Go Forth To Your Deeper Self by Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Lech Lecha, Genesis 12-17:27

The opening scripture of this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, “Go forth from your native land, from your kindred, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) has a number of different translations and meanings.  In the literal translation of the text, God calls Abram (this takes place before his name is changed to Abraham) to drop everything, leave his family, leave his friends, leave his community and to wholeheartedly trust in God’s call, because God is leading Abram to a chosen country that God wishes for Abram and his descendants.  The Ma’or Vashemesh reads the expression “Lech Lecha” (Go Forth) as a call addressed to every person to penetrate beyond the more external aspects of the Self to his deeper, inner self, which can be identified as an aspect of the Divine.

In this text, we are privileged to see two interpretations of this Divine verse:  one that is behavioral and one that is psychological.  When God tells Abram to “pay attention to Me for your own benefit,” God is teaching him that he should understand and pay attention to the way he travels and does things. Hashem loves Abram so much that He teaches him to focus on his behavior, as a father does with his son.

But. Hashem also wants Abraham to examine his spiritual state and elevate it.  When we internalize God’s loving commands, we recognize that these two interpretations depend on one another. Our behavior, when we improve it, inspires in us a higher spiritual awareness. And a higher spiritual awareness inspires a higher spiritual behavior. When we understand the relationship between spirituality and behavior, we know that this is no ordinary text, but it is indeed a book given by God, inspired by God and even written by God.  How blessed are the people of Israel.

This weekend, I have a perfect example of two potential meanings for “Lech Lecha” (Go Forth). On Saturday morning, at our Kabbalistic Shabbat service at Congregation Bene Shalom, we will practice meditations created by the great Hasidic master the Baal Shem Tov.  We will “go forth”-into ourselves. We will dig deep into our own souls.  We learn in the Zohar, Sitrei Torah 1:66b, that the Neshoma or Divine Soul is identified with Abram. The Baal Shem Tov, embracing this Zohar, taught that the Neshoma is not happy to come down to this material world of change. The Neshoma enjoys the spiritual realm, where it lives at One with God. In Keter Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that the Neshoma is afraid of the uncertainties of the material realm, but God insists that the Neshoma leave heaven to come down to perfect the body and the entire world. Therefore, God commands the NeshomaLech Lecha, Go to yourself,” which the Baal Shem Tov, teaches as “to yourself, for your own tikkun or perfection.”

And on Sunday, October 29, we wll celebrate the ordination of Tirtzah Israel from Hebrew Seminary.  Our seminary is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and I am very proud to ordain Rabbi Israel.  She has been an outstanding student—who has gone forth from her physical persona of an African-American hard-of-hearing woman—and she has gone forth to discover her spiritual connection to God and to her Jewish identity and her connection to the Jewish community. After Sunday, she will physically go forth to embrace a new life as a leader of the Jewish people.

From the second verse of this week’s parasha, we learn an even more inspiring bit of wisdom.  In Genesis 12:2, God says, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, … and you will be a blessing.”  In the first verse, God’s name is expressed as YHVH, which gives the connotation of a God of love and blessing.  In the second verse, God’s name is expressed as VHYH.  According to the great Kedushat Levi, this text proves that our actions can bring joy and great blessing to the Holy One. This gives us humans great power, since God’s response to our action, is the gushing forth of Divine blessing (shefa) and joy.  This reciprocal blessing has greatly improved the world and the relationship between God and mankind.  Abraham was the first person to reverse the flow of blessing from below to above, reflected in the word “VHYH” which is the inverse of YHVH.  Because of Abraham’s actions, we have one of the great spiritual laws of the Universe:  Our good actions necessarily cause God to send blessings down to us.

It took the power of Abraham’s kindness to arouse God’s blessings from above and to inspire the Israelites’ blessing from below; that is, the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton inspired the Israelites love from below to above. From the time that Abraham arrived as God’s great prophet and patriarch, there was arousal of the Shefa.  This is an amazing gift that God gave to the Universe.

When I sit down with my class and discuss with my students the amazing texts that God lays before us, asking us to govern our lives with these commandments, I feel so blessed and so honored to be one of the world’s teachers of Torah.

