Senior Sermon on Lekh Lekha 5775

In a student’s last year of studies at the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of the outgoing requirements/rituals is the delivery of a senior sermon. Here’s the senior sermon I delivered yesterday. Click HERE for the formatted version.

Read below for the unformatted version.

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Tzohorayim tovim; good afternoon.[1]

Before I begin, I want to thank my friends, family and teachers who have come to JTS today in honor of this big day for me. Were it not for your love, support and teachings, I would not be able to stand here today. Special thanks are due to my family who is here today: my in-laws (in all the way from Skokie, Illinois), my sister Shuli, my great-uncle Irving, and my parents, whose love for Judaism rubbed off on me so much that I decided to make Judaism my lifework, just as they did. Of course, a special thank you is in order to my father for being my first rabbi, and for having agreed to mentor me in writing this senior sermon. As someone very attached to my family, I am also thinking of my family whose schedules did not permit them to travel to the Seminary today: my brother and all my siblings-in-law, my nephews, my nieces, my cousins, my uncles, my aunts, and Grandma, to whom I used to give Hebrew lessons when I was in 1st grade. I am also thinking today of my family who no longer walks this earth: in particular, my grandfather Pop, without whose love and generosity I never could have had the gift of a day school education or the opportunity to have studied at JTS for 9 years. And, you know, you spend enough time going to minyan at JTS, you eventually meet your life-partner. Or at least I did. Raysh, thank you for being my daily inspiration, my teacher, my rabbi (may your official ordination come speedily and in our days), my best friend, and my נַפְשִׁי קְשׁוֹרָתִי, my soulmate, who renews everyday my relationship with Torah, with the pursuit of justice, with the pursuit of happiness, and with life.

When I was in first grade, my father asked me what book I had read for the book report that was due that day.

Nothing At All,” I replied.

“You didn’t read anything?” asked my father, shocked by the idea that I hadn’t done my homework.

“No,” I said. “I read Nothing At All.”

“You didn’t read a book!?” My father was concerned.

I was really trying my best to express myself, but apparently, my father was unfamiliar with Wanda Gag’s children’s book Nothing At All. Though my mother had been entertaining herself listening to the conversation from across the room, she eventually did intervene and clarify that I had actually read something; I had read a book called Nothing At All.[2]

In first grade, I learned the power of words having more than one meaning. Little did I know in first grade that I was destined for a lifetime of wordplay. For me, wordplay is one of the most exciting and meaningful parts of the Jewish religion. Rabbi Akiva would argue that every single word in the Torah hid within it a teaching that no other word in theTorah intended to teach. Rabbi Yishma’el is said to have argued the opposite:

דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן[3] בְּנֵי אָדָם.

The Torah spoke in the language of humans.[4]

Though a lot of early rabbinic literature agreed with Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yishma’el’s counter-argument came to be adopted by the entire rabbinic collective.[5] That being said, Rabbi Yishma’el’s assertion—that “the Torah spoke in the language of humans”—still bears multiple meanings. On one level, this aphorism reminds us that our Sacred Teachings were ultimately transmitted through the words of imperfect humans. Hence, our teacher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory would fondly teach that the Torah is a midrash—a rabbinically sanctioned allegory for, or an interpretation of—in this case, revelation itself.[6] The Torah is not the revelation, but it is our attempt at recallingrevelation.

I want to suggest yet another reading of Rabbi Yishma’el’s principle for how we read Torah:

דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם.

The Torah spoke in language referring tobeney adam, to humans, to express its deepest feelings.

The Torah spoke in the language of humans, which is to say, the Torah anthropomorphizes: It makes human that which is not human. A clear example of this principle is how the Torah speaks of God. In the Torah, God has a mighty hand that strikes our enemies, an outstretched arm that releases us from Egypt, a face we cannot see, a nose that snorts anger, and feet in need of a footstool. God talks and God even walks. God is anthropomorphized in our Torah. Though God is not a human, the “Torah speaks ofbeney adam, of humans, to express its deepest sentiments,” and, thus, the Torah turns God into a human.

