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Seeing the flames

11/02/2020 01:49:43 PM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Dvar Torah Lech Lecha

As I assume most of you have noticed by now, I wear glasses.  I am sure it is a familiar story, but like many people, it took me quite a bit of time to realize that I needed them.  As I remember it, it was during the first year of university.  Everything seemed to be going fine, when just a few months into school, I signed up for a geology class, “Rocks for Jocks” as we called it, one of the classes that many people took to get what they thought would be an easy required science credit.  The class was massive, a few hundred students in the largest classroom on campus.  Not wanting to be too far away, but also not wanting to be too close just in case I accidently fell asleep, I sat myself right in the middle.  I had never been in a class this large, and unfortunately for my eyes, I had also never sat that far away from the front.

Over the first few weeks, as the professor put notes on the board, I realized that I was having trouble seeing what was in front of me.  As I realize it now, for me, everything seemed to always be a bit blurry, and oddly, I thought this is how the world simply was.  Finally a few months in, I couldn’t see the board anymore and I turned to my friend next to me and asked the obvious: “Why is everything so blurry?”  I think you can expect what the answer was.  She looked at me with a puzzled expression on her face and said, “What do you mean, it looks fine to me!”

To make a long story short, when I came back a week later with glasses, I looked at the board and my world had changed.  I could see the words, and everything around me began to not only be more crisp, but in some way, everything that I was experiencing started to make more sense.  

Trees actually had fully formed leaves with distinct clear borders.  The clouds in the sky had shadows and details I had never noticed before and highways signs were not always dangerously fuzzy!  Since the growing blurriness which I experienced the world was such a slow process, I simply began to think that this is just the reality of my world.  It was a world that I could not change, and I had to accept what I saw and just squint my eyes until things came out clear.  All it took was a simple pair of glasses, and I was snapped back into reality.

Now this is not a story about me getting glasses, although I may share in the future my hopeless and slightly embarrassing experiences getting fitted for contacts.  Unfortunately what this is really about is the broken world in which we live.  And this is a story I am truly tired of telling.

We have been living in a world for so many years that has been getting blurrier and blurrier.  Growing brokenness, growing poverty and endless suffering.  There is unbelievable environmental destruction, mixed in with the images of the past few years, of unfathomable ignorance and cruelty, racism, political horrors and so much more.  What is most horrifying though, is that we know deep down that not much is truly new.

Was there racism before Black Lives Matter or the horrible incidents with the First Nations community here in Canada which come to light the past few months? This is nothing new.  

Have there always been the evils of misogyny and sexism?  This was here before Harvey Weinstein, now things are just more clear.

Have there always been unethical egotistical, wanna-be dictators who have been able to manipulate millions to bow down to them and perpetrate violence and division for no other reason than their own power?  Donald Trump is only our most recent case.

We have lived our lives as black people, people of color, First Nations people, anyone not in power could be systematically oppressed and violently repressed, and as long as we were doing ok, we could, if we so chose, comfortably look away. 

Where before we could simply sit down to our meals of the tasty meat of animals, now science and growing common sense tells us that it is our very exploitation of these animals that is one of the core reasons this horrible pandemic occurred and will all but guarantee more suffering unless we make a change.

We lived in a world where we could look the other way as pollution, forest destruction and environmental horrors became the norm, now we realize that we simply can’t survive headed down the same path.

The list goes on.

I hate to say this, but what has become clear to me over the past few months, is that what we find in our world is in some horrifying way, no different than it has been before.  Now, our glasses have simply been put on and the reality is all too clear.

This pandemic has been the shocker that has allowed us to see so many things more in focus.  This world changing event, the great equalizer of our generation, took everyone into the depths and left no one to simply be an observer.  

Now our glasses are on, and all of that brokenness, all that we have done wrong is crystal clear and right in front of our eyes.  There is no more chance left to ignore it.

In our Torah portion this week, Abraham, our wandering hero of Genesis, comes to a similar realization about the state of the world; a moment when he sees the pain of the world, but thankfully for us, also the hope.

