D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Getting something you've never had requires doing something you've never done.
When I made up my mind to go back to school and become a rabbi in mid-life, I knew it would be a difficult transition. It had been years since I was a full-time college student. Returning to school would also require me to leave a good government job, move from my home of twenty-three years in Washington, DC and find a way to support myself while in school in New York. I had never done anything quite so risky but I was determined to move forward with what I believed was my life’s mission.
At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion Chayei Sarah, which means the life of Sarah, Sarah dies. After burying his wife, Abraham decides it is time to find a wife for his son Isaac. He assigns this task to his servant Eliezer. Without much pomp and circumstance, Eliezer meets Rebekah, who he quickly decides possesses the right qualities for Isaac. One of those qualities is kindness. In response to Eliezer’s request for water, Rebekah not only provides him with a drink but then unprompted, draws water for Eliezer’s camels.
Rebekah agrees to go back with Eliezer and marry Isaac. In doing so she not only has to leave home but also travel to a place she has never been and marry someone she has never met. Whatever her plans for the future had been before Eliezer entered her life, Rebekah seizes the moment without hesitation. She somehow knows her fate lies with Isaac.
Not unlike my own decision to leave everything I had known for twenty-three years behind me, Rebekah decides to leave the only life she had ever known and go with Eliezer. It was a decision grounded in the belief that in order to get something you’ve never had you need to do something you have never done.
Do the Next Right Thing
As I sat down to write this week’s 12-Step Torah offering on what was a bright and sunny Wednesday afternoon, the presidential election was still undecided. Trying as best as I could to carry on with my day, I signed on that morning to a Zoom meeting hosted by Luther, a Christian seminary in Minnesota. The meeting was held for mentors of students at the seminary.
Just how I became a mentor for a student at a Christian Seminary is a story for another day, but during the meeting each mentor was asked how they were feeling. I mentioned that I was both physically and mentally exhausted, but also hopeful. Quoting the 12-Step saying Do the next right thing, I announced that when our mentor meeting was over I would be heading to a Protect the Results rally in my town. In other words, despite feeling a bit stuck and out of sorts, I decided to do the next right thing and head to a rally.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Abraham is also given an opportunity to do the next right thing. Upset at the wickedness of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah, God decides to destroy the cities. When Abraham hears what God is planning, he challenges God:
וַיִּגַּ֥שׁ אַבְרָהָ֖ם וַיֹּאמַ֑ר הַאַ֣ף תִּסְפֶּ֔ה צַדִּ֖יק עִם־רָשָֽׁע: אוּלַ֥י יֵ֛שׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים צַדִּיקִ֖ם בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֑יר הַאַ֤ף תִּסְפֶּה֙ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֣א לַמָּק֔וֹם לְמַ֛עַן חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים הַצַּדִּיקִ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבָּֽהּ
Will you indeed sweep away the innocent along with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty who are innocent in the city, will you indeed sweep away the place? (Gen. 18:23-24).
God responds that if there are indeed fifty innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, the cities will not be destroyed. Abraham then continues to bargain God down – what if there are 45 innocent people, 40 innocent people, 30 innocent people, 20 innocent people, 10 innocent people? Each time, God assures Abraham that in that case, the cities will not be destroyed.
Abraham wastes no time and challenges God not once, not twice, not three times, not four times, not five times, but six times. With each challenge overcome, Abraham knows immediately what he has to do to continue to try and save the innocent people living in Sodom and Gomorrah. He has to do the next right thing.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the next few years hold many challenges and hurdles for us, the people of this United States of America to overcome. Of course with all those challenges and hurdles will come no shortage of opportunities for us, the people of this United States of America, to step up and do the next right thing.
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.
Taking that first step towards overcoming an obstacle can feel scary and intimidating. I remember the day I first realized I needed help. Married to an alcoholic, the disease had progressed to a place I could no longer handle on my own. I knew all my efforts to enable the alcoholic in my life were no longer working and I was left with two choices – get help or go down with the ship. I chose to get help but taking that first step was extremely difficult. Sitting alone in my kitchen it took two hours before I could summon the courage to pick up the phone and make the call that would change my life for the better.