I believe that this storytelling device—turning characteristics into characters, principles into principals (spelled with an A at the end)—is a very powerful tool of pedagogy and communication. There is a reason that Oscar the Grouch is a character on Sesame Street, but Grouchy the Mood is not.[7] Anthropomorphism lies at the very core of Judaism’s foundational myths. Were it not for our ability to anthropomorphize moods and ideas, we would hardly have any true stories to tell that took place before the 8th Century B.C.E.—and probably even later.[8]

Jews do not read the Torah literally. We leave literalism to literalists. Instead, we inherit traditions of interpretation. When we read the Torah, we uncover the layers of interpretation that inhabit each word.

About 200 years ago, Rabbi Naftali Tz’vi Yehudah Berlin taught that the entire Torah is poetry—multi- faceted, aesthetic, illusive, and allusive.[9] About two centuries before him, the Ba’al Shem Tov drew on a Jewish teaching that was perhaps 1,000 years old in his own day: that every person is a small universe, a microcosm in which the Torah takes place.[10]

Arguably, the most famous part of this week’s Torah reading, Lekh Lekha, comes when Avram first receives a sacred communication. This is a communication from the God whose four-letter-name yod-heh-vav-heh seems to be, as the Biblical scholar William Albright noted, a causative verb that means “Making Become.” The God of Becoming says toAvramLekh lekha,” meaning “Go for yourself,” or perhaps, “Go towards your self.” In essence, the Being of Beings, or perhaps better yet the Becoming of Becomings, tells Avram, “Now is your time to come into this world—to become who you really are.” The God of Process promises to show Avram an undefined place at an undefined time. So here wasAvram, setting out on a journey, seeking the Torah of the God of Becoming, and where does he end up? In Shechem, beneath a tree made famous by pagans:Elon Moreh. What kind of place was that for a nice Jewish monotheist?

In his JPS commentary to Genesis, Professor Nahum Sarna picks up on the common translation of Elon Moreh, “the terebinth of Moreh” (a terebinth being a kind of tree). He notes that Shechem must have been famous for its “traditions about trees of special significance.”[11] He enumerates five other points in our TaNaKH where Shechem is mentioned alongside a special tree. Sarna reads the word Moreh, meaning “teacher,” as indicative that we should read Elon Moreh not as a place-name, but as a reference to a tree that was known as a sort of oracle.[12] Indeed, rabbis throughout the ages read this place-name similarly. The Zohar suggests that Elon Moreh was a place of study, and other sages would come to teach that Elon Moreh was a place of prophecy, or even the place where the Torah would be revealed. But again, what would a place of pagan idolatry have to teach a person as radical and iconoclastic as Avram?

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s understanding of the Torah as a narrative that repeats in our own lives is true. Our Torah was not created in a vacuum. Our religion was not created in a vacuum. And we were not created in a vacuum. Reading that Avram rested beneath a pagan tree is a startling reminder that none of us exist in a vacuum, and even a personality as great as Avram had what to learn from the pagan world. It is foolish to presume that any of us could be where we are today were it not for our living in environments that offered ideas and values that we can identify as Other. It would be equally foolish for us to presume that we must entirely remove ourselves from the Other. And according to the rabbis, we don’t.

You might recall that midrash whereAvram smashes the idols in his father’s shop.[13] Avram’s father’s name is Terah—which is no coincidence! Terah is the utterance of the idol-maker who builds his god of clay, looks that figurine in the face and says, “Terah!”—meaning “Breathe!”[14] Only centuries later would a Psalmist come along and say of idols:

אף להם ולא יריחון

They have a nose, but they cannot breathe.[15]

Terah would never hear such a song sung in his own lifetime. Instead, the principle of Faith In Idolatry, which the Torah personifies, anthropomorphizes and names “Terah,” eventually gives birth toAvram. But then who exactly is this Avram?

