Lekh Lekha: Trials and Reward
The point is not the points, the point is the poetry….
Marc Smith, founder of Slam Poetry
The concerns of the book of Bereishit now seems to shift. Perhaps having given up on the expediency of world shaking totalizing cataclysmic events as a way to improve or even impress humanity, the narrative becomes more local, away from grandiose spectacles, more concerned with the daily life of individuals (individuals of great spiritual and moral grandeur, to be sure), from Hollywood to mumblecore, as it were. Even when world war ensues, or events that are remniscent of the earlier sections of Bereishit, such as the destruction of Sedom and Amorra, the perspective is presented from that of our small cast of characters, down to seemingly minor concerns with food, etc.
The two perashiyot, Lech Lekha and Vayera, with which we will now deal, make up what might be called the trials of Avraham and his family. Even as the midrash expands the “nisyonot”, what we will tentatively translate as the “tests” or “trials” of Avraham to a total of ten, with their need to make a greater superhero out of Avraham (his emergence out of the inferno to which he was cast by an idolatrous king, for example), certainly there are two trials, which stand above the others, and justify the midrashic multiplication of passed tests. Both are narrated with great detail in the text, linked by similarities of language; we are speaking of the trial at the beginning of this week’s perasha, the command to peregrinate across the ancient near east from the place of his birth to start anew in the Western lands, and the one closing next week’s perasha, the trial of the Akedah, the “binding” of Yitzhak. Although it might seem apparent that the rougher trial is that of the Akedah, the Midrash (BR 55:7), noting the recurrent similar linguistic motifs in both (the phrase lekh lekha, for example), sees fit to query which is the “greater” test. A detailed analysis of the latter trial will be presented in the following essay; in this one we are will question the relationship between trial, reward, society, and language.
The specter lurking behind every hagiography, behind every narration of perceived spiritual greatness, is that raised by Derrida in his “The Gift of Death”. Derrida is concerned with the the “economy” of religion, whereby every worldy renunciation, can be seen simply as a path to a much greater payback. If one is certain that performing a religious act will bring about a great reward, or some other benefit, how can this act be viewed as a sacrifice to be commended? Certainly our small mortal contribution if compensated by an infinite divine reward is an unequal deal in our favor. Coming back to our perasha, then, what is so commendable about Avraham’s willingness to move from one country to another, if Gd promises him fame, fortune, offspring who will become a great nation, and so on in return? Wouldn’t you do as you were told with this kind of promise heard directly from Gd? (Many of us who have moved to Israel made this type of move with much less promised as reward…)
The Beer Mayim Hayim works his way to an answer by recourse to a psycho-kabbalistic rereading. To the BMH, the entire book of Bereishit, is in actuality, a presentation of the dynamic development of the human psyche. Thus, the soul, after a toddler state of total confusion (symbolized by the tohu vavohu of the creation time), grows through the rough adolescence of anarchy and nastiness (archetypically the generations of the flood and the tower, the dor hamabul and dor hapelaga), reaches the stage where he/she confronts questions of good and bad, the stage of Avram and Lot. In order to progress within each stage of development, towards the next paradigm of consciousness, one must first reach for the highest level of truth; in this kabbalistic model, the “fiftieth” gate of wisdom. This is symbolized in the opening words of our perasha, Lekh Lekha, as the numerical value of the word Lekh equals fifty. This passage is a result of the individual’s recognition that their needs and desires are no longer consonanat with their growing intellectual and spiritual capabilities, much like in childhood when one is no longer satisfied by playing with dolls and trucks. In terms of our text, attaining full consciousness within that stage of development, the “Lekh”, requires a movement beyond the given state of the individual’s “artziut” (that which Avraham is commanded to leave in the third word of the verse), beyond the current “situation” (from the root of situatedeness) which must be left behind, or transformed. In a sense we need to be able to move beyond those imprisoning illusions the “that’s how it is”, in our contemporary situation one might point to Baudrillard’s concept of the hyper-real, a world where the messages thrown at us by advertising and the media construct our “reality”. Which is more true and real, the events of our daily lives or episodes of the Brady Bunch? Which can we more readily discuss and analyze? The ability to see beyond that which society determines for us is already a singular breakthrough. So much energy goes into protecting the status quo. Adorno noted that all the messages emanating from even such a trivial form of media as the daily horoscope column are geared towards maintaining order. The columnists always explain, as he documents in his “The Stars Fall Down to Earth”, that the problem is in the reader’s coping with his or her environment. Try to be more conciliatory to your bosses, the stars tell us. Never do the horoscope writers tell their readers that they are being exploited or manipulated and that they are victims of social injustice. Thus, Avraham represents the ability to move past the given of his situation. Thus, to the BMH, the blessings promised to Avraham are not a reward, a “gift” for some action rendered. They are the direct result of his action. The ability to “be” someone flows directly from the transcending of baser desires and yearnings; one must loose one’s moorings first in order to perceive reality in a new and progressive manner. History, from Avraham on, has shown that becoming great requires first the differentiation into an individual.
The Ohev Yisrael asks a question similar to Derrida’s. What is so great about Avraham, who wouldn’t follow a direct command from Gd accompanied by promises of wealth?, the OY wonders. His finds his answer in an analysis of Rashi’s commentary on this verse. Rashi begins by reciting the more obvious translation of the blessings, that Avraham will be blessed with children, and money, and fame. Rashi then, surprisingly, provides a “davar acher”, an alternative non-literal reading, interpreting these blessings as a promise to Avraham that Avraham will be included in the blessing at the beginning of the Amidah prayer. Why is Rashi not satisfied with the literal meaning of the verse, that promising earthly rewards, to the point that he requires a very homiletical interpretation?
To the Ohev Yisrael the answer revolves around the nature of the dialogue between Gd’s message and human reception; the Ohev Yisrael could be mistaken for a contemporary communication theorist. When Gd “speaks” to a person, a content is received, but in its secondary transmission to the people the original content is necessarily filtered by the personality and life experience of the prophet. Hence the linguistic differences between the different prophets in Tanach, even though frequently the underlying message could be construed as being identical. In its tertiary transmission, to history, the message is then incorporated into text, but the same process is repeated- there is no reading of text that is not an interpretation. Every text can be read in many ways at the same time, depending on the situation of the reader. Thus, the nisayon, the trial of Avraham was not whether he would follow Gd’s command, but with which hermeneutic, with which reading, would Abraham understand Gd’s directive of Lekh lekha as one that would result in a “payback”, in a reward for Avraham, or according to the “davar acher”, an alternative reading along the lines of that quoted by Rashi, in which the whole purpose of the migration is to enable transformation of human society by constructing a new society centered around a message of divine benevolence (Avraham, in the midrashic and mystical literature, is the paradigm of Hesed, the divine attribute of “mercy and compassion”). Thus, the Meor V’Shemesh reads the alternate reading found in Rashi as suggesting that “the blessing will conclude with Avraham” implies that at the end of history, at the time of Tikkun Olam, when the world is transformed into a world of peace and mercy, this world will bear the “signature” of Avraham, as the exemplar of mercy. That Avraham acted not according to the “reward” reading can be supported by verse 4. There it states that “Avraham traveled in the way in which Gd spoke to him”– that is, he made his journey with the intent of following Gd’s word without interjecting an interpretance based upon his own personal desires or thoughts of personal gain, but solely with the desire to create a new world, a community based upon moral and spiritual excellence.
The Sefat Emet states this position most succinctly when he suggests: the blessings were the test…