As scary as that first step can be, in this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, it doesn’t appear at all scary for Abraham. He doesn’t hesitate when God instructs him to:
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)
Abraham doesn’t hesitate to pick himself up and go with his family to an unrevealed destination – a destination to be determined by God. He packs his bags and with his entire family-- his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, and all his followers, embarks on what will be a most important journey. Maybe it helped that he wasn’t going alone and maybe his wealth made the journey easier. On the other hand, traveling with so many people and so many belongings could only make the journey more complicated.
Either way, Abraham doesn’t hesitate. As the father of monotheism, he makes the decision to turn towards the one God and turn away from the idol-worshipping gods of his past.
Journeys are intentional efforts to move beyond ourselves. When we embark on a journey we venture into unfamiliar territory in order to seek new challenges and find new answers. Like Abraham, we may not know what is out there when we embark on our journeys, but we are propelled by the opportunity to explore new worlds and ideas. Whether we are seeking a better life or just looking for an adventure, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.
It isn't the load that weighs us down, it's the way we carry it
Uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety are all part of the human experience in general, but even more so for these past eight months. We are uncertain, insecure and anxious about the economy, our jobs, our finances, and of course our physical and mental health.
These last eight months have also made it clear the two main ways people respond to uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety. In the case of the pandemic, many of us are listening to the experts while others are raging against the machine. Either way we are often left feeling stressed and powerless.
This week’s Torah portion is named Noah, after the person who the Torah describes as the most righteous man of his generation. Righteous Noah follows God’s instruction to build an ark. Deeming the earth to be חמס, lawless and corrupt, God’s plan is to bring about a flood that would destroy all life on earth. In the meantime, Noah, his family and two of every animal will be safely ensconced in the ark.
When the flood subsides, Noah comes out of the ark and offers sacrifices to God and God establishes a covenant with Noah and his sons. However, viewing the devastation wreaked by the flood, he decides to plant a vineyard rather than say, vegetables. Noah then harvests the grapes, makes wine, and becomes the first man in the Bible to get drunk.
Noah doesn’t rage against the machine but he does hide from it. Viewing the devastation brought on by the flood, he chooses alcohol as a way to cope with his feelings of uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety about the future. Perhaps Noah felt weighed down with a burden of guilt for having survived when the entire earth was destroyed. But, in choosing to hide rather than face the challenge of that devastation, Noah fails to understand that it isn’t the load that weighs us down, it’s how we carry it.
It's a Simple Program for Complicated People
Life is complicated. If you didn’t believe that before, I’m guessing recent world events have convinced you otherwise. But, as complicated as life tends to be, we humans have a way of adding to that complication. We think we are satisfied but then someone offers to sell us the Brooklyn Bridge and all hell breaks loose.
As we begin our Torah reading cycle one more time, we read yet again the story of creation. God creates the world, including man and woman—Adam and Eve. It’s a simple idea; seemingly simple for God to execute and simply miraculous for us humans. God even gives Adam a simple instruction about life in the garden of Eden:
מִכֹּ֥ל עֵץ־הַגָּ֖ן אָכֹ֥ל תֹּאכֵֽל: וּמֵעֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֨עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע לֹ֥א תֹאכַ֖ל מִמֶּ֑נּוּ כִּ֗י בְּי֛וֹם אֲכָלְךָ֥ מִמֶּ֖נּוּ מ֥וֹת תָּמֽוּת:
Of every tree of the garden you are free to eat; but as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen. 2:16).
Commentators interpret this to mean that eating from the tree wouldn’t immediately result in death but rather Adam and Eve would become mortal and eventually die. But then walks in the serpent who makes a Brooklyn Bridge pitch to Eve. The serpent dismisses her fears and promises oh so convincingly that eating the fruit of the tree would not result in death but would allow Eve to become like a divine being –like God. Eve and then Adam take the bait and the rest is history.
God’s simple and simply beautiful creation almost immediately spawns problematic beings. Right off the bat the Torah makes clear the essence of being human – we are complicated. So, there you have it—creation, a simple program for complicated people.