Friday, November 7, 2008

Random Musing Before Shabbat - Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees

I have written much about this rich parasha before. I commend to you many of my earlier musings, to be found on my website

This year, I was stopped dead in my tracks by two peculiar pieces of text.

Both are in Chapter 15. G"d again comes to Avram in a vision, telling him to not fear. Avram replies with a lament that as he has no blood heir, and asks who is to reap the promised reward. G"d tells Avram that his own child shall be his heir. Then , in verse 5 we read:

He (G"d) took him (Avram) outside, and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars..."

Let's try that again.

He (G"d) took him (Avram) outside...

G"d did what? Oh wait, it's just a vision. The Torah isn't being anthropomorphic-Avram is, for imagining this in his vision, right? But wait, if G"d implanted the vision, does G"d control the content? Apparently, either G"d or Avram wanted (needed) this conversation to be sort of buddy-buddy. Can you imagine in your mind that you and G"d, in some anthropomorphic form, are standing around inside your house talking, and G"d puts his hand on your shoulder, and escorts you outside and says "Hey, look up and try and count the stars..."

This seems a rather intimate form of vision. Is that a problem? I wonder if it is only from our modern mindset that we find it thus.  Our understanding of G"d is, for lack of a better term, more global. G"d is everywhere. G"d is One. So to us, the idea of strolling through the garden with G"d feels odd. Would this have been odd to Avram? Early religious stories abound with direct contact between anthropomorphic gods and human beings. (In our own tradition, we need only look back on Chapter 9, and the whole nefillim thing.)
This desire to personalize G"d, to anthropomorphize G"d, to imagine person to person contact and intimacy with G"d is all pervasive. Is that a possible explanation for the success of Christianity? For Jews, intimate contact between humans and an anthropomorphic G"d are not the norm, yet such stories still pervade our literature and sacred texts. A pillar of cloud, a pillar of fire, and G"d's heiny are as close as we ever really get in "real life."

Although Christianity maintains the ethereal, incorporeal G"d, it throws in a little piece of corporeal G"d. Do people really find that easier to wrap their heads around than an unknowable, undefinable G"d?

The text proceeds apace on to my next puzzling piece.  G"d tells Avram that his descendants shall be as numerous as the uncountable stars. G"d tells Avram that this is the land he is giving them for an inheritance. Avram, still somewhat unconvinced ask how he shall know that this honor shall be his. G"d somewhat odd response is to ask Avram to offer up a cow, goat, sheep, dove and a baby bird - which Avram does. Then, as the sun begins to set, Avram falls into a deep sleep, and feels a deep dread. Then G"d foretells the bad news that his descendants shall be strangers in a strange land, enslaved and oppressed for 400 years, but that G"d will set them free and give them wealth.

Still, supposedly, in this deep sleep, Avram then sees, when the sun has set, a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between "those pieces."

What pieces? what is all this? What is the symbology?

But wait -this is all a Bob Newhart show ending, isn't it?  It was all a dream. Even the dream was a dream within a dream or vision. That explains it all, right? Nothing to worry about here. People just sometimes envision strange things in their visions, including dreams with even strangers things in them. Right?

Perhaps. Still, I wonder-why is all this here? Why do we need this level of details about Avram's vision, and of the dream within that vision? The text could just say "G"d told Avram "don't be afraid. You shall be rewarded. Though childless now, you will have an heir, and the inheritance of your descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. So trust me. We don't need all this corroborative fiddlestick (thanks you, W.S. Gilbert.) Yet the story is embellished with snickersnees.(For you non Savoyard types, let's just say "embellishments.") The point, as it is made in G&S's "The Mikado," is that things are bad enough, they don't need any embellishing of what is already a big lie. Just tell the lie simply, and perhaps it will be more believable.

Now, I'm not implying that the Torah is telling a lie. Yet I am wondering why, like so many other places in the Torah, we have details that don;t seem critical to the story. Now, for lots of those, we don't have a problem-our sages have figured out the deeper, hidden meanings. Why, our sages explain the whole "count the stars" thing,from their point of view, as not literally meaning that Avram should count the stars, but that the stars represent astrological predictions which Avram (and thus all Jews) should not believe in. That is to say, though the stars may have foretold that Avram was to remain childless, he shouldn't put his trust in the astrology.

OK, I sort of get that. But the sages didn't seem to put much time into explaining either the "He took him outside..." or the smoking oven and flaming torch vision. Guess it baffled them as well.

Oh, I'm not that learned. I'm sure if I dig deep, I'll find some rabbis explanation somewhere for both of those. Not sure I;d buy them, however. And I'm still stuck with the "what does this add to the story?" question. Guess I'm still stuck with those. And now, so are you.

Shabbat Shalom

Migdalor Guy (Adrian)

For the text of "The Criminal Cried" from the Mikado, see and some later dialog to place my comments into perspective

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