        Avram is an idea. Avram is made up of two words: Av—“parent;” or better yet, a “source”—and ram—“exultantly great.”Avram is The Great Source. Avram is The Great Source of The Idea we call not “monotheism,” as you might expect, that is, belief in one God, but “henotheism”—that no matter how many gods there are, we serve only One God.[16]

It may be the case, as some have argued, that neither Avram nor Terah ever walked this earth in the body of a singular human being. Yet, humans living long ago must have latched onto expressions ofAvram—of henotheism—and expressions of Terah—of idolatry. So Avram certainly existed, and Terah certainly existed—as movements, as tendencies, as philosophies, though not necessarily as individual humans. דִּיבְּרָה תוֹרָה כִּלְשׁוֹן בְּנֵי אָדָם. The Torah speaks in the language of humans—turning characteristics into characters, principles into principals (again, spelled with an A at the end). When we anthropomorphize, it makes for far better storytelling than a psychology textbook, or a philosophic treatise.

But we might still be wondering what Elon Moreh—the teaching tree—could have taught Avram. For this we move to the 15th Century, to the Spanish commentator Isaac Arama. In Akeydat Yitzchak, Arama writes that Avramarrived at Elon Moreh

בְּשָׁלוֹם וּבְהַשְׁקֵט,

In peace, and in quietude,

אין שָׂטָן וְאֵין פֶּֽגַע רע,

Without adversary, and without the harm of evil,

עם הֱיוֹת שהיתה שְׁעַת חֵירוּם.

Though it was an alarming moment in time.

As Avram’s worldview was turning upside down, Isaac Arama says Elon Moreh was a place of peace; in a world of metaphysical static and noise, Elon Moreh was a place of silence.

So, our hero Avram sought peace and could only find it along the once-trodden path of idolatry, from whichAvram had fled not too long ago. But this should not startle us too much; our rabbis often attempted to turn places of idolatry into places of Torah. After all, in Elon Moreh, at least people thought about powers greater than themselves. ForAvram and for our sages, Elon Morehdeserved a little credit—for giving us a starting point for a great idea. Terah begatAvram; idolatry gave birth to henotheism.[17]

But, what drew Avram to Elon Moreh specifically? Did Avram go there to fill a space of no god with the Oneness of the One true God? Did Avram go there because that Divine Lure had uprootedAvram, leading Avram and Avram’s family along a challenging journey, leaving Avram worn and exhausted—in need of a place of peace and quiet where our ancestor could meditate?

In Elon Moreh, Avram brought along not the God of the outstretched arm or the snorting nose, but the God who requires no anthropomorphisms—the god of Process, of Being, of Energy, of Courage, of Righteousness, and of Intellect; the God who moves us to deeper levels of sensitivity and inspires us to develop great ideas for humanity. At Elon Moreh,Avram found the peace to meditate on the God who defies all description and metaphor, the God who is almost Nothing at All. Avram went to Elon Moreh to listen: to listen in silence—to listen in silence for the Oneness of the God who embodies nothing yet encompasses the universe. In the silence of Elon Moreh,Avram listened for the God who looks, sounds, tastes, feels and smells like Nothing at All, but at the core is Something: the God who is the Something that is All.

 

[1]   Footnotes in this senior sermon were not read aloud. This is such an example.

[2]   Although this is the version of the story I did tell at my senior sermon, I have now been informed by my sister Shuli that she was most likely the one intervened and clarified.

[3]   I thank Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth for calling to my attention (after the sermon) that my selection of the version of this teaching with the reading of כלשון (literally, “as/like/as-if the language”) rather than בלשון (literally “in the language”), as seemingly later traditions would put it, is essential for the theological and literary stance I am purporting.

[4]   Seemingly attributed to Rabbi Yishma’el in the Babylonian Talmud, Kereytot 11a.

[5]   Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 41b.

[6]   Saying that the Torah is an interpretation of our encounter with the Divine, and not a record of our encounter with the Divine might lead us to question how trustworthy our Torah is. It might beg us to ask: Had all of us in this room been standing at Sinai 3 millennia ago, would we have written the same Torah that we read in our synagogues today?

