Friday, November 18, 2011

The Parsha and the Pilgrims

With Thanksgiving just a few days away, we can’t help but think of some of time-honored values associated with our American tradition. Even as we recall the bounty that was shared between Pilgrim and Indian alike, so are we moved to think of all of those in our midst who might have less. We reach out to them – as our Pilgrim and Indian ancestors looked after each other so many years ago.

 But while I would never want to minimize the ethical notion of tzedakah – of sharing our bounty with others who are in need – this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah, challenges us to explore other important values that are embedded in this Thanksgiving season.

We begin with the fact that this week's Torah portion contains the story of Eliezer (Abraham's servant) and his search for a wife for Isaac.  The text refers to an elaborate and scripted test that Eliezer had constructed with God….a test that would prove to Eliezer that the woman who was generous with water was the worthy future wife of Isaac, his master’s son.

But our rabbis, who teach us that every word in the Torah is laden with meaning, can’t help but notice the fact that the wording in the Torah is somewhat strange.  The text goes out of its way to indicate that Eliezer ran to meet Rebekah at the well in the center of town.  Why would Eliezer have run to meet her? After a long journey in the desert, wouldn’t we expect him to be thirsty and tired? Hardly the kind of physical condition that would allow someone to run toward a stranger…

Rabbi Yehezkel of Kuzmir (19th century Poland) offers one provocative answer when he writes that Eliezer ran because he had seen the water perform a miracle!!  The water magically rose up to meet Rebekah, so as to make it easier for her to draw it out!

He goes on to wonder...if Eliezer had in fact witnessed a true miracle, then why did he and Rebekah still have to follow the 'script' that God had constructed to prove that Rebekah was the right person?  Rabbi Yehezkel's answer: "From this we can see that a single instance of proper behavior is more important than a hundred miracles and signs."

No doubt this will be music to the ears of the rationalists and humanists that follow my posts.

But I would humbly remind you that Judaism is not wholly rational and humanistic. At the core of our identity is a willingness to grapple with that which cannot be Seen or always Understood. We Jews have affirmed the existence of God for more than 3000 years. And although God cannot be witnessed in the physical sense of the word, the quest to come to know God lies at the heart of our Jewish experience nonetheless.

And let us not forget that it lies at the core of our Thanksgiving story as well.  This holiday is not just about being grateful for our food, and for being reminded of the obligation to share it with others.

Thanksgiving also celebrates the fact that the original pilgrims came to this country in search of something….not just of a new kind of political freedom…but also a new kind of spirituality…they were seeking an experience of God, or of Holiness, that could not be found in the Europe of the17th and 18th centuries. They sought it here….in this wildly beautiful and expansive land that we are all fortunate enough to call home.

Imagine what it must have been like for the people who sailed on the Mayflower back in 1620. There wasn’t just anxiety about what the New World would bring. There was also hope, which grew out of a faith that there was more in the world, and that there could be more to their lives, than the existence that they knew in England.

I think that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood, on some level, what the Mayflower’s voyage was all about it, when he wrote that:

"The search of reason ends at the shore of the known; on the immense expanse beyond it only the sense of the ineffable can glide. It alone knows the route to that which is remote from experience and understanding. Neither of them is amphibious: reason cannot go beyond the shore, and the sense of the ineffable is out of place where we measure, where we weigh.

We do not leave the shore of the known in search of adventure or suspense or because of the failure of reason to answer our questions. We sail because our mind is like a fantastic seashell, and when applying our ear to its lips we hear a perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore."

On this Thanksgiving, let us not just learn from the pilgrims’ example about the importance of sharing our bounty with others. Let us rejoice in the pilgrims’ faith, and curiosity…the fact that they heard the “perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore” and responded to it…by packing their bags, boarding a ship, and coming here….to found this country that we are all blessed to call Home.

And as we eat our turkey on Thursday, may we too pause long enough in our feasting to give ear to the “perpetual murmur from the waves beyond the shore” that speak to us. What are the dreams and possibilities that we yearn for in the weeks and months ahead? And what oceans are we willing to cross…what journeys are we willing to go on…to achieve them?

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Thanksgiving!

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