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Archive for Octubre de 2012

Lech lecha!

Conversations about the Covenant

Lech lecha”, go forth, comes the call from God to Avram, and with that begins a journey that to paraphrase Neil Armstrong thousands of years later, was “one small step for a man, one giant leap for humanity”. Even more than humanity’s conquest of space and landing on the moon, the journey of Avraham Avinu, Avraham our ancestor, has influenced the subsequent course of human events. From Avraham comes not only the understanding that there is one God of the universe, but that human beings have a direct relationship with that God and a commitment to justice and compassion that derives from that relationship. So much that we take for granted now, so much assumed by society in general (since Christians and Muslims also look to Avraham as their spiritual founder), stems from the first step of this journey “to the land that I will show you”. Avraham’s journey challenges us thousands of years later to ponder how we, his descendants, maintain our covenantal relationship with God.

In the 21st century, a major question in front of us Jews is how we can connect with God and how we can continue both to live by and develop the national covenant, which includes our relationship with Israel. While some among our people are certain of the covenant and their place within it, there are far more struggling yet wanting to find their place within the tradition, living rich with context and meaning. How do we understand or experience God? How can we pursue justice and compassion when the two are often in tension? As the rabbis of old developed the terms of the covenant, should we also? There are far too many understandings about God, covenant and Israel for those questions to be answered in a short comment; rather, those issues must be on the table for forthright, reasoned, articulate and considerate communal conversation.

Avraham himself, as we know him through received tradition, establishes parameters for that conversation. In our parashah, Avraham is called the “Hebrew”, the one who comes from the other side of the river (or tracks so to speak). Before we were Jews, before we were the children of Israel, first we were Hebrews. In his time, Avraham was willing to stand apart from conventional thinking. Who of us would be willing to leave our country, birthplace and family home to pursue an ideal contrary to every assumption held by our general society? Yet it may be precisely that kind of faith, that kind of action, first demonstrated by Avraham thousands of years ago, that we need to emulate to regenerate our covenantal relationship with God.  

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Parashat Noah

When Original Isn’t Original

 

One of the first readings that I like to introduce my Bible students at college is The Epic of Gilgamesh. According to scholars, Gilgamesh was king of the Mesopotamian city of Uruk around 2750 BCE (Mitchell, Gilgamesh, 1). The epic is a heroic story of legends – Gilgamesh battles monsters, builds friendships, searches for love, and even tries to attain immortality. According to translator Stephen Mitchell:

 

In 1872, a young British museum curator named George Smith realized that one of the fragments told the story of a Babylonian Noah, who survived a great flood sent by the gods. ‘On looking down the third column,’ Smith wrote, ‘my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean account of the Deluge (Mitchell 4).

 

The account of the Deluge or great flood in Gilgamesh is contained in the eleventh tablet (there are twelve in total and many more fragments), or as Mitchell calls it in his translation, “Book XI.” Gilgamesh holds a conversation with Utnapishtim who explains the gods’ plan to annihilate humanity by means of a flood. Utnapishtim was instructed to build a roof over a square ship and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature (Mitchell, 180-181). On the seventh day of the flood, Utnapishtim sends forth a dove, and later a swallow who with no place to land, return to the ship. Utnapishtim later sends forth a raven and because the waters have receded, the raven does not return (Mitchell, 187-188).

 

There are striking similarities between this section of The Epic of Gilgamesh and our Torah portion this week, Parashat Noach. With rampant corruption throughout the earth, God decides to destroy the world with a flood, leaving only Noah and his family, and two of each kind of animal to survive in an ark that Noah constructs. At the conclusion of the flood, Noah sends out a raven first, and then a dove. The dove is unable to find a place to land and returns to Noah. Noah waits another seven days, sends off the dove again, and the dove returns with a fresh olive leaf.

