Friday, November 28, 2008

Parshat Toledot 5769: Twin Thinking

I originally wanted to title this portion What is Jewish Thinking, but a death close to home changed my mind. A 53 year old coworker of mine, our electronics expert, went home Thursday night, Tired, he lay down for a nap. He never woke up and was found two days later when another of our employees, his sister, finally checked on him. His death has been a bit of a shock for me in many ways. First of all he was only ten years older than me, and the thought of my own mortality is very much on my mind right now. While my grand parents had the chance to say good bye to us in one way or another, we knew the end was coming and someone was watching them to the very end. Gary died suddenly, and no one was there for him when he did. To die so alone seems so horrible, to live a life where no one notices you are dead for days. That too has been on my mind as I find myself alone, realizing if I died like that, no one would know for days, for no one would check on me.
Last weeks portion Haye Sarah starts and ends with the deaths of Sarah and Abraham respectively. Toledot is about birth, Life, and living. Due to prior business commitments I could not get out of, I missed both the funeral and shiva calls, which also upset me greatly. This week I make my Shiva call here in my words, I dedicate this to Gary and the life he lived. If there was one thing I could most say about Gary, it’s that he thought very differently than everyone else, and it is different thinking that I wanted to talk about this week.
This week Isaac and Rebecca are childless. After some praying, Rebecca gets pregnant with twins, who won’t sit still in her womb.
22. And the children struggled together inside her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the Lord. 23. (K) And the Lord said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples shall be separated from your bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger.[Genesis 25]

After the Birth of Esau and Jacob, the two are as different as can be, each preferred by opposite parents. Once the kids are older, Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. The family then moves into Philistine territory for a while. They are eventually kicked out for Isaac trying the “sister” tactic of his father, though he gets caught when he can’t keep his hands off the lovely Rebecca. There is some trouble at the wells, and then Esau marries a few gals who stress out his parents. Finally, Isaac asks Esau to get him some venison, prepare him a meal, and then Esau will get the blessing. Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving the blessing to Jacob instead of to Esau, which enrages Esau to the point he’s swearing to kill Jacob. Rebecca then makes a timely suggestion to Isaac that it is time to find a wife for Jacob among her family, so Jacob sets out toward Padan-Aram.

There is much to make of Esau and Jacob’s relationship as brothers. A rabbi friend of mine happened to mention an interesting piece in Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s blog
I have no feelings pro or con regarding Anne Rice’s books, but there was something she said in the interview that I found profoundly saddening. I can’t quote her verbatim, but if I heard her correctly she said that she came to a place in her intellectual life where she realized that she will never have the answers to her questions, but that as long as she believed God had the answers she could stop asking the questions.

I can’t imagine a life without questions. A life of answers is dull. A life without questions is dead. The irony of the world’s second most famous author of vampire stories succumbing to questionless and hence lifeless theology was lost on Ms. Rice and her interviewer. But not on me.

Life is all about asking questions. Answers are secondary. They are temporary. But only as long as we continue to ask questions.[]

Judaism is a religion not of answers but of questions. We ask a lot of questions. The word in Hebrew for commentary midrash comes from the root to seek or question. Doing a very quick, rough check there are approximately, 32,000 times in the Babylonian Talmud the words What, why or how are used. God names are approximately 7,000. We are not the people of the book, but the people of the question.
In my Shlomo’s Drash from four years ago for Toledot, I made an interesting use of Esau and Jacob:
We are all Rebecca. Jacob, who will be Israel, is our yetzer ha tov, Esau our yetzer ha-ra. Esau is a force within all of us, and like Rebecca, we feel the pain of that force. Like the passive Isaac we may find it attractive because Esau is so visibly active and outwardly strong, hunting and bringing home the venison. But like the wily Rebecca, we see that the true good is in the one who sits in quiet study.

