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 BeHa’alot’kha: Light the Way Forward

Our parashah begins with these words:
 
דַּבֵּר, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֵלָיו:  בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ, אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת.
“Speak to Aaron, tell him: in your lifting up of the lamps, it is toward the front of the menorah [lamp stand] that the seven lights should illuminate.” (Num.8.2)
This is difficult to understand without visualizing the menorah. It is a large, seven-branched lamp stand, and at the top are not seven candles, but seven oil lamps. They look like a simple example of the famous Aladdin’s lamp; they are designed to hold oil, poured in the larger end’s hole, which feeds the wick protruding from the hole at its smaller end.
These small oil burning lamps are ubiquitous in archaeological digs in Israel. They are about the size of your hand, and constitute the equivalent of a torch in a land without so much wood to burn.
Aaron is told to situate the lamps in the menorah in such a way that they give light at the front of the menorah. While this is a reasonable safety measure against setting the Tent of Meeting in which the menorah stood on fire, the seven-branched lamp stand and the direction of its light also invites us to consider a deeper, more symbolic level of meaning.
What does it mean to say that when you lift up a light, it should burn forward?
It is taught that the menorah might symbolize the Jewish people: seven branches, multiple paths in Jewish life. Yet the menorah is fashioned of a single piece of precious metal, demonstrating that the different paths we take need not detract from seeing our community as fundamentally united. Diversity need not lead to division. Rather, differing individual talents can be brought into a synthesis stronger for its various nuances.
Similarly, the menorah can symbolize our society: especially as we enter Pride Week it is appropriate to note the many colors of the Rainbow Flag and the beauty of diversity it evokes. Different paths need not detract from the essential light shed by the human menorah we can become together.
But it’s the light, not the seven branches, that most compels this week – a week in which we experienced the darkness shed by those who rally for racism and lift up the flag of hatred. And so Torah comes on this Shabbat to remind us that we have light to shed, illumination to direct forward. It is not enough for us to share our light among ourselves – Jewish tradition commands us to direct it forward. Onward, despite the demoralization and confusion sown by fear; upward, as our former First Lady taught: “when they go low, we go high.”
The menorah demonstrates that each of us need not agree with each other on what act is the right one for this day and this time; there are many ways forward, and we must understand that to which we are best suited, so that the light we each bring will shine as brightly as it can.
Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other.

Shabbat Miketz: light is seen only in darkness

The Shabbat of Hanukkah is nearly always Shabbat Miketz. The word miketz means “at the end of”, and in this context it refers to the end of a period of time – a dark time, with Joseph missing from his family and his home. Joseph is imprisoned in a dungeon as we begin the parashah, and back home a famine is ravaging the land. Everyone is starving: for freedom, for food – for love. 

 

This time of year is the darkest; like all ancient religious traditions, we have our festival of light now, to reassure us that there is light at the end of this darkness. If only it were as true that there is freedom at the end of every enslavement, nourishment at the end of every drought, and love waiting for us all.

 

The reason that this is not reliably true is not because G-d plays favorites, but because we do. Francis Moore Lappe showed years ago that there is enough food on this planet to feed us all if only we would treat Earth wisely, and each other with respect; in the case of love, also, we act as if there is a limit to love, and ration it to the deserving, the attractive, the pleasing. Enslavement both real and metaphorical traps so many who could be freed….

 

In the parashat hashavua for this week, Jacob’s sons will go down to Egypt seeking sustenance for their families. Why, the midrash asks, are they called “Joseph’s brothers” instead of “Jacob’s sons”?

 

In so doing, the Torah is signaling the beginning of a move from darkness toward light. The brothers will confront their brother, whom they betrayed, and, after great emotional upheaval, be reconciled with him, and in the nurturance of that moment, so many longings will be answered. 

 

Joseph’s brothers were afraid when they first met Joseph – afraid of what they did not know about him, afraid that he would be angry at them, and perhaps try to kill them. Especially in this dark time, we too are afraid of what might be lurking within that which is impenetrable to our sight. Like the brothers, we assume fear, anger, difficulty – and we add to the darkness in that assumption. 

 

In a midrash, it is pointed out that the eye is made up of a dark part (the iris) and a light part (the white of the eye), and that one sees only out of the dark part. Consider a dark room with a spotlight: only when one is in darkness can one see that there is light (if you are in the spotlight you cannot see what is in the dark). Thus it is in our lives: darkness is a necessary precondition to seeing, and not at all, necessarily, an impediment. We forget to look sometimes for the light in the darkness, but it is there.

 

These long nights are a time to admit that these long nights can be full of grief and sadness, to express it and comfort each other in it. Let us seek to answer each other’s longings, feed each other’s hopes, and free each other as we are able from the prison of our fears. Let us kindle light together – not in defiance of the darkness, but in recognition that it is only when we realize the nature of the darkness that we are in, that we can begin to see the light.