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Entries in Abraham (5)


We Must Not Be Noah

A blog post at Times of Israel


Abraham and the wisdom of the East

Of all Abraham's trials, Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac seems the most difficult. The command to leave behind everything he knew and set off for an unknown land was also very challenging.Both required a tremendous amount of trust, and both demanded that Abraham disconnect from what he knew and loved, from his family of origin and homeland, and then from his beloved son and his very own reason and logic and belief in a just G-d.

Interestingly enough, Genesis 25:1-6 tells us that Abraham married another wife named Keturah, and that although he left his estate to Isaac, while he lived he mysteriously "gave gifts to the sons of his concubines and sent them away from his son Isaac to the land of the east."

The meaning of this verse is not clear. Many have suggested interconnections between Abraham and the religions of the east, pointing to the names of the Hindu Uber-God Brahma (grandsire of all human beings) and his wife Saraswati as being very close to Abraham and Sarah  - though we must note that the former are gods and the latter humans. Some even claim Abraham to be descended from Indian Brahmins, implying the Eastern wisdom was his legacy; yet that is not the picture the Torah presents, rather that Abraham was unique in his surroundings, and that he sent gifts to the East, not vice versa.

In any event: a central tenet of Hinduism, and later Buddhism, is to release ourselves from attachment and the suffering it causes. The fact remains that Abraham began to learn this wisdom via the tests G-d put him through, and perhaps this constituted the "gifts" he passed on the East, there to be developed further (the earliest Hindu Vedic texts are dated 1700 BCE, slightly after Abraham's birth 1800 BCE approx.)

Buddhism has developed the spiritual goal of striving to non-attachment, in the deepest sense, in that non attachment means unity with all things and freedom from desires (it is more than simply letting go of family or beliefs, but that could be the initial external step necessary to become enlightened). Judaism did not demand this of its followers, but taught other kinds of wisdom.

Nonetheless many Jews are attracted to Buddhism, with its sophisticated teachings about the inner life, and one could perhaps posit that since the it would have been impossible to have a system with both Jewish emphases on doing in this world and striving for spiritual growth within the material (the hardest challenge), and Buddhist emphases on non-attachment and liberation from desires, that both of these "Abrahamic" (or partially Abrahamic) religious systems needed to grow separately so as to develop and nurture their truths. Now, Jews can finally reclaim their portion of Buddhism, the sparks that are truly Abrahamic, and that has developed for all these years, while not accepting the rest.

(Zohar 1:99b).
“Rabbi Abba said, ‘One day I happened upon a certain town formerly inhabited by children of the East, and they told me some of the wisdom they knew from ancient days. They had found their books of wisdom, and they brought me one… I found in it all the ritual of star-worship, requisites, and how to focus the will upon them, drawing them down… I said to them, ‘My children, this is close to words of Torah, but you should shun these books, so that your hearts will not stray after these rites, toward all those sides mentioned here; lest – Heaven forbid – you stray from the rite of the blessed Holy One! For all these books deceive human beings, since the children of the East were wise – having inherited a legacy of wisdom from Abraham, who bestowed it upon the sons of the concubines, as is written: To the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still alive, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East [Genesis 25:6]. Afterword they were drawn by that wisdom in various directions”


[1] I thank Prof. Alan Brill for his help in making elements of this dvar Torah more accurate. The idea grew out of a Bibliodrama on Akedat Yitzchak at Andy Kohlenberg's house, parshat Vayera 5755. Thanks to Nicole Koskas who came up with the profound insight about G-d teaching Abraham to disconnect, and to Zev ben Yechiel for pointing out that Brahma's wife is Saraswati.
N.b. if Ketura was the mother of the sons sent to the east, I would have thought that Brahma's wife would be called something along the lines of Ketura. Some say Ketura is Hagar, and apparently the Saraswati river has a tributary named Ghaggar, but here the speculation is beginning to stray rather far.


Parents Take a Step, Children Take the Next

G-d's command to Abraham in Genesis 12:1 "Lech lecha - Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you" is one of the most powerful and significant verses in Jewish history, setting in motion a journey of peoplehood, ethics, and worship still in force today.

Yet the verses just before it explicitly tell us that Abraham's father Terach had set out already, to go to the land of Canaan (the mystery land is even named!). So we have to ask, why is G-d telling Abraham to "leave your father's home and go to a land i will show you" when his father was already on the way (presumably with son Abraham
in tow)?

This question could bear a number of answers. But I want to suggest that if we read it symbolically, then it can be taken as a statement of parents and children. Many, if not all of us, have traits and talents we inherited from our parents, but are able to take one step further.
Our parents travel a certain distance with their own skills, and then we get to travel the next part of the way and maybe even reach a destination they could never have achieved. Without them, however,  maybe we couldn't get there at all.

And our children will take this inherited spiritual material one step further too. So we should appreciate what our parents have done with what they were given, and that they have travelled the part of the journey that they could. Moreover, without them we wouldn't be who we are and where we are. Everyone does their part.

So Terach might not have known, or been aware, of why he needed to get up and go to Canaan. He might have thought he was going for trade reasons. But in reality, a deeper intention was carrying him along, part of the Divine plan. He was taking Abraham part of the way (to Haran, to be precise), so that Abraham could continue from that springboard. Abraham would eventually have to separate from him, per "Go from your father's house...", but, hopefully (and despite the deep ideological gap between the two), with deep gratitude for everything he had received.