In that piece I related the rabbinic tradition of Jacob and Esau representing two nations. Jacob, whose name will change to Israel, represents the Jewish people. Esau on the other hand will found the nation of Edom. While the Edom in the biblical text is areas to the east of Israel, the Talmud has different ideas:
The hands are the hands of Esau [Gen 27:22] this is the Government of Rome which has destroyed our House and burnt our Temple and driven us out of our land.[Gittin 7b]

Rome eventually was replaced in later generations with Christianity as the Esau symbol. In our own minds these two, Edom and Israel struggle. Jacob is our Jewish thinking, Esau our western Christian and Roman influenced thinking. Ann Rice and Rami Shapiro once again reflect that. Thing is they both have a point, both ways of struggling with existence. One starts with certainty about everything, one starts with the spice of uncertainty. Their actions are based on those assumptions.
27. And the boys grew; and Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents.[Genesis 25]

Esau, being Rome, handles things like Romans. He’s a man of his weapons, of strength, and of force. He’s also a man of certainty. Questions are not his thing. He makes a decision and then does it. Note Esau’s impulsiveness trading his birthright for stew. The world of Edom is black or white, you are either hunter or prey. Esau’s grandson Amalek would be known in the bible for his people’s attention to hurting the weak. Of course one of the most notorious Amalekite of all is the genocidal Haman. Although it is not written anywhere in the text, there is a hint in “breaking the yolk” of Isaac’s fondness for him. Esau is physically strong enough to resist others. The text tells us that Isaac favored Esau for his venison. Isaac may favor Esau because if Isaac had been Esau at the Akedah, things would have gone differently. Esau believes in winning and losing, and can be a sore loser and complainer. Esau reacts to the world. He lets the world happen to him. When the world does not go his way, he can react with violence.

Jacob lives in tents. Note that the biblical text says tents and not one tent. The rabbis claim it meant he studied at two different schools, but I would go farther, based on the blessing in Deuteronomy. Isaac uses the phrase a field that the Lord has blessed.[genesis ] Deuteronomy, the only other place where a field is blessed, reads Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field [Deut. 28:3]. He moved around, and knew how to move around from place to place. He knew the city and the field and had the pragmatism of both.
In next week’s portion, although he left with nothing, we read none of the problems of surviving in the wilderness that accompanied Hagar. Indeed he finds a rock and makes himself a comfy bed. When informed of Rebecca’s plan, he rattles out a series of questions, yet in the midst of the deception and possibly found out by Isaac due to his voice, he still gets the blessing.
While Esau may be a hunter, its likely Jacob was a farmer and shepherd, and probably knew the genetics trick he pulls on Laban back in Cannan. While his brother doesn’t stop complaining, what you never hear from Jacob is blame, he just moves on and tries something else. On the other hand he has no problem bargaining with God either, even after God guarantees his safety. Jacob may not be strong physically, but he certainly was streetwise. He was proactive, not thinking in winning or losing, but in how he can improve and how he can get around the stumbling blocks of his life.
While the Esau in me would say there is only one right way to think, The Jacob in me strongly believes there are infinite. Jacob and Esau the twins struggling in the womb of the mind, providing us with many views of different thinking. Esau is in many ways Anne Rice’s perfect faith. If that perfect faith is feeding the poor there is no one who could object. If it is perfect faith to murder innocent people in a hotel, that is very disturbing. Jacob Is Rami Shapiro’s need to question. It works to bring ethics and creativity in to a situation, but it also can cause one to fall into analysis paralysis and do nothing at all. There are many ways to think, none completely bad or completely good. It requires that qualitative side of Jacob to understand this, for the quantitative Esau cannot get there. There are times that even the polarity falls short of explaining some people’s thinking.
My co worker Gary was a genius of a sort. None of what I just said describes him. As our electronics expert, he worked with me on occasion while I was trying to fix some of the computer systems in our office. He had circuit boards running around in his head. By that I mean you mention something that you want to do and he’d picture the whole board almost instantly. That is not to say he got the entire thing working right, and once he had that board in his head he’d work on making a physical one that worked to specs to the exclusion of everything else he was supposed to do. I learned early on not ask to borrow his soldering iron because he’d end up obsessing about fixing one wire or finding one plug. He’d often come by my office looking to borrow my infra red thermometer. On more than one occasion instead of checking volts or amps or ohms on equipment to diagnose it, he’d use my infra red thermometer to check the temperature of the circuit boards and connected equipment. Against any logic I could use, by looking at the temperatures he’d know what was wrong. He had his challenges in life, things that has destroyed many a human being, but he prevailed against them. Sometimes our ways of thinking clashed and it was hard to communicate, but somehow we got projects done.
I have my own way of thinking, very influenced by the Talmudic sages. In the face of the great tragedies of the destruction of the temple and the Bar Kokbah rebellion, they did not think they lost, but went about thinking differently. That way of thinking continues to this day. Note I used their thinking in this piece. It is not logical to take two verses of Torah and make a conclusion from it in Western logic. But in their minds such things were part of the fabric of the text and allowed them to come up with such ides as twenty three people need to judge a capital case. [M. Sanh 1:5]

