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Message Of Our Forefathers (Edited Transcript)

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We human beings express ourselves partly through entertainment, literature and art. These media are in no way linked to animals – you don’t find artwork or literature in animals. They reflect man’s attempt to construct reality; what is reality? We construct it using our imagination, intellect and emotions. And it’s not just physical reality that we encounter; it is the construction and the context of reality which makes it what it is. Art, literature and music is an attempt to construct our reality and to tell our story. Even the concept of telling a story is uniquely human. We are always constructing our reality, trying to understand it and putting it in the form of a context. The raw data has to be packaged. The Internet is an example; its raw information is always packaged. Different websites package it in different ways and construct the information differently. Raw information is very rarely transmitted; it’s always constructed and packaged in a certain way. And so too are our experiences in life. We don’t interact with only the hard reality of the world; we always reconstruct it. These constructs and human beings’ perspectives are the essence of what makes us human.

However; what values construct our reality? Music, art and literature construct our reality based on a certain value system. All constructs are not raw, they are rooted in a particular value system and understanding of the world. There are different authors, books and stories all coming from various perspectives as human beings try to construct their reality. Judaism is about the construction of reality as revealed to us by G-d. It’s the ultimate construction of that reality – an attempt to understand the world from G-d’s perspective which is the only true and objective reality. One of the words that constructs our reality and explains how we relate to the world is emunah.

Moulding a worldview

Emunah is often translated as faith. It was expressed in last week’s portion when Abraham came to G-d and said what will be, I am childless, what will be with my legacy? And G-d gave him a prophecy that his descendants would be like the stars of heaven. And then we are told that Abraham believed in G-d. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch talks in connection with that phrase about the concept of emunah. He says that people often reduce religion or Judaism into being an article of faith. People see faith as belief. Faith becomes reduced to that which one believes and entrance into the next world becomes dependent completely on belief. Rabbi Hirsch says that when religion is reduced to a question of faith and belief only it becomes removed from practical day-to-day life. We simply believe so that we can get into the next world. And so religion becomes divorced from engagement with the world. By contrast he says the Hebrew word emunah as contained in the Chumash, in the Five Books, refers to a whole world view. He says emunah is related to the Hebrew word uman which means an artisan or a craftsman who creates an object. He says that emunah is the moulding of our whole worldview and how we relate to the world. That is why the verse doesn’t say that Abraham believed or had faith in G-d –  Le’Hashem with a “lamed” as when Moses said to G-