[7]   Grouchy the Mood would be some invisible, nebulous entity who overcomes certain characters at different points. Instead, the only character on Sesame Street who is grouchy is Oscar the Grouch, the embodiment of Grouchy the Mood par excellence.

[8]   Within my understanding of early Jewish religion, our mythology owes more credit to transformers than Michael Bay’s Internet Movie DataBase profile. (Because I realize that I am delivering this sermon at the premiere institute of critical Jewish studies in America, I hereby note that Michael Bay directed four live-action Transformers films. I will now return to my senior sermon.)

[9]   See Ha’amek Davar: Kidmat Ha’amek III (העמק דבר: קדמת העמק ג’).

[10] For a historical exploration of this tradition, see my “When Humanity Became the World: When You Became the Torah” at theBIMA Artists Beit Midrash Source Blog (published June 28, 2012 and accessed October 21, 2014) at http://bimaartistsbeitmidrash2012.wordpress.com/2012/06/28/when-humanity-became-the-world-when-you-became-the-torah/ .

[11] P. 91 of his commentary.

[12] Focusing on the word Moreh, the Zohar suggests that Elon Moreh was a place of teachers and students: a sort of public beit midrash—a Jewish house of study (I: 80a). Scholars are doubtful that there was a beit midrash in Abraham’s time because: How could Abraham have studied Torah if neither Jewish Lights Publishing nor ArtScroll had been founded in his time? Nonetheless, this idea that Elon Moreh was a place of insights can resonate without us having to imagine a place of Torah study. The words Torah and Moreh come from the same Hebrew-root of Yod-Resh-Yod, meaning “projection.” The Torah is a teaching, and a teacher is one who projects information. This idea of projectionmust have interested the grammarian, Rabbi David Kimhi of the late 12th Century and early 13th Century. He elaborated a teaching of his famous predecessor Rashi (at Genesis 12:6), suggesting thatElon Moreh was a place whereat Avram projected a prophecy—a troubling vision of how Avram’s great grandchildren would come to fight with the people of Shechem in response to Shechem’s torturing Avram’s great granddaughter Dinah. At that place of prophecy, says Kimhi, Avram prayed that Avram’s fourth generation would be saved in the events of this catastrophe; andAvram’s descendants did indeed persevere. In fact, Kimhi writes that it was revealed to Avram here that Elon Moreh would become the site of the revelation of the Torah. After all, as many mystics would later note, that “oracle tree” of Elon Moreh might be an allusion to the Ilan Kadosh (“the holy tree”), which is that Etz Chayyim, that Tree of Life for those who hold onto it: a.k.a. the Torah itself. Attributing even more power to this site, the Chasidic master Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Epstein, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th Century, suggested that Elon Moreh must be related to the Hebrew word Harah—pregnancy. Rabbi Kalonymos Kalman Epstein taught that Elon Moreh was an allusion to Harat Olam—the Divine pregnancy that gave birth to our world.

[13] Genesis Rabbah 38:13 on Genesis 11:28.