So  often students will ask me if spirituality is an integral part of our religion.  I can only answer with a smile on my heart, saying that spirituality is not only an inintegral part of our faith, but it is the most essential part of our teachings. And we are enormously blessed to have this teaching from this Torah.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is the senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.

 

Finding Possiblity In Bad News

By Executive Director Alison C. Brown

We look to Abraham to teach us advocacy. Last week we read of God’s plan to destroy the city of Sodom. The story teaches us to argue with the powers that be when lives are at stake. Abraham teaches us to argue for the rights of all people and there is no doubt that we need to step-up our advocacy here in America. Allow me to share some examples of why we need to put ourselves out there and allow me to offer Jewish teachings that may inspire us to do so. I do believe God is with us every move we make. I believe in a God of love and possibility. I do not accept impossibility.

“On November 20, hundreds gathered for an anti-hate rally at a vandalized Brooklyn park named in memory of the late Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch. The rally Sunday at the Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn came after the park was defaced with swastikas and the message ‘Go Trump.’” (Jewish Telegraph Agency)

An Anti-Defamation League report issued in October identified 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets between August 2015 and July 2016 with an estimated reach of 10 billion impressions, which the task force believes “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language – particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements — on a massive scale.”

As an introduction to its “Hate Crime Statistics 2015” report released this November, the FBI wrote: “Earlier this year, a Florida man pled guilty to threatening to firebomb two mosques. A Virginia man was charged with assaulting a gay victim. And an Iowa man was convicted of stomping on and kicking the head of an African-American victim.”

I do not accept this foreboding news. Let us bring about a prevailing wind of kindness. Let us be upstanders, people who speak up even to their peers when a wrong is being perpetrated. Humans are social and prone to group think. We need to conspicuously role model mutual respect, act for social justice and unequivocally leave no one to fend for themselves. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, each and every person has a piece of the truth. When Rav Huna would eat a meal, he would open his door and say, “Whoever is in need, let that person come and eat.” (Ta’anit 20b) In our communities, many read the newspaper and simply put it down. Children fallen in the street are set aside. The Wisdom of our Fathers, Pirke Avot 2:5, echoes through the house: “Hillel said, do not separate yourself from the community.”

Think about what it means to be inclusionary. When we are open to everything and everyone, we don’t define ourselves or make decisions based on subconscious fears. We draw back when demagogues venomously tell us what to think. We sit with our initial response to a choice or a person different than ourselves and witness it. Being with our fears and prejudices allows them to dissipate. Then we can be open to possibilities. Then we can be open to being our best self. Snap judgements close countless doors. Grudges epitomize the certainty of only one possibility.

Psychologist Erich Fromm believed that God is a metaphor for our best self. He theorized that we believe in and seek to connect with our ideal self. Fromm was searching for meaning, a way to respond to the inevitability of change. The definition of time is change. We often don’t know why things change, we can only weigh change against what is the most good for the most people. As a rabbi once said: “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”

Philosopher John D. Caputo beckons us, “The religious sense of life has to do with exposing oneself to radical uncertainty and the open-endedness of life…. The Scriptures are filled with narratives in which the power of the present is broken and the full length and breadth of the real open like a flower, unfolding the power of the possible, the power of the impossible beyond the possible, of the hyper-real beyond the real. … faith, hope and love are what we need to keep up with what is really going on in the real beyond the real ….”

I believe that the possible, my ideal self, love, and the hyper-real beyond the real are all different names for The Source, The Name, HaShem. I am assured and inspired by the words of Kabbalist Kedushat Levi, “Now He is giving His people life!” The creation of man into Yesh (existence) happened in the past tense and is happening right now. God is continually creating us and we are part of Her creative activity here on the physical plane.

Each and every moment of our lives, God gives us possibility. These possibilities exist for everyone equally and we are responsible to recognize and actualize those possibilities for our self and all fellow human beings. We thank God for our gift of possibility by assuring that our brothers and sisters, all of them, can actualize their gifts. We show our gratitude by assuring equal rights for all, which opens doors to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, health care and education, which opens an inner door toward our ideal self.