This past week has been a stressful one, full of controversy, fear, anger and anxiety. It does appear though, that, for all intents and purposes, our country is united on one front: Things are not working as they are supposed to. There is a feeling of brokenness, of discouragement, of need for change in the systems of power that govern our union. But how do we communicate that? How do we, in fact, reach for a more whole future?
In times like these, the phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes” seems to be particularly apt. When the gears of history begin turning in such a way that it feels completely out of the average person’s control, prayer is a natural reflex. For many, though, the lack of spiritual underpinning to their world leaves them bereft, with nothing to reach out to.
Throughout this week’s Torah portion, we see the shaky beginnings of the interpersonal theology that has guided the Jewish people for millennia. In our portion, God and humanity’s interactions are disjointed. They involve direct relation between God and our ancestors, almost as if God is a person, and they continually display the lack of ability for Abraham and Sarah to truly understand and communicate with God.
We tend to view Abraham and Sarah as models, righteous ancestors who we look to for guidance. But I believe that we can learn much more from a critical investigation of them than an idealistic one. They were humans, as well, who grew and learned and changed throughout their lives, and who were functioning without a blueprint. They were the first humans to have direct contact with God since Noah, and were picked to begin a particularly close relationship with God. When we look at the interactions they have with God critically, we learn how we can in our day, relate with God to make the changes we seek in the world.
We begin with God approaching in human form and promising that Sarah will become pregnant, and bear a child within a year, at the age of 90. Neither she nor Abraham buy it. Sarah, in point of fact, laughs when she hears the news. God then asks Abraham why Sarah laughed, saying “Is anything too wondrous for God?” Sarah immediately denies having laughed.
This disjointed interaction shows both Sarah and Abraham’s lack of understanding of how God communicates and functions in the world. God attempts to communicate the wider picture in their language, by proclaiming the capacity to do, quite literally, anything. Sarah, and Abraham by extension, both fail to conceive of a world in which things could be so drastically different. I wouldn’t call this a lack of faith, but rather, a lack of imagination.
The next story of attempted communication involves Abraham bargaining God out of destroying the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Appealing to God’s role as judge of righteousness, Abraham argues that even ten righteous individuals’ being present in the city should stay God’s hand. God agrees, but, unfortunately, 10 righteous individuals are not found.
One can imagine Abraham watching these ancient metropolises being decimated with fire and brimstone from above, aghast at the horror. If nothing is too wondrous for God, he may have wondered, why weren’t 10 righteous individuals found?
Again, a communication breakdown is at the core of this - God’s goal was to wipe out evil from the world, and Abraham’s was to save lives. Again, I fear, that Abraham’s lack of imagination may have been the breakdown point here. He failed to consider or proffer a different mode of approaching change in societies completely degraded. Was destruction the only option? Abraham did not seek to bargain with God to bring about repentance in the cities, but instead bargained only with the assumption that destruction was the only way forward.
The next story, though, is a true turning point when we see the fruits of the first stories, in which God says “Is nothing to wondrous for me?”
As Andrei so beautifully articulated earlier, the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, is one of the core stories of our tradition. God wakes Abraham early in the morning in order to direct him to take his son Isaac to a mountain to “raise him up,” which Abraham interprets to mean offer him as a burnt sacrifice. He acedes, only to have his hand stayed at the last minute by an angel.
Andrei’s wondering as to whether we should question authority or not is key to this story. Did Abraham, in fact, pass this test?
Rashi, the legendary Torah commentator, noticed that God did not, in fact, tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but only to take him up to a high place, and to raise him up. Abraham, as Andrei pointed out, asked questions about who it was he was supposed to take up to the high place, but did not ask what it was he was supposed to do. Just as with Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham failed to push outside of the bounds of violence and destruction, failed to use his imagination to understand what it was God actually wanted to accomplish.
I tell you these stories, and offer you these interpretations, not to denigrate our Torah, or our ancestors, but to point out what this Torah is teaching us. As Rashi saw in the Akeidah, as I see in the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, the human imagination involved in these stories is the mode through which Abraham encountered God. And Abraham’s imagination was too limited to sensitively change the direction God was taking. And, in my estimation, the only reason God was encountering Abraham in these ways was in order to teach him “nothing is too wondrous for God,” including changing God’s course.
Our Jewish mission is that of our ethical core, in which, Rabbi Kauffman Kohler put it, we follow the divine Pattern of holiness...to come ever nearer to God on high who beckons [us] toward ever higher ideals and achievements. We must continually turn ourselves, turn our minds, turn our imaginations towards those higher ideals and achievements. We must focus our gaze on the ultimate goal, the goal, which as Kohler put it, is “not satisfied with mitigating the misery of the unfortunate by acts of charity, but insists on a readjustment of the social conditions which create poverty.”
Our glorious Jewish imagination must turn to envision that readjustment in our own society today. It must not be bound by the systems we exist within; it must look and dream well beyond that which is before us. Let us learn from the limitations of our ancestors’ visions: we must see beyond that which is presented before us as inherent, and instead, dream a new inherent goal for ourselves, for our country, and for the world. Shabbat shalom.