There are many ways to think. Some add to the world, some destroy it, which makes this difficult to end this piece. As I’ve been writing this, there of course has been another example of Esau thinking at his worst. My condolences to all the families of the victims of the Mumbai terror attacks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Haye Sarah 5769: What is Real?

I read an article last week about a divorce. This by itself should not be big news, but the circumstances of this divorce and even where I heard it from was a bit disturbing. I thought of this week’s portion and how in the story of a marriage we find some answers about that divorce.

This week’s portion named the Life of Sarah ironically starts with her death. Abraham does some land deals to find a proper burial place for his late beloved wife, and then tells his trusty servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac back in the old country. Eliezer, seemingly not having a clue what to do decides the best thing to do is pray and to ask for a sign from God.
13. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; 14. And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master.[Genesis 24]

Almost immediately the sign comes to pass, as Rebecca comes to fetch water.
17. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I beg you, drink a little water from your water jar.18. And she said, Drink, my lord; and she hurried, and let down her water jar upon her hand, and gave him drink.19. And when she had finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking. 20. And she hurried, and emptied her water jar into the trough, and ran back to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels.[Genesis 24]

After repeating this entire story, he eventually brings her back to Isaac where she is so blown away by him she falls off her camel. Isaac and Rebecca get married, move into Sarah's old digs, and Isaac is comforted from the loss of his mother. Abraham remarries, (some rabbinic sources say he marries Hagar), and has a few more kids. Even with the death of Abraham, which Isaac and Ishmael bury jointly, everybody acts like one happy family until the twins show up next week.

A friend of mine wrote a quick note stating she was disturbed with an article about an UK couple that had divorced over the husband cheating on the wife in the internet game Second Life, though never meeting his mistress face to face. Second Life is a game where you make up a character and live and explore a virtual world. These two had actually met on-line in the game, had a small real wedding then had a large wedding in the game itself. When she caught her husband cheating on her not in real life but in the confines of the game, she hired a detective in the game to find out if he had been cheating more, eventually finding he had a relationship with an American woman. He claimed he would not have needed to entertain himself this way if his wife wasn’t so involved with another similar though more violent game, the World of Warcraft. After the divorce, it was reported in the press that the two are getting remarried, he to his on-line mistress, and she to a guy she met on World of Warcraft. I wrote to my friend:
Living one's whole life in SL is disturbing. What's really disturbing is, given all that, she's dating a guy from WoW.
This started a group discussion my friend hadn’t planned on getting into. I got philosophical rather quickly:

I think the issue is misrepresentation. The question is: at what point does the potential to misrepresent make it imaginary?

At what point does the lie, regardless of the media make something unreal?

