Saturday, November 7, 2009

This week’s Torah portion is Vayera – it begins vayera eilav adonai – and God appeared to him, “him” in this case being Abraham. The Rabbis teach that this is a continuation of last week’s parsha which ended with Abraham and his household being circumcised, so God is visiting Abraham during his convalescence, from which we derive the sacred duty of bikur cholim, visiting the sick.

Then three travelers appear in the distance and Abraham breaks off the visit from God to greet them and invite them to rest and share a meal in his camp. From this the Rabbis infer that the mitzvah of hospitality to strangers is so important that Abraham puts it ahead of being in the presence of God (and God doesn’t seem to mind). Of course the strangers are malachim – angels – one who will proclaim the miracle of Sarah having a child at age 99, one who will visit God’s wrath on Sodom and Gomorrah, and one who will oversee the sacrifice of Isaac. Angels play a big part in this parshah.

Something also worth noting is that each of these angels play a part in an incident where Abraham interacts with God to make something happen. In fact, while the story of Abraham occupies a relatively small portion of Genesis, it’s interesting that whenever Abraham goes up against God, God changes.

In the ancient world view, there is heaven above, hell below, and earth in between. Until Abraham, the relationship to God was transactional - God gives, we take, we ask, God grants, we sin, God punishes, we sacrifice, God is appeased. In the early parts of Genesis, God’s relationship to humanity is parent-child – with Adam and Eve, with Cain, even with Noah the relationship is superior-subordinate. With Abraham we see a new relationship – what is called in Latin mutatis mutandur – in the act of changing, the changer is changed.

This view of God begins with Abraham and comes to full flower with Moses which is more of a partnership, particularly in the desert. We could say that the God of Genesis and Exodus moves through stages of development:

  • Creative (the creation)
  • Idealistic (Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel)
  • Destructive (Noah, Sodom & Gomorrah)
  • Collaborative (Moses, Joshua, Prophets)
and that Abraham is the catalyst for this development

Most divrei Torah on Vayera concentrate on the Akeda – the binding of Isaac, and almost all look at it from Abraham’s point of view – imagine the horror of being commanded to sacrifice your son, the son you and your wife had longed for and finally had when you had given up hope. Some Rabbis consider the akeda a test of Abraham on God’s part, others a provocation or punishment for signing a treaty with the King of the Philistines instead of wiping out the inhabitants of the land as God had commanded.

Occasionally we get an interpretation from Isaac’s point of view – remember Isaac is not a child at the time of the akeda – he is about 35 years old, yet he goes along without complaint.

But what about God’s point of view? For whatever reason, God decides to command Abraham to kill his son; Abraham obeys without cavil, even though this is the son he and Sarah prayed and wished for and that God himself granted. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that God is appalled that Abraham would obey such a heinous command and realizes the power he holds over his creation. He relents with regard to Abraham and is changed by the experience – God is confronted with the fact that (to quote Spiderman’s Uncle Ben) “with great power comes great responsibility,” and is changed in the process. God begins to mature from the idealistic God of Eden to the God of Moses who is a partner and is open to discussing his conclusions with his creation.

This idea engenders a very different worldview than that of the ancients, a worldview we subscribe to today. Today we consider the view of heaven above and earth below simplistic. We know that if heaven exists it is in a different cosmos than ours, and that the reality in which there is God and angels and heaven is in a realm that is other than the physical reality of planets and space and time. Quantum physics validates the notion of multiple “realities” and we accept that, at least conceptually, even if we don’t understand it.

Similarly, I think we have to challenge the traditional view of God as omnipotent, omniscient, unchanging, and detached from humanity. If we are created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of God, is it too much of a stretch to suggest that we interact with God? In the words of Process Theology, God is not only transcendent – operating beyond the limits of experience (the traditional view), but also immanent – present, operating in this domain. Process theology holds that God is changed by interacting with God’s creation as much as that creation is changed by its interaction with God.

It seems to me that if we take b’tzelem Elohim and Shema Yisrael seriously, we are led to the process view. You’ve heard me espouse that there is a translation of the Shema that is more accurate than the traditional one of “Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God is One.” If you’ll forgive my repeating it, there are two words in Hebrew that translate as “one” – echad and yachid. Echad is a unity greater than its parts, as in "one+one+one is three", and as in "God is one" - not one as in "one and only," but rather a unity of multiples becoming one as, for example, a man and woman are “made one flesh” in marriage. Yachid - means individual, single, singular, as in "every single one of them", Yachid does not have the denotation of "whole" that echad has, but does mean "unique” or “singular." In the Yigdal hymn we find the phrase “echad v’eyn yachid” in reference to God – oneness without severalness. So a better translation of the Shema would be “Listen, Israel, God is Unity.”

So what do we get if we combine “in the image of God” and “God is unity?” For me, this evokes the notion of a hologram – in a hologram, each part of the image contains all the information of the whole image, and the more of them you combine, the clearer and sharper is the resulting image. What if we are all – and I mean “all,” not just Jews or Christians or Muslims, but all, are like holograms of God, and the more we connect to each other, the clearer is the immanence, the presence, of God?

There is a bit of folklore that the Messiah will come when one of two things happen:
  • When every Jew in the world observes Shabbat on the same day
  • When every Jew in the world violates Shabbat on the same day.

Maybe it’s not the observance, it’s the unity.

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