November 6, 2003
All We Need to Know
Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-13:18)
Abram was despondent in his tent, deeply wearied from battle, having just returned from chasing kings from Dan to Damascus.
Abram had looked death in the eye and sat distraught over his own future. God listened to His friend's lament and then He took him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And he added, "So shall your offspring be" (Genesis 15:5).
This verse is remarkable in many ways, and like every verse of Torah, it has an elixir of magic cleverly hidden in its heart, which we will together attempt to uncork.
There is a story of a man who would jump up and dance wildly about whenever the Torah chanter chanted the words va'yedabeir Adonai, "God spoke." This was exceedingly frustrating to the congregation because they could never finish a single Torah reading with this man's excited interruptions.
Most of us do not leap up every time were hear of God speaking. Most of us are not dancing while we read this column, but perhaps inside there is that scintilla of Sinai awe that leaps about inside of us. If we ever recover from the miracle of God speaking, we might then venture forth to understand what He said.
Many commentators understand God's words as prophesying that Abram's descendants will be numerous as the stars. That prophecy has yet to be realized, as Mark Twain wrote, "If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute ... a nebulous dim puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way." Some understand God's words as hyperbole. Chasidic sage Sefat Emet interpreted them to mean that just as it is impossible to count the stars, so is it impossible to predict Israel's future.
Sometimes it is not the speaking that inspires leaping and dancing, but the silences. There is an intimacy between Abram and God that exists outside of words: "He took him outside."
Imagine how you would take someone outside to see the stars or ruby Mars, a slivered moon or sunset, gently tugging on a lover's sleeve, scooping up a sleepy child, "C'mon sweet little you, come see the sky in ribbons of lavender."
Rashi understood "He took him outside" to mean that God elevated Abram, lifting him outside of the world and whooshing him high above the stars.
Rav Yehudah said: "How do we know no star controls the destiny of Israel? From the verse, He took him outside..."(Talmud, Shabbat 156a). Rashi teaches that instead of stars, prayer and virtue can change a Jew's destiny from bad to good.
For me, the magic of this verse is in the second time God is not speaking. It is written, "And He added," as if there was a pause in God's speaking. Why are God's words broken up? Why is it necessary to say "And He added?" It seems God pauses here to allow Abram the chance to soak in the celeste and attempt to count the stars.
Poised somewhere between the endless jeweled sky and undulating desert hills, there is a still, small silence, during which God's arm rests around Abram's troubled shoulders, and Abram looks up, following the grand sweep of God's other arm, gesturing him to count the stars.
It is written in I Kings 19:11-12, "There was a great and mighty wind ... but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire, a still, small voice."
Where is God? Why do bad things like fires happen? How does the universe tick and spin? Where, why and how are questions as vacuous and infinite as space, as impossible to satisfy as counting the stars. We study them with intensity, all our power zeroed like Hubble telescopes, and sometimes a glimmer of truth reveals itself, a twinkle in a sky of possibilities that leaves us breathless. But often, we are left chasing moonbeams, reaching for stars and coming up empty handed. How could this happen? Why me? When will it stop? What can I do?
Until we let God take us outside, tug on our sleeve and scoop us up outside of our despondence, our misery, our anger, our frozenness, outside of our mirrored tent and stand poised, somewhere between diamond-studded air and mica-flecked earth. Why is a galaxy. How is a desert. What, when and where are cosmic seas. But God's arm is around you, and so shall your offspring be. God's arm is around you, and that's all you really need to know.
Zoe Klein is a rabbi at Temple Isaiah.