I was getting self reflective too, wondering if I was real. This conversation, just like Second Life and Warcraft happened online in the social media system known as Twitter. Twitter however is far different than those games in several respects. Primarily it is not a rich 3-d environment meant to be played on the best computer systems available. Instead it is a communication tool allowing very limited communication to accommodate anyone’s computer or cell phone. The limitations are so great that your comments, known as tweets, can be only 140 characters long. Pictures and other media need to be referenced to other systems. There are none on the system, except for a small postage stamp sized picture for an avatar. Avatars are essentially representations of the person talking. Second Life has avatars too, but the object of the game is to dress up and act the part of your avatar in glorious 3-d graphics and animation.
While I do have a photo of myself for an avatar, both of the people I was conversing with didn’t, but illustrations instead. One of them is an author I admire, though he is reluctant to publicly identify himself given the nature of his writing. To have a false name and picture protects himself and his family from any backlash against his work. Yet even photos can lie. An avatar can be a photo of someone else besides the person communicating as I quickly remembered when I got mail from some internet dating site. E-dating sites are notorious for people lying about their age or putting a picture of someone else. I’ve been on a few dates when the picture doesn’t match the person I get to meet. A friend of mine even went on a date with what he thought was an attractive woman, only to find a morbidly obese woman waiting for him. She had gotten her best friend to pose for her picture on the profile. Some articles on the Second Life divorce case showed picture of the avatars of the couple, and also their actual pictures. The lie showed well here, the avatars were very different than the real people.
Back in Genesis 24 by the well outside Nahor, Eliezer is in the same dilemma. While many of the rabbis of the Midrash believe he said something careless in his little prayer, I’m not so sure. As we will definitively learn in later dealings with Rebecca’s brother Laban, these are not the most truthful people. Deception is a way of life. As we will learn in next week’s portion, not even Rebecca is completely immune. What's a trusted servant to do?
10. And the servant took ten of his master’s camels, and departed; for all the good things of his master were in his posession; and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor. [Genesis 24]
Why did he take that many camels? It would seem literally that he took a lot of goods with him. Was that ten camel’s worth? In Genesis 13:2 we know that Abram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. Much of Abraham’s wealth from both Pharaoh and from Abimelech was in the form of cattle and sheep. While he did have gold and silver, the bigger wealth of cattle and sheep could not be transported on camels. If that is true, what were the good things that took on the camels? There are two answers: one would be the camels themselves as invaluable transport. Yet the second is more intriguing: that all the good things for Abraham was the ability to comfort Isaac. To take all the good things means to take this mission very seriously.
Eliezer thus may not have taken this frivolously as the Rabbis claim, but took this very seriously. He took ten camels intentionally for a test. Each camel drinks up to 30 gallons, so ten of them can drink up to a total of 300 gallons. For someone to give a passing stranger say 20 ounces of water is not a big deal. Yet, for someone to volunteer to pour out 300 gallons of water is no easy feat. It requires not just an action but a commitment to continued action until the task is done.
I asked my Twitter friends an important question. What is real enough on the internet to be trusted enough to be considered reality? I can expand this to any media really, including life. While they didn’t answer me, my answer comes from Perkei Avot. Rabbi Akiba once said:
The world is judged with goodness, and everything is in accordance with the preponderance of [man's] deed[s]. [Avot 3:15]
While Akiba was discussing how God relates to us, it is true of interpersonal relationships as well. We have choices, and how we are judged by other individuals is by our deeds. While his methods and motivation may be debatable, the Midrash is clear in what Eliezer’s mission really was. The only thing that would comfort Isaac is someone to replace his mother – Isaac’s wife was to be the next Matriarch, with the commitment and the force of will that Sarah had during her life. To make sure that was the right person for this important task some beauty contest and interview with prospective brides would not do. Whoever was able to water the camels was the real thing because they acted like the real thing. It was Rebecca that passed such a test.
While I have no problem with people entertaining themselves for a few hours in a game, I do have a problem with people taking the game as real, and living their lives in this imaginary world, being someone they are not. Rebecca gave a drink to a passing stranger who asked and gave water to camels until they had their fill. Eliezer, Rebecca, and ten camels benefitted from her actions. The world of the game does not produce anything that betters anyone else except the profits of the companies running or selling merchandise in the game. While some might use Twitter in the same way as a game, many of my author, artist and even Rabbi friends use it to promote what they created. Sometimes they ask for support from the community for what they are working on. I often listen to those more experienced voices as I learn from them their tricks of the trade, and contribute some of my own at times. We may communicate via electronic communication, but we go back to the real world to do our crafts.

