Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lech Lecha

This week’s Torah portion starts it all. In it the first Jew is born. Seemingly out of nowhere Abraham is called by God with the opening words of our portion, Lech Lecha. “The Lord said to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”

The first question is why Abraham. The Torah offers little clue. Generations of commentators have read between the Torah’s lines and suggested that Abraham must have merited the call. He must been such a great man or have done something so great for God to take notice. This line of reasoning has sustained us for thousands of years.

So ingrained is this thinking that many people believe that the famous story about Abraham minding his father’s idol shop is in the Torah. It is instead a midrash written to answer our first question. One day Abraham’s father Terah asked him to watch the store. First Abraham scared away all the business when he told customers, “Why would you want this little statue? It can do nothing!” Then Abraham smashed all the idols but one. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abraham pointed to the one remaining idol and said, “He did it!” His father of course responded, “That’s ridiculous.” To which Abraham responded, “Exactly!”

Abraham became in that moment the first monotheist. God saw this and called out to him: “Lech lecha.” This midrash and understanding of the story fits nicely with our modern philosophy. We earn something by merit. In fact it is this very idea that built our country. You rise or fall based on your merits.

But not everything gained is done so on merit. There is also yichus, connections. There is who you know or to whom you are related. Sometimes we gain something by virtue of our friends, family and acquaintances. This is the point of Jewish geography. Judaism operates on this theory as well. Look at the opening of the Amidah. Before we even ask God for stuff we remind God that the person standing in prayer is related to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. “Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak v’Elohei Yaakov...” In essence we say, “God, remember that I am related to Abraham so please grant my request.”

And sometimes it just plain old luck, mazel. Your good fortune can be because you were standing in the right place in the right time. You can happen to meet someone on the train, and this can become a lifetime business partnership. That is how friends are sometimes made. Yet we fail to open ourselves up to such mazel in our modern day world. We sit next to people but talk to others miles away. I continue however to believe that such chance meetings are what add blessings to our lives. But in truth, the meaning of the original Hebrew is more akin to the English phrase, “The stars were aligned.” So perhaps there is no such thing as luck and it is all beshert, destiny.

In the end we gain good fortune by merit, connections and luck. And so we should ask a second question: must we be aware of how this good fortune came our way? I have often noticed how mazel and yichus are transformed into merit in people’s own minds. “I deserve this. I earned this.” becomes the mantra that floats in our hearts. What is the importance of reminding ourselves of the source of our blessings and good fortune?

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