Monday, June 21, 2010

Guest post: final installment...

Aspirations of escape held no sway over Avraham. Rashi, in an overlooked note, outlines exactly how Avraham understood his relationship with God, and the responsibility of the eternal relationship the Creator had forged with him.

In a remarkable aside, the Torah text interrupts the narrative of the angelic departure from Abraham’s tent to Sodom with a Divine soliloquy over whether Avraham should be informed of the city’s impending demolition.

And God said: ‘Could I really hide what I do from Avraham? After all, Avraham is going to become a grand and mighty nation, and every nation on the Earth will be blessed through him. And I’ve loved him—because he orders his children and his household along his path: that they guard the path of God, to do rightness and justice so that God may bring upon Avraham what He promised.’

(Genesis 18:17-19)

Rashi – ‘So that God may bring…’: That’s exactly how Avraham would put the order to his children: “Guard the path of God so that God may bring upon Avraham…”

Far from images of an aspiring martyr, we have an Avraham who perceives the “path of God” as a path to the fulfillment of…himself. The things that God promised Avraham are worldly phenomena that fulfill deep human aspirations: land, children, fame and wealth.

How could God approve, indeed embrace, a religious quest whose expressed goal was “that God may bring upon Avraham” the wonderful things that humans yearn for? Isn’t obedience to God supposed to stand irrespective of material consequences? Aren’t we enjoined to be servants “who serve the Master without a condition of receiving reward”?

Unless…we’ve misunderstood the fundamental imperative driving Avraham from the beginning. On the first recorded communication from God to Avraham, Lech lecha, “go for yourself”, Rashi comments: “Go for your own enjoyment and your own benefit.” This isn’t a mission of self-denial, asceticism and theological doctrines, but a journey for Avraham’s own self; to Avraham’s own self.

In recognizing that there was a single Creator uniting the disparate personas and phenomena of a chaotic world, Avraham recognized that his own physical existence was the will of this Creator—and that the Creator’s Own desire must be that His creatures expand and build themselves into everything they can be. And that the immortality of everything they can be emerges from within the building of their own lives.

Without that awareness, that the path to eternity is irreducibly ‘Earthy’, physical Creation necessarily becomes neglected, self-contradictory and unsustainable.

Avraham’s rejection of glib explanations, popular superstitions and shoddy cosmologies propelled him onto a path paved with an expanding awareness of Existence itself and ultimately led…straight back to Avraham: awake, fulfilled and expressed.

It wasn’t about rewards or punishments, doctrines or catechisms. It was about the impossibility of a path that leads to the Source of Life not leading back to one’s own life. And God indeed “loves” the first person who recognizes the interconnection of the two searches.

The awareness that enabled Avraham’s path makes him the most fundamental prototype of Am Yisrael—Rambam’s “pillar” that holds up the structure, no matter how many beatings it takes or how many floors above it have collapsed.

A society that rejects Avraham’s imperative to relentlessly dig for truth, smashing the idols and sacred cows blocking the road; that yearns to squelch individuality and quash inquiry in the name of stability and acceptance; a society that abandons existential aspirations for the cheap security of supposed ethno-religious superiority; is a society that is walking away from Avraham’s path.

The road to the Creator isn’t numinous, disembodied or coolly “objective” – it’s proximate, personal and covered with earthy soil.

* * *

The Haggadah reminds us that the long walk to freedom didn’t begin with Avraham. It started with his father Terach, a marketer of religious idols who was also, curiously, the first of the outliers who lived “on the other side of the river…” (Joshua 24:2).

The Torah records that Terach, not Avraham, was the first to begin the journey towards Canaan, the land of Israel. Terach’s journey halted midway and failed to reach its goal. But while he only made it halfway there, Terach’s abortive steps towards a New World are a prelude to Avraham’s own journey that is usually ignored — because it doesn’t fit popular images of who Avraham was, or where he was going.

Terach’s sortie was the impetus from below that hinted at a new trajectory, and laid a groundwork that Avraham could both follow and transform. Terach’s walk to Eretz Yisrael was the first step in the derech eretz that was the precursor to Avraham’s discovery of Torah.

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