In the end what makes us real is we make or do something in this world which affects others. The first life is not a game like Second Life; it is about changing our world for the better, not just for ourselves, but for others. It may be a work of art, some social action, or even a smile for someone who is having a bad day. Unlike the relationships on-line, love in the real world may even make a baby or two. Next week, we’ll look at two babies and how they represent two different models of perceiving the world.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Vayera 5769: Sarah laughed, I laughed, We Succeeded

I have a disability, yet almost no one knows it. It is a limitation in my life. In this week’s portion we read about Sarah’s limitations. This week we read:
12. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am grown old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? [Genesis 18]

This is not the first time we have heard this. Abraham as well said so
17. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born to him who is a hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear? [Genesis 17]

Ancient rabbinic thought does not comment on the one thing that I been thinking about in these passages, probably because it was so obvious. Sarah and Abraham both laughed because she thought that a son at this point was impossible. Of course, God can do anything, so it shouldn't be so impossible, hence God’s impatience concerning Sarah
13. And the Lord said to Abraham, Why did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? 14. Is any thing too hard for the Lord? At the time appointed I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah shall have a son. 15. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, No; you did laugh.[Genesis 18]

On a very personal level I understand Sarah laughing. Not only was there the issue of conceiving, but of carrying and giving birth to a child. Physical limitations seem to be insurmountable. Sarah, more than Abraham, has to be intimately involved with the creative process. In my own creative work, I’m also familiar with physical limitations. I’ve discussed my color blindness before, but I never have gone into the other limitation in my life.
The first signs of a problem came in early grade school. My handwriting was terrible, and I was doing terribly in Physical Education. Besides picking the wrong colors, when using coloring books I could never color within the lines. I would often, when trying to write my homework completely zone out, what the teacher wrote on my report card as “daydreaming.” Due to a series of fortunate circumstances, My parents were able to get me tested for what was going on. It turns out my brain is working faster than my motor nerves. These two working at conflicting speeds mean I cannot control my body as easily as most people do. This might not seem to be that big of a deal but think about all the things that need coordination of those two systems. The reason I did so rotten in virtually any sport wasn’t a matter of strength, but coordination. Trying to catch a ball or swing a bat becomes a nightmare when there is even a fraction of a second delay between what you see and your arm moving. I failed Drivers Education the first time I took it because trying to get my arms and feet to control the vehicle was near impossible. By the second time I drove sufficiently well to get my license. But the worst of all was putting a pencil in my hand.
Nothing is so subtle and precise in its movements than handwriting. I had to concentrate intensely to write a single letter. It took a while, and my brain meanwhile flooded those same muscles with thirty more ideas or letters that needed to be put down. In that clog of ideas my hand would go on strike and shut down, hence the day dreaming. One teacher ever figured this out, and she did something that I’m indebted to her forever. She put me on a typewriter, and let me type my lessons. The ideas flowed much easier, though even here I had an incurable problem with typographic errors. Unfortunately in the years that followed I didn’t have a typewriter and I suffered in my classes from having to write my homework. As much as Blue books were bad for most students, for me they were a total terror. Even in graduate school, things were problematic with writing. Trying to take my handwritten comprehensive examinations for my first Master’s Degree, I almost failed because my writing was so bad as to be unreadable. I would start writing one sentence and then pick up with the end of the next sentence, skipping dozens of words in between in my incomprehensible scrawl. Fortunately my advisor knew about my problem, and was merciful in his grading. He knew if you put me in front of a key board, the words just start streaming out in incredible prose – my only problem was that pencil and pen.
Word processing has been one of the greatest blessings in my life. Without it I would have had nothing of what I have today. I seriously doubt I would have graduated High School. Yet now I have two graduate degrees.
One thing that I always wanted to do was art. I wanted to draw and paint. But between my color blindness and my lack of motor control that was a laughable dream, as laughable as two senior citizens having children. Yet it was a dream I really wanted.
