaching. And that is how this midrash is commonly understood. There is a problem with this reading, though. If Rabbi Yitzchak, the author of our midrash wanted to say that the palace was lit with a controlled flame, say, from a lamp, he should have used the term birah mu-eret. A deleikah is more like a blazing inferno than a glimmering candle. The term birah doleket, which I attempted to translate ambiguously as “a palace aglow,” is more accurately translated as a burning palace.

According to this reading, Avraham sees the magnificent structure of the palace and that makes the conflagration, the disorder and destruction he sees all the more striking. Now, the question in our midrash “Is it possible that this palace lacks an owner?” takes on a different meaning altogether. Would a master step aside and allow his palace to go up in flames? Of course not. The majestic structure must have an owner, but where is he? Where is the master? Is it possible that no one cares? This fundamental question is deeply unsettling. Understood this way, Avraham’s search stems from a sensitivity to the problem of injustice, violence and evil in this world.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, writes in God in Search of Man: “There are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of wonder, in moments of joy; there are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of horror, in moments of despair. It is both the grandeur and the misery of living that makes man sensitive to the ultimate question.”[4]

The starting point of our ancestors Avraham’s faith and of our Jewish faith is not an answer, but a question; it is not an appreciation of the harmony of creation but a jarring sense of the dissonance between the palace and the flames, between the existence of God and the persistence of evil. Avraham’s journey begins when, in a moment of despair, he cries out in protest, “Where is the God of justice?” “How can the creator of the world and of humanity allow humankind to destroy the world and each other?”

The former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks analyzes  this midrash in his book, A Letter in the Scroll.[5]  He writes that, “at the heart of reality is a contradiction between order and chaos, the order of creation and the chaos we create. There is no resolution to this conflict at the level of thought. It can be resolved only at the level of action, only be making the world other than it is. When things are as they ought to be, then we have reached our destination.” To live a faithful live requires nothing less than working to rid the world of evil and injustice. That is our mission and our destination. Until that goal is achieved- until the tension between the world as it is and the world as it should be is resolved- like Avraham and Sarah, we cannot be fully settled.

Let’s look now at the end of the story in our midrash- the response to the question: If we understand Avraham’s question as a cry of protest in the face of evil, then what are we to make of God’s answer? In fact, it seems like more of a non-answer. As Rabbi Sacks notes, there is no explanation for the flames, no attempt to put out the fire; God’s response is simply to say, in effect, “hineini,” I am here. Sacks writes that:

It is as if… [God] were calling for help. God made the building. Man set it on fire, and only man can put out the flames. Abraham asks God, “Where are you?” God replies, “I am here, where are you?” Man asks God, “Why did you abandon the world?” God asks man, “Why did you abandon Me?” … In these questions, which only the other can answer, God and man find one another. Perhaps only together can they extinguish the flames.

We Jews are a restless and questioning bunch. Rarely are we satisfied with the status quo as we’ve received it. We have a long tradition of being that way. Our midrash traces these traits to Avraham, at least in the second way that we read the text. The midrash traces Avraham’s faith to a question that leads him deeper into relationship with God.

May we learn from Avraham to embrace our questions. May we learn that moments of despair can lead us toward the essential questions that can ultimately change the course of our lives and the world. And may we learn to live in the tension between the world as it is and the world as is should be- a tension that can only be alleviated through our actions.

[3] Mishneh Torah, Foreign Worship and Customs of the Nations Chapter 1, 1-3. For more on Raman’s teleological argument for the existence of God, see Guide for the Perplexed 2:19.

[4] p. 367

[5] A Letter in the Scroll, pp. 57-59