בראשית י״ב:א׳-ג׳

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ (ב) וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃ (ג) וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

Genesis 2:1-3

(1) The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”

A midrash looks closely at this statement from God to “Go forth from your land”,  and sees is as something symbolic of a much more profound realization:

בראשית רבה ל״ט:א׳

(א) וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וגו' (בראשית יב:א), רַבִּי יִצְחָק פָּתַח (תהלים מה:יא): שִׁמְעִי בַת וּרְאִי וְהַטִּי אָזְנֵךְ וְשִׁכְחִי עַמֵּךְ וּבֵית אָבִיךְ, אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מָשָׁל לְאֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר מִמָּקוֹם לְמָקוֹם, וְרָאָה בִּירָה אַחַת דּוֹלֶקֶת, אָמַר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהַבִּירָה הַזּוֹ בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג, הֵצִיץ עָלָיו בַּעַל הַבִּירָה, אָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הַבִּירָה. כָּךְ לְפִי שֶׁהָיָה אָבִינוּ אַבְרָהָם אוֹמֵר תֹּאמַר שֶׁהָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה בְּלֹא מַנְהִיג, הֵצִיץ עָלָיו הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְאָמַר לוֹ אֲנִי הוּא בַּעַל הָעוֹלָם.

Bereishit Rabbah 39:1

(1) God said to Avram, "Go you forth from your land…" Rabbi Yitzchak opened: "Take heed, lass, and note, incline your ear: forget your people and your father’s house" (Psalms 45:11). Rabbi Yitzchak said: this may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a bira doleket. He said, "Is it possible that this bira lacks a person to look after it? The owner looked out and said, “I am the owner.” Similarly, because Avraham our father said, “Is it possible that this world has no guide, no one to look after it?," the Holy Blessed One looked out and said to him, “I am the Master of the Universe.”

If you noticed, there is a term I kept in the original Hebrew, because, as is often the case, this is a word that is not easily translatable.  A birah doleket.  Many rabbis have examined this word, including Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his classic book God in Search of Man, where he points out that a bira doleket can be translated as both a “palace in flames” or a “palace lit by a bright light”.

In the first reading, a palace in flames, Heschel sees Abraham as encountering a horrible sight of destruction and chaos, symbolic of a world that is all but the same.  God answers Abraham with the answer that God, godliness and hope is even there amidst the flames.  This spark, a physical and spiritual one, reminds Abraham, and all of us, to go out to fix the brokenness and to do our best to put out the flames.

Yet, the palace is also illuminated with light!

In this reading, Abraham, possibly at the same time, sees a moment of awe and beauty.  He sees an opportunity for learning and inspiring others through the many trials which he will encounter.  He sees a purpose beyond himself, and also beyond the flames that are causing so much destruction.  Flames and light, suffering and hope.  This is the experience that guides Abraham throughout the rest of his life.

And this is why Abraham is considered the first Jew.  He was the one who could sense God’s presence, sense holiness and purpose in both the beauty of a glowing palace and also the destruction and flames of the same building.

This is our world.  This pandemic can and needs to be an image of both a burning world and a powerful illumination that allows us to see what is broken and needs to be fixed.  It needs to horrify us and fill us with fear, but also inspire us with the glowing light in a way that no matter what, we cannot look away.

Our glasses are now on.  The question is how can we both hold on to the reality of the burning world, and also the painful and sometimes beautiful illuminations we see in front of us?

There is one other reality of fire that is important to mention.  Like the forest fires which tore apart so much of the US and the world the past few months, a fire can be destructive, but it also can be purifying.  It can allow an ecosystem to start fresh, and allow opportunities for new growth and for very real change.  In a forest and in a society.

As we move forward to a very challenging time in our lives, may we encounter the challenges and suffering in front of us with focus and intention, but also with the hidden blessings found within.  And may we slowly rebuild what we have lost, and create a glowing palace of light which can sustain us into the future. 

Thu, September 16 2021 10 Tishrei 5782