Shabbat Lekh-L’kha: Making Light in Darkness

(image: close up in Torah scroll of Genesis 1.4 ויבדל אלהים בין האור ובין החשך G*d divided between the light and the darkness.)

Shalom Shir Tikvah learning community,

It’s getting darker every day now. How shall we trust our footsteps when we can’t see them? Where is the light that will dispel this hoshekh, this unnatural darkness that weighs us down?

This week we see that Abraham had precisely the questions we have.

As we make our way through the second year of the Triennial Cycle we move into the details of the more famous stories which make up the title images of each parashah. In the case of LekhL’kha, there is a famous introductory image of the fearless Abraham leaving everything familiar behind and setting off into a completely unknown future. 

This year, however, we are in the weeds. Abraham is a transient, a homeless wanderer, a landless stranger in a strange land in which he has had to fight to keep his family safe. Abraham and Sarah have no children, and no sure sense of their future. 

Then one day, the Torah relates in our parashah, the Presence of HaShem comes to Abraham:

אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה הָיָ֤ה דְבַר־יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם בַּֽמַּחֲזֶ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אַל־תִּירָ֣א אַבְרָ֗ם אָנֹכִי֙ מָגֵ֣ן לָ֔ךְ שְׂכָרְךָ֖ הַרְבֵּ֥ה מְאֹֽד׃ 

Some time later, the word of HaShem came to Abram in a vision saying “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אַבְרָ֗ם אֲדֹנָ֤י יֱהוִה֙ מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִ֔י וְאָנֹכִ֖י הוֹלֵ֣ךְ עֲרִירִ֑י 

But Abram said, “O HaShem, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless?” (Genesis 15.1-2)

The commentator Rashi explains that the word ערירי ‘ariri “childless” here really means “rootless.” The further implication in ancient Hebrew is that all one’s work is for nothing unless one creates something that outlasts one.

That ancient anxiety which defines the meaning of one’s life as that which outlives it has turned many of us into builders for the future, and even we Jews, who are taught that there is no sure existence other than this one, occupy ourselves in planning for the future and peopling it, in our imagination and, for some of us, with our offspring.

But what do we do in uncertain times when the future is not assured? If our work is only for the future, how can we possibly value the present moment for itself?

The haftarah for Shabbat Lekh-l’kha seems to speak directly to us in these moments of existential uncertainty: 

לָ֤מָּה תֹאמַר֙ יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב וּתְדַבֵּ֖ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל נִסְתְּרָ֤ה דַרְכִּי֙ מֵֽיְהוָ֔ה וּמֵאֱלֹהַ֖י מִשְׁפָּטִ֥י יַעֲבֽוֹר׃ 

Why do you say, O Jacob, Why declare, O Israel, “My way is hid from HaShem, My cause is ignored by my G*d”? (Isaiah 40.27)

Isaiah underscores what HaShem is trying to say to Abraham in the parashah: Trust is All. And so we ask, trust in what?

Not the future, which is uncertain. 

Only in ourselves, and each other, and our shared path – a three-part strength that creates a light strong enough to dispel the darkness around us.

All our lives are rehearsals for the moment when we need to know in our souls what to do and why. I’ve always felt that Jews are particularly lucky in that we have a spiritual mandate of doing and connecting which is always inviting us in. (When I lived and worked in Ukraine in the mid 1990s I met post-Soviet citizens who no longer knew who they were; the Jews with whom I lived knew exactly who they were, and what they could do.)

Community gatherings for learning and prayer and doing kindness can become meaningful in themselves to you, not for some future purpose but for blessing this day with the light that you yourself can create.  Through your engagement in the mitzvot that structure the acts and ethics of Jewish life you create the light of meaning not only for yourself, but for the person next to you who needs it as badly as you do. 

Now matters. This moment is all. What is the mitzvah you can do right now? If you do not know, ask. Believe in your ability to bring light to us all enough to ask.

Abraham went on after the moment of questioning the meaning of his life. He learned to trust in the path he was on. Because of this, we are taught, he became a source of light not only for his companions but for the Source of Life, as we see later in this same parashah:

וַיְהִ֣יאַבְרָ֔םבֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥יםשָׁנָ֖הוְתֵ֣שַׁעשָׁנִ֑יםוַיֵּרָ֨איְהוָ֜האֶל־אַבְרָ֗םוַיֹּ֤אמֶראֵלָיו֙אֲנִי־אֵ֣לשַׁדַּ֔יהִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְלְפָנַ֖יוֶהְיֵ֥התָמִֽים׃ 

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, HaShem (finally) appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am the Source of your Creativity. Walk in My ways and you will be whole.”