Noah and his moment

This year I have been feeling the story of Noah very deeply. Particularly, the image of this man who essentially went through a Holocaust with his family.

There is an interesting tension within our commentators (revolving around the words "in his generations") between those who would see Noah as righteous and those who would see him as mediocre at best.

It's easy to judge Noah. He wasn't Abraham - he did not plead to G-d to save the world, and he did not run around telling everyone that they needed to repent. He was "נח", passive. That is why we do not adopt him as one of our patriarchs or as a role model.

Abraham was told "Lech Lecha, leave behind everything you know and set out on a long journey." So was Noah. Both obeyed G-d. 

Abraham opened his house to guests. Noah built a (floating) house and faithfully took care of hundreds of animal guests for over a year.

Yet to be fair, Noah did not have any role models for action. G-d came and told him to do something very difficult, and he did it. He obeyed. We praise Abraham for his obedience at the Akedah, why should we not give Noah the credit for fulfilling the extremely challenging task he was given.

You could argue that neither did Abraham have any role models before him. True. But he did have Noah and the flood story (a midrash even claims that Noah was still alive when Abraham was born). He had a negative example to learn from. He also had a contemporary (and who knows, perhaps he even spoke to him?) to whom G-d had spoken and who had obeyed.  In other words, perhaps without Noah there could not have been an Abraham. Noah's actions and activities created the basis, was a precursor, for the greatness of Abraham.

Hegel speaks of thesis and anti-thesis. Perhaps Noah's very passivity and lack of pleading (thesis) led to the antithesis, Abraham's active mode and his intercession before G-d.

- - -

But, truth to tell, Noah did miss a tremendous opportunity. After the flood, all idol-worship had been wiped out. There was only Noah and his family, and they know of the one G-d. Judaism's entire theology is bent towards the day when the entire world will know G-d. Noah had an opportunity to set the world on a foundation of monotheism when he emerged from the ark; to go out into the world and serve G-d. Instead, he got drunk and ended up cursing his own descendants. It is hard to blame Noah for getting drunk - he must have been unimaginably traumatised by emerging from the ark into a world where nothing he had known even existed any more and everyone was dead. But it was a lost opportunity and hence, it was subsequently up to Abraham to try to introduce monotheism into a world already riddled with idol-worship.

N.B. Interestingly enough, a lecture I heard last week by Dr Paula Friedrikssohn taught me that during the time of Jesus, another such moment came along in history. At that time, pagans were pluralists, and even those who might admire the Israelite G-d, would still cling to their own nation's gods. In other words, the norm was to worship numerous gods at the same time, but never to let go of your family gods. Along came Saul/Paul and began to announce to the pagans that they must surrender their idols and worship only the G-d of Israel (who was of course the G-d that Jesus and his followers believed in, being Jewish). At that time, many pagans converted to a form of Judaism, or at least Jewish belief (I am not sure if they had any practice).

Of course, the moment was lost, on some level, when this form of Judaism then morphed into a new religion that no longer resembled Judaism. Still, this series of events set into motion the advent of a new monotheistic trend in the world that would come to embrace millions and bring them closer to one G-d. Let's hope, pray and believe that this has to be a good thing.


Now I know the beauty

ספר בראשית פרק יב
(יא) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ:

Genesis 12:11. And it came to pass, when he came near to enter to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that you are a pretty woman to look upon.

Had Avraham not been aware before of how his wife looked? Yes, but he was now looking at her through the eyes of Egyptian society and seeing her afresh.

For me, two important points emerge:

1) Let us use anything we can to refresh our eyes to the beauty of what is around us - even if it is Egyptian society. Even sources that are debased in some way might be able to teach us to see the beauty of G-d's world in a new way. The world of art, though flawed, can do this.

Let us always refresh our eyes to the beauty of the world. Every morning, press that existential F5 button, wake up, חדשים לבקרים, רבה אמונתך

2) Perhaps we may deduce that Avraham was used to looking at inner beauty, not externals. Perhaps he did not even know how attractive his wife was physically, for he was involved with her soul. Now he was forced pragmatically to reevaluate her physicality, so as to prepare for the dangers it might bring to them in this new land.

In the movie "Prelude to a Kiss," a lovely young bride switches bodies with an old man. The groom is in love with his new wife, but she now comes in a very unattractive wrapper. He struggles with this; there is a barrier between then. Then during one profound scene, we see him break through the externals, entirely aware of the person he loves within; able to love her and reach out to break through the barrier.

How much do and should externals mean to us, in the day to day, or in searching for a life partner? In Taanit 20b, an arrogant rabbi runs into a hideous man on the road, and says "How ugly you are! Are all the citizens of your town as ugly as you?" His fellow replies, "I do not know! Go and tell the craftsman who made me, How ugly is the vessel you have made!" Attempting to interpret this exchange could lead us down several paths, but what strikes me is that the ugly man is reminding the rabbi of G-d. "You are lacking in a sense of G-d at this moment, for were you mindful of G-d, you could not speak like this. Could you stand before G-d and speak of an ugly vessel? Ignoring inner parts? Go talk to G-d and let us see you speak in this fashion!"

Just as Hillel says, The bride is always beautiful. If you cannot see the beauty of a bride on your wedding day, clear out your eyes; employ your inner eye.

No, we are not built to ignore externals, they are a part of our lives. But let us, just for a moment, try to see what's inside, the beauty that shines within. We might be surprised.