[14] Here, I must note that I am indebted to Dr. Choon-Leong Seow, whose commentary on the Book of Job is, as he is (as I learned from studying the Book of Job with him in my first year of JTS), inclined towards a particular and relatively conservative yet creative approach to reading the text of the Hebrew Bible that I have found meaningful. I hope that I can here do some justice to explaining some of the reasoning behind—or at least the method of—one of his principles of reading the TaNaKH. Through such a lens as Seow’s, the reader is inclined to work with the presumption that there is rarely a problem with the consonants of the Hebrew text; however, the reader may be willing to doubt whether the Masoretic notations of vowels has been transmitted without error. Such an approach might appear unfavorable towards Masoretes; however, it does not deny the authority or the rigorous effort of the Masoretes of the Ge’onic era in their attempting to systematize a grammar for the Hebrew Bible. In a way, this approach of Seow’s and others is a theory that requires us to acknowledge some degree of yeridat haddorot (“the decline of generations”)—that while the consonants were preserved well, the vowels were obscured. We know this to be somewhat true, for the pronunciation of God’s four-letter-name was lost. Moreover, we can believe that regional differences in dialect led over time to people pronouncing the same words differently (both in terms of consonants and vowels)—such that the original pronunciations of words would get muddled over time. While midrash as a genre often suggests the changing of vowels (and sometimes the changing of consonants) in particular words, so as to yield meanings a more common reading of the text would suggest, we can believe that some of these readings were not mere rhetoric, but were matters of serious debate, affecting personal practice. We read a literally striking example of this, in the Babylonian Talmud, at Bava Batra 21a-21b, where one such debate leads to one Jew literally killing over another based off of one’s misvocalization of a single word. In short, we have reason to believe that the vocalization of the Masoretic text was, for centuries, in critical flux. Because of this, we have reason to trust the consonants of the text we have inherited more than we have reason to trust the vowels of the text we have inherited. In light of phenomena of conservative orthography—that is to say, when the scribes of our tradition selected to write fewer consonants and not to write the matres lectionis (the non-consonantal appearances of symbols that, in other contexts would be consonants, but thereat indicate, without effecting, vowels, such as the א in רֵאשִׁית, the ו inמוּם or הוֹן, or the י in הֵשִׁיב)—the reader of an unvocalized text of the TaNaKH might note instances wherein the consonantal text could have been vocalized differently by Masoretes had the consonantal tradition they inherited included the matres lectionis. It then becomes the duty of the reader of the TaNaKH to note when a word’s meaning is allusive, especially when the vowels that the Masoretes attributed to the consonants render the word less meaningful than the way in which we might choose to vocalize a text, had we ourselves been Masoretes living a millennium ago, attempting to vocalize a text that, in its oral transmission, had been misvocalized at times to the point of incoherency. Thus, it is my assertion that תֶּֽרַח may be a misvocalized name. After all, when it comes to those same “weak letters” that also constitute the matres lectionis, it is nothing short of common when one of these letters disappears for reasons that can only be summed up as: exceptional, or following a pattern culturally determined as that which sounds subjectively euphonic (patterns that do not repeat in all eras of the Hebrew language). It is my belief that תרח is a name plagued either by the vocalization of תֶּֽרַח being an exceptional second-person masculine singular imperfect hif’il verb form (as uttered by a proto-Semite, as opposed to today’s conjugation of תָּרִֽיחַ) or another similar verb; or the letters of תרח having been intended only ever to be pronounced, differently from תֶּֽרַח, as, sans matres lectionis, תָּרִֽחַ or the like.

I thank Rabbi Dr. Joel Roth for calling to my attention (after the sermon) that it is helpful for the grammatically inclined to have my translation of Terah be grounded in something.

[15] Psalm 115:6.

[16] You might recall that God in the beginning of Genesis says, “Let us make humanity in Our own image.” Though God may be speaking in the Royal We, the quotation may also be the Torah’s acknowledgement that our neighbors had many gods. Our Torah never speaks fondly of our neighbors’ gods, but it does not deny their existence.In Pirkey Avot 4:1, Ben Zoma teaches: (איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם.””) “Who is wise? One learns from all humans.”Our henotheism does not immediately excuse xenophobia.

[17] Terah brings into this world Nahor—whose name essentially means “nostril:” a succinct reminder of the idol-ideology, that  an ideal idol breathes. Unfortunately Avram’s kin (הָרָן) Haran—meaning literally “the joyous one”—dies, perhaps having gone too far in exploring the ecstasy of spiritual mystery. Indeed, just asHaran’s life is shrouded in mystery, Haran produces the child Lot, whose name means “enveloping,” “cleaving,” and even “mystery.” It is the cleaving youngster Lot, the Enveloping Mystery who accompanies Avram on their journey of bringing new follows along to aspire towards a sacred ethical, henotheistic life. Though Lot’s name may have signified different mysteries throughout the life and times of Lot, it is telling that Avram—the philosophical Great Source Idea—needed to be accompanied by, and balanced by the wonder and awe of Lot. When Lot accompanied Avram, henotheism found company in mystery.

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