And the Midrash explains that what HaShem was really saying here is this:

בּוֹא וְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנָי

“Come, and light the way before Me.” (Bereshit Rabbah 30)

The multi-wick flame of the havdalah candle reminds us that our shared lights are brighter than any individual can generate. Come, and let us light the way together.

Shabbat Noakh: Time to be stiff-necked

Once upon a time I was asked, “Rabbi, who was it who first called the Jews ‘stiff-necked’? It seems anti-Semitic.” I had to laugh. “Well, actually, it was G*d, in Exodus 32.9.”

It seems to be the one thing that friends, enemies, and HaShem all agree upon, from Biblical to Talmudic to much later days even unto our own: the Jews are stubborn. Some have said it insultingly, others admiringly. 

A story from the Talmud:

Two Jews were taken captive in the Galilee, and their captor was walking behind them. One captive said to the other, ‘the camel walking ahead of us is blind in one eye.’ The slave driver said ‘hey, you stiff-necked people, how do you know this?’ They replied, ‘because the camel is eating the foliage along the way only on one side, the side it can see.”

Why did their captor call them “stiff-necked” at that moment? Because, says one commentary, despite their suffering, they were obstinate enough to spend time on a brain-teaser. Despite conditions of exile and slavery, they continued to be discerning and wise.

We Jews have been known for millennia as a stiff-necked people. 

It’s a quality that we very much need right now. To quote Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Shapira, known as the Piacezner Rabbi, who taught in the Warsaw Ghetto and perished at Treblinka (his yahrzeit is today, 5 Heshvan, corresponding this year to October 23):

Being stiff-necked is one of the most transcendent virtues. Whoever is not stubborn and obstinate is inconstant and irresolute. In dealing with a person who cannot make up their mind, it may be impossible to arrive at any conclusion. In particular, when faced with temptation or a test of resolve, the inconstant one will fail. An obstinate person, on the other hand, is straightforward when spoken to. The more stiff-necked and stubborn a person is, the more they will endure, even if their conviction comes to be tested in some way.

We are being tested, my beloveds; we will continue to be tested in the days to come. As Jews we have a great teaching before us. Tests come and go, just as empires do; but there is that which does not change. To be stiff-necked is to hold on to that which we know is immutably true and holy, and be strengthened by that steadfastness.

What does it mean to be stiff-necked in our time? For some of us, it was the determination to sing even louder on the Shabbat two years ago when some of us were killed in a shul in Pittsburgh during Shabbat davening. In a few days we will observe the second yahrzeit of the Tree of Life massacre; on October 27 there will be a national virtual memorial hosted by Bend The Arc which you can join: https://www.bendthearc.us/1027 

To be stiff-necked, it seems, is to hold on to that which is just, and kind, and holy, even when we are experiencing personal, and justifiable, fear. It is to be determined not to let the fear win. It is to continue to find ways to reach out, to support, to give, even through a mask, even through fear. It is to care about each other even as the waters of the great Flood rise.

To be stiff-necked, teaches the Piacezner, is to be immutable, just as HaShem is: “I am HaShem; I have not changed” (Malakhi 3.6). Regardless of what happens to us, that which is holy will remain holy; that which is true will remain true. In all the chaos, such as the great destruction experienced by Noakh in our parashat hashavua, what holds us steady? The Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto maintains that it is the great stubbornness of the Jewish people. The slave driver of the Talmudic story “had not realized that the Jews were so stiff-necked that they could still think clearly and cleverly even in the midst of slavery and pain.”

To be stiff-necked and continue functioning as practicing Jews, to endure and to perform the mitzvot incumbent upon us, involves a high level of stubbornness. In addition to this, to actually engage fully in study of the Torah, entering deeply into the knowing of it, is an even greater challenge – for regardless of the troubles besetting us, there is no great difficulty in putting on tefillin or fulfilling other practical mitzvot. But to study Torah, and especially to enter into the depths of the Torah, is extremely difficult.

We can’t compare ourselves to those who came before, neither Jews in the Roman Empire nor Jews in the Third Reich. What we face is not Noah’s Flood; we do not yet know what it is. All we can do in the face of the challenge of our own days is to carry on what they passed down to us: in the face of upheaval and the threat of worse, we can be stubborn. We can be stiff-necked Jews, in the best tradition of our ancestors. We can keep on doing tzedakah, studying Torah, singing loudly as we daven, and all the while believing in and working toward a better world. We can continue to declare that Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn – We Will Outlive Them.