Shortly after I finished my Masters in education and that comprehensive exam, I did something very scary for me. I took a drawing class. Like that typewriter in first grade, it was a moment of enlightenment when John, our teacher stuck two Chinese takeout cartons and a Styrofoam cup in the middle of the room, and told us to blind contour draw what we saw in front of us. Blind contour, for those not familiar with art is a way of drawing where you never look at what you are drawing; your eyes are instead always looking at the subject you are drawing. But there was one other instruction I was given, and that was the breakthrough in my art. I was told not to draw by movements of my fingers but to use my whole arm. That suggestion changed everything, and within three weeks I was drawing the cups and take out cartons, along with watering can and milk pails as recognizable objects. Removing the hundreds or motions of my fingers for the few muscles of my arm meant I gained far more control of my body than I ever had with a writing instrument in it.
After graduating college I got a job that had me on the road six days a week. Although I was still very rough in my driving, in the nine months I worked that job, I put on 80,000 miles on that car. By the time I left that job for another, no one could ever tell I ever had trouble driving. In the twelve years since I started drawing and painting, I have filled dozens of notebooks, almost every day of the last twelve years I’ve painted or drawn. And something amazing happened. I could draw and paint. My ability today is the result of a few teachers who set me in the right direction and a ton of practice. I’ve learned to use my hands and the rest of my body properly despite my disability. Repetition has been a huge part of that.
Had someone handed me one of my acrylics or watercolors and told me I painted that, I would have laughed as much as Abraham and Sarah. It seemed inconceivable I could do anything like that. Yet staring at the work which covers the walls of my apartment I’m reminded of how much one can accomplish.
Miracles happen, but they happen when both God and humanity take them seriously. We may laugh at the prospect of something incredible happening, be it a child in one’s old age or painting a beautiful woman at a beach bar. I thought of all this recently when I was given a few new physical challenges by a friend of mine, and once again my hands feel like they are made of lead, and I find my self fighting not to shut down. It’s made me realize what is necessary to get me to function like a normal human being, something unwritten into the text of the story of Abraham and Sarah. In stories of infertility we usually have no gap between God promising and God fulfilling. Yet here there’s a three-month gap. It took a year for Sarah to have a baby, while if she had gotten pregnant immediately it would wold have been sooner. We have no idea how long she was kept captive from Abraham by Abimelech in the second “she is my sister” episode. Yet it would seem a lot less than three months. Since it is clear also that it is Abraham’s son, there is only one conclusion about those three months. Any time they were together, they copulated. Abraham and Sarah did the human physical acts that made the miracle true. God supplied the rest.
The laughingly impossible is possible if only we try and try again. I rode tens of thousands of miles in my first car, and have become a good driver because of it. I have painted thousands of paintings, each one better than the last. When I learned how to throw pottery on the potters wheel, my ceramics teacher told me how to make a good pot: you make a lot of pots. I realized how powerful that advice to me twenty-two years ago was when last year when for the first time in fifteen years I sat down at a potter’s wheel and threw a perfect pot to my total surprise. Muscle memory is different than conscious memory, it never forgets.
But there is the other part we cannot forget. God will do miracles and blessings, if only we look for them. I had no control of which teacher I got in different parts on my life, but those who were particularly memorable were blessings from God. I would not have succeeded without them. That is the stuff we need to thank God for.
My disabilities are mostly inconveniences. I’m not blind or paralyzed, as others are who are presented challenges I can not even imagine. Yet I believe anyone who has a limitation can expand themselves into places that they or others might laugh about, if only they put the hard effort of practice in. When they do that, God will provide for them blessings. We all have limitations that make a dream laughable. Though I can strum a few chords, with my fingers I very much doubt I will ever be able to play Flight Of The Bumblebee on my guitar. My fingers just can’t move that fast.
Or can they? If I had the desire, put in the practice, and looked for the miracles that would help me get there, even that may be possible. If you really had the desire, the discipline to do something thousands of times, and the willingness to let God give you a few gifts along the way, what could you accomplish?

