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Cantorial Comment - Parshat Lech Lecha                November 9, 2019 - 11 Cheshvan 5780

11/04/2019 12:53:28 PM

Nov4

“It is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”

-       William Shakespeare

 

For the last few months, we have been reading the final speeches of Moses.  Up until Simchat Torah, the Torah has taken us through a hodgepodge of laws, some new and some revisited, a review of the Israelite narrative, a reaffirming of the special relationship between God and the Israelite nation, and a transition of power.  But since we’ve started over from the beginning again, there isn’t much to speak of in terms of laws, just stories of people, mythological creatures, kings and epic battles, not much unlike an episode of Game of Thrones.  At the end of the Torah, we pick apart a myriad of specific laws and explore in great detail how they impact Jewish existence and bring us closer to each other.   At the beginning of the Torah, it seems that our academic interest switches into a quest to reconcile what we know from archeological and geological history with the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve, Noah and Abraham.  In doing so, we are often left with unanswered questions and an ultimatum that forces us to choose between Torah as literal truth and rationalism.  Those who know me know that whenever I am faced with this choice, that’s when I excitedly go out in search of door number three.

 

In our parsha this week, Lech-L’cha, we meet our hero, Abram.  By the end of the parsha, having demonstrated his faith and devotion, God renames him Abraham, adding the Hebrew letter “hey” from the Divine Name.  The focus of the narrative follows the story of Abraham as he travels from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran, then to Canaan, then to Egypt and back again.  Meanwhile, epic battles are fought between the various kings of ancient Mesopotamia and Abraham is drawn into the fight when his nephew, Lot, is captured.  After Abraham’s fighting force frees Lot, the Torah gives us a passage that raises an eyebrow or two: “And Malchizedek the king of Salem brought out bread and wine, and he was a priest to the Most High God.  And he blessed him [Abram], and he said, ‘Blessed be Abram to the Most High God, Who possesses heaven and earth.  And blessed be the Most High God, Who has delivered your adversaries into your hand,’ and he gave him a tithe from all.” (Gen. 14:18-20).  According to this passage, it would seem that Abraham is NOT the father of monotheism… Malchizedek has beaten him to it!  While we’re at it, what is Malchizedek’s story, and how did he come to believe in monotheism?  The Torah, unfortunately, doesn’t offer any information on this at all.

 

The story of Malchizedek bothered the Talmudic commentators, and forced them to come up with what at first seems like an awkward answer.  In masechet Nedarim 32b, the rabbis conclude the Malchizedek must actually be Shem, one of the three sons of Noah.  And while this may seem extremely far-fetched, we should remember that according to the Torah, there were only ten generations between Noah and Abraham, and Shem lived to be 600 years old.  But what would lead the rabbis to believe that Malchizedek’s secret identity was Shem, son of Noah?  It was because somebody had to be the transmitter the knowledge of God from the time of Noah, and Shem was the inheritor of that tradition, and Shem was Abraham’s great(x7)-grandfather.

 

Here lies the third door.  Let us set aside both the Torah as literal truth and rationalism for the moment.  The Torah insists that ever since the creation of Adam, the first Man, God has had a relationship with humanity.  And it would seem that according to the Torah timeline, Abraham might have been the first man to ‘discover’ God, he was not the only person alive at the time to ‘know’ God.  Even if Malchizedek was not Shem, Shem, who was on the ark with Noah, would have overlapped with Abraham’s lifetime by 150 years… and in all that time, you’d think that Shem would have taken an interest in a new, young, wealthy, influential man who was starting an entire civilization based on the belief in one supreme God.  If Shem and Abraham really did meet, perhaps even to transfer the mantel, what this means is that we can draw a chain of people who had knowledge of God from the first man to walk the earth to ourselves.  It would mean that our understanding of God does not come only from human experience of God, but from God, Himself, right from the very beginning.  If the story of Judaism is supposed to begin with Abraham, why does the Torah begin with creation?  Why should the stories before Abraham matter if they aren’t uniquely part of the story of Judaism?  It would seem that they are.  They teach us that the Jews did not discover God, rather, we were always destined to have a relationship with God, right from the very beginning.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

--ChazJ

Wed, November 20 2019 22 Cheshvan 5780