Very often people look at beginnings in order to understand what is going on today. We look at old pictures of our families and old friends. We nostalgically remember the very day when we met someone important to us. Sometimes we ask our parents and grandparents about their lives and try to analyse what makes us as we appear today. Some people visit the countries of their ancestors. Why? Do we believe that the chain of DNA makes a real connection between us and our past? My answer is “Yes, we do, or at least I do”. Let’s try to reflect on this for a moment and go back to Jewish beginnings, to Abraham’s saga.
There is a very famous Midrash on the Akedah story. It suggests that Abraham was arguing with God in the hope that God didn’t really want the boy to be sacrificed.
The Torah text is:
And He (God) said [to Abraham], “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering… (Genesis 22:2)
It seems superfluous to have that many descriptions of Isaac here. The Midrash suggests that Abraham replies after each of the descriptions and turns the story into a dialogue full of the hope that Isaac could be saved:
God: Take now your son
Abraham: Which son?
God: Your only son
Abraham: But each is the only son of his mother!
God: Whom you love
Abraham: Is there a limit to my affection?!
And only when God said “Isaac” was there no way left for Abraham to argue.
I suggest that we can apply the same midrashic method to the “Lech Lecha” story. After God said to Abraham “lech lecha”, (“Go forth from your country”, Genesis 12:1), God made a number of promises to Abraham.
I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Genesis 12:2-3)
We can only guess what Abraham’s comments, doubts and complaints were in between these promises. All we know is that all these promises were enough to convince Abraham to set out for the land.
How can this story help us to understand our lives? I think it raises important questions:
- “What do we do in order to convince modern Jews to attach themselves to the community?”
- “How welcoming are we to newcomers and unaffiliated Jews?”
- “What can we say in order to attract those who have doubts and complaints?”
I think these are profound questions which we should constantly ask ourselves in order to be successful, in order “to be a blessing” as Abraham was.
I often look back at my own beginnings:
I am a Russian Jew from an unobservant, mixed family. I was born in the Soviet Union and have lived most of my life in a big Russian industrial city called Chelyabinsk. Both my parents are engineers and I have an engineering degree, too, following in their footsteps. I’ve been actively involved in Jewish life in Russia and other FSU countries since I was 11. My Jewish journey began when my grandmother suggested that my parents send me to a Jewish summer camp. 10 years after that I decided to become a Rabbi and “Here I am”. I spent a year in Moscow, then a further year in Jerusalem, taking general Jewish studies, English and Hebrew and now I am in the second year of the rabbinic programme at Leo Baeck College.
I go through difficulties in my own life, as we all do. One of them is not having “my own” synagogue, to which I can just come and go and where everything and everybody is familiar to me. The reason for this, obviously, is my frequent moving from one country to another. On the other hand, as a result of this constant moving, I’ve been to many different synagogues over the last 4 years. Interestingly, the only thing I remember about each of them is how I was welcomed. Not the type of the service, not the name of the rabbi, not the furniture of the sanctuary. For instance, in Israel there was almost no chance for me to go to a synagogue on Friday night and leave there without at least one invitation for dinner after the service. Sometimes I got more than one and then had the privilege of choosing which invitation I liked most. This one small thing made me feel almost like I do at home.
I’ve spent a little more than a year in the UK and how many Friday night spontaneous invitations do you think I’ve had so far? Not many. Two, actually, and both of them from rabbis. On the other hand, I’ve had many invitations for a Friday night supper, which were made in advance. I’m very grateful for each of them, however I’m focusing now on those which were made spontaneously.
Let’s get back to the story about God’s promises to Abraham. Wasn’t it the same with him? Wasn’t it as important to Abraham to receive such warm treatment at the beginning? Even if some of the promises haven’t been fulfilled yet, it doesn’t matter for me. What matters, is that on that day Abraham started his journey. And having started his journey, he started the journey of the whole Jewish people. Today it is in our hands to continue it. One possible way of doing so is to simply begin by inviting people for Shabbat dinner. Regular attendees and new-comers, men and women, Jews and non-Jews – it doesn’t matter, let us recreate the lovely tradition of gathering for a Friday night dinner around the table, together with one or two people whom we don’t yet know and who may deeply appreciate being included. As we will read in another Abraham story, when three unexpected guests arrive at the tents of Mamre, it’s certainly what Abraham would have done!
Rabbi Dr Leo Baeck liked to call Progressive Judaism “ethical monotheism”. Following his example, I’d like to urge people not to miss opportunities, great or small, to apply our ethical principles to everyday Jewish life. Let us all try to be a little more like our ancestor, Abraham, and let us start with hospitality.
LBC Student Rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.