 

Even though there are notable differences in both narratives, the similarities raise some interesting questions with regards to the originality and authenticity of our texts. It was the practice of many ancient cultures to explain natural phenomena, the creation of the world, and catastrophic events like the flood with storytelling much like we find in both Gilgamesh and Genesis. Clearly, we are not the only historical nation to bear witness to a great flood, or use the story of a great flood as one of the foundational narratives of our people.

 

Could this mean that the authors of Noah and the authors of Gilgamesh experienced similar historical episodes?

 

In some schools of thought, even highlighting the existence of a text like Gilgamesh would be considered heretical to the Jewish journey. To argue regarding the Divine revelation of Torah and the originality of the narrative therein is considered harsh critique, perhaps even blasphemy, even if such commentary may be grounded in academic scholarship. Thankfully, in the Reconstructionist world, we welcome this dialogue and we welcome this challenge. Just as science and religion need not be mutually exclusive, the brilliance of Torah shines forth when we recognize the impact of other historical cultures upon our own, rather than deny or dismiss them. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors asked, “Given these historical and contemporary events, what is our perspective? How do these stories inform our lives? What is our take, our unique perspective on what this means for our emerging (Israelite/Jewish) culture?”

 

Our struggle today is no different. We like our ancestors before us, try to recognize the validity and place of Torah in our lives – against the secular culture and societal norms that have strong influence, informing and impacting everything we do. That the originality of the Noah story (or the lack thereof when compared against Gilgamesh) raises questions and forces us to think about our texts is challenging, but a thoughtful and welcome blessing – because the process of searching, questioning, and reflecting, is a process which brings meaning to our lives and enables us to grow further as a community, as a people, in the presence of God. Shabbat Shalom

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Temporary Sorrows, Abiding Joy

This Shabbat we read the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes and we share the wisdom of King Solomon who is, according to tradition, the author of the book. He says, “I know there is nothing better for man than to rejoice and do good in his life. And also, that every man should eat, drink and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God.” (Kohelet 3:12-13) Sukkot is the festival described in our calendar as the “season of our joy,” the one festival where we are commanded to rejoice and be happy, to celebrate and be glad. All the traditions connected with Sukkot assist us in bringing the joy of the festival to the fore; eating and drinking in our sukkot with friends and family, smelling the distinctive, refreshing scent of the etrog, shaking the lulav with its beautiful greenery, and reading the book of Kohelet, to inspire us to live with better purpose and more joy. Kohelet stresses the importance of enjoying the bounty with which we are blessed, of eating and drinking, of sharing special moments and being grateful for the blessings in our lives. And it is particularly poignant that we read these words in the sukkah, in the temporary structure and dwelling in which we live for the seven days of the festival.

The sukkah is a fragile structure, it is not the solid bricks and mortar of our homes, rather it is exposed to the elements, offers some shelter but does not provide very much protection from a storm or unrelenting heat and sun. The sukkah though, through its very nature, causes us to do what kohelet is encouraging through his words; to take stock, to think about what is really important, what in our lives is temporary and what is permanent and to ask if we are really living up to the best that is in us. When we sit in the sukkah, we begin to realize the fragile nature of our material possessions, that our homes, as safe as they might be, could be gone in an instant. A flood, a fire, a storm, could take away our homes and our possessions, it is an illusory form of security. But what is enduring are not the physical possessions but who we are, how we live our lives and the relationships we share. For that reason our sukkot are to be places where we invite guests, where we share food and blessings with those people who are important in our lives and we read Kohelet to remember what it is that truly defines who we are: not our wealth, our fame or our power, but the kind of people we are, the relationships that we share and our ability to appreciate the blessings in our lives.

As we sit in our sukkot Kohelet calls to us to eat, drink and be merry, to enjoy the fruits of our labor and celebrate the special moments. Sukkot is a time for rejoicing in the blessings in our lives, being grateful for what we have and for recognizing what is truly important. May we all have a z’man simchatenu, a season of rejoicing and joy. 

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