Friday, November 07, 2008

Parshat Lech Lecha 5769: Two Songs, Two people

This week we read Lech Lecha, with its famous words
“And the Lord had said to Abram, Get out from your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
Abram, along with wife Sarai, Lot, and the “souls that they made” leave for a place unknown. Along the way, they stop in Canaan, until a famine forces them to Egypt where Abraham half-lies about Sarah to save his own life, only to benefit in a huge financial apology by the Pharaoh of Egypt. Then he returns to Canaan somewhere around Hebron, only to end up leading a military alliance with Sodom and Gomorrah to save Lot from a hostage situation. Abram then refuses to take any war booty, but Lot decides to live in Sodom. Abraham then does a rather strange sacrifice, getting a promise and a prophecy about the Exodus from Egypt. He half-lies again about Sara, this time to the Philistine king Abimelech. Then he has a son Ishmael by Sarai’s handmaid Hagar. God tells his to change his name to Abraham, his wife’s to Sarah. Finally God literally “cuts a contract” for Abraham, Ishmael and all of Abraham’s male descendants: circumcision.

I tried several times this week to write something. I had a lot of ideas but could not get any of them work. I thought about Abram and how he views the issues of the king and his religion. I looked at Milchizedek, and the King of Sodom trying to figure out why Abram accepted one tribute and rejected another. I had lots of good sources, but it just wouldn’t come together. Thus I went back and decided to update an old Shlomos Drash, this one from 2004, because like the Torah reading themselves sometimes we need to re-vist issues we’ve looked at before.

When reading a Torah scroll, at the beginning of this chapter there is an interesting letter pattern: LCh LCh. The same word seems to repeat, though vocalized it is read Lech Lecha. Literally, Lech is the command to walk or go in the masculine, and Lecha is to you or for you. When read, this becomes go to yourself or go for yourself, but really it is just a very emphatic go. In Tanach, this phrase occurs only twice in the text. Once here and once in relation to the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:2). In the case of the Akedah, it is not exactly the same. In that case there is a Vav in front of Lech, the word looking like a cane an old man is carrying with a boy running after him.

Debbie Friedman, in her song Lech Lecha, alternates verses with the feminine version of the same phrase: L’chi Lach. L’chi Lach also occurs only twice: in the Song of Songs [2:10-13] where it begins and ends a poem where the male lover adjures the female to come out and play:

My beloved answered [and spoke] to me:
Arise, for yourself my love my beautiful one,
Go for yourself
For, here, the winter passed over
The rain passed on
Blossoms appear on the land
The time of song (bird) arrives
The voice of the turtledove is heard on our land
The fig tree makes spicy the early fig
The blossom of the grapevines gives fragrance
Arise for yourself, my love my beautiful one,
Go for yourself

The Song of Songs is read in the spring, while Parshiot Lech Lecha and Vayera are read in the fall. The feminine and masculine versions of the same command are read in opposite seasons. In the season of increasing darkness or bright colors becoming gray we have the male. In the season of increasing brightness, or gray becoming bright colors again, we have the female.

