A Burning Tower
Parashat Lech Lecha
November 11, 2016
This week, in the Torah portion known as Lech Lecha, Abraham suddenly receives a summons from God: "Go forth, from your country, from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." And Abraham, along with his wife, Sarah, does indeed go forth.
As many generations of Jews before us have noticed, God does not tell Abraham at the outset where he is to go, but Abraham at least does have a divine reassurance that God will "show him" when he's come to the right place. Granted, it's not as specific as the old days, when you would go into a AAA office before you went on a road trip, and they would make you one of those Trip Ticks, a spiral-bound book with your travel route highlighted in yellow marker. No divine, AAA map for Abraham, but a faith that when he gets where he's supposed to be, he will know it.
Earlier today, you could say that I had one of those "go forth" moments. Someone tipped me off that the Nueces Mosque down near the University and a couple of blocks from UT Hillel was having a kind of open house. Feeling understandably insecure and apprehensive in the wake of this week's election, they were inviting non-Muslims to stop by in support. It was already 1:30 PM, and I had a lot to do to get ready for Shabbat, but I drove downtown and stopped by anyway, because it seemed important to show up to such an event, and also because the Imam of the mosque is a good guy. When I got there, a small crowd had gathered outside the mosque. I waved at my friend, the Imam. He smiled, shook my hand, and to my surprise, hushed the crowd and said, "This is Rabbi Steven Folberg of Congregation Beth Israel. I'm glad he's here. He's my number one rabbi buddy."
Ah, but back to Abraham’s journey. Many generations of Jews before us have noticed the lack of a definite destination in God's command to Abraham to take leave; nothing more specific than “The land that I will show you.” They also noticed that life, too, is a kind of journey, and that we are constantly "going forth," and that, like Abraham, even when we think we know the destination, the journey is often filled with detours and surprises.
"How did I get here" is a question that most of us will find ourselves asking repeatedly, even many times over the course of a lifetime. Indeed, sometimes we will ask ourselves that question multiple times in the same day! Sometimes we will ask that question as individuals and sometimes we will ask it as a society, or as a nation. How did we get here? And perhaps even more importantly, now that we are here, what are we to do, and where are we called upon to go next?
The Torah itself doesn't actually tell us very much at all about what transpired during Abraham's journey to this mysterious, unspecified destination. So the rabbis, as they often do, speculated about some of the experiences that Abraham might have had along the way. In a fairly famous midrash – that genre of classic Jewish literature that a clever student of mine once called "ancient rabbinic fan fiction"– our sages tell the following story. It's one of a number of "how Abraham discovered God" stories that the rabbis tell, filling in a biographical back story for Abraham that the Torah doesn't give us.
From Bereshit Rabbah:
Rabbi Isaac told the parable of a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a בירה דולקת, a mansion (tower) in flames (or glowing). He wondered: Is it possible that this mansion is without someone to look after it? At that moment, the owner of the mansion peered out at him and said: I am the owner of this mansion! So, too, as Abraham was wondering, “Is it possible that the world should be without someone to look after it?” the Holy One peered down at him and said, I am the world’s Owner!
This is such a tantalizing text! Because the Hebrew word, doleket, could mean either "radiant" or "in flames," it's hard to know whether Abraham's vision is one of holiness and beauty or of chaos and destruction. Does he see a majestic, glowing castle and think, "This is so beautiful! There must be Someone behind this!" Or does he see the flaming ruins of a tower and wonder, "Why isn't the owner of the tower doing anything to douse the flames?"
Sometimes in the events of our lives and the events of our times, we will perceive burning ruins and at other times radiant holiness. To me, the story suggests that the search for holiness, for God's presence, goes on in either situation.
When we perceive the events of our lives through the lens of catastrophe, through the image of the tower going up in flames, we can ask ourselves any number of essential, sacred questions: What is to be done, who needs to be rescued, with whom shall I join in order to do the rescuing, what role have I had in fanning the flames, and even as the flames are being doused and the survivors cared for, we can ask, what wisdom would God have me derive from this?
And, at those blessed times when the events of our lives are easier for us to perceive as a beautiful castle, radiant with meaning and goodness, we are still called upon to ask God's questions: What do you learn from this? Does your joy come at someone else's expense? Does your radiant vision fill you with a desire for connection and unity, and motivate me toward acts of justice, love and service to others? Does your beautiful vision exclude or include?
The midrash also teaches us that the events of our lives don't just exist outside of us – we observe them and interpret them, and because each one of us is different, we will interpret them differently. What looks like a glowing castle to one person who exclaims, "This is as it should be! I perceive the unfolding of God's purpose in this," will appear to another person as a fearful catastrophe.
It's natural for us to want to "set straight" our friends and community members with a different vision, to ridicule those who see disaster when we do not, to mock or be harsh and impatient with those who are afraid of our vision. These differences, too, press God's questions upon us: How big is your heart? How carefully can you listen?
And, perhaps most of all on Shabbat Lech Lecha: Can you find a way to go forth, on God’s journey, together?