A long time ago, I was involved with a distance relationship, spending hours on the phone with this woman. Instead of a romantic time at our first face to face meeting of a distance, I broke up with her, knowing full well that the breakup was completely my fault. Walking around with that guilt and pain I walked into Friday services that week, not to be consoled, but to be ordered around like a slave, not a human being with feelings. Instead of sympathy, I got scolding. I decided that night to Lech Lecha to another Synagogue, preferably as quietly as possible. However for one or two individuals, for the next two months, they delighted in kicking me while I was down. One of these people expressed their opinion that I left because I hated women. Although completely untrue, for a guy still getting over a breakup, nothing hurt more. But it confirmed my feelings: it was time to go, and like Abraham and Haran, I was never to return there. As of this writing I’m definitely in a different place, a different chapter to say the least, one of far more hope than that time.

Back then, sitting with my coffee on an appropriately gray and gloomy day, I read that passage from the Song of Songs, illustrated with several rather bright, beautiful paintings I did even more years ago. I remembered something. Lech Lecha, although directed to a single person, was not just one person, but two- Abraham and Sarah. Abraham took Sarah with him, and as the Midrash explains she is an important part of the journey. The Midrash explains that the “souls they made” meant converts, and Sarah converted the women just as Abraham converted the men. This was a partnership of equal but not quite the same as the two words Lech and Lecha look alike on the torah scroll but are not quite the same in sound or meaning. One cannot be without the other. Together each makes the other better.

In the Song of Songs Lechi Lach is a calling out from the male lover to the female to be in the world of the male lover. It is followed by this (2:14)
My dove is in concealment of the cliff
In steep hiding places.
Show me your appearance
Let me listen to your voice
For your voice is sweet and your appearance is beautiful.
The male makes this second call to come out, this one not to the call of nature, but to the beauty of her appearance and voice. Here the male uses the term my dove to address the female. Doves are one of the most strongly monogamous birds. Many dove species do everything together with their mate, unlike other bird species, denoting their monogamous connection. They will only take one mate, then live alone when that mate dies. I learned how much so while once walking to get my morning coffee in Providence Rhode Island. A mourning dove had flown into a window of a store and smashed its skull. Its mate could do nothing but walk around it cooing, not paying the slightest attention to me. It could not leave its mate, even at its death.

Through everything in Abraham’s and Sara’s trip, much of which could easily derail a relationship, Abraham and Sarah stay together. Sara is that dove. Abraham says to Sara “you are beautiful in appearance” [Genesis 12:11] Her voice is sweet in its wisdom, as the text and God remind us “in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice” [Genesis 21:12]

In the Song of Songs, L’chi Lach is not enough to get to that relationship. It will require the entire Song of Songs for them to be completely together. Like it did when I first looked at this topic back in 2004, I’ve been thinking about that lately. What my journey, indeed all of our journeys is about, is to get to the relationship at the end of the Song of Songs, both with a wonderful partner and with God. Like the story of Abraham and Sarah or the Song of Songs, it will require many trials, a few losses, a few gains to get to my land. I’ve moved along from where I was many years ago, yet Like Abraham who will do more journeying. I’ve made mistakes, like he did with Pharaoh and Abimelech, well intentioned or not. In time, we learn to love. We learn to receive love and we learn to give love.

I think in the fall, many have depressing thoughts as the world begins to turn dark and cold. But the time of light and warmth will come. Maybe it will take a very long time, but it will happen. Even though as things get dark in the fall, spring will follow. In this time of the male of the fall, the female of spring will be there too; we just have to be patient.

Rashi Script handout available

Just a quickie before I get out the Shlomo's Drash for the week. Many texts use Rashi script as a way to cite biblical quotations, though many people don't know how to read these. I have written a handout about Rashi script, Hebrew numbering and a reference guide to the names of the books of the Tanach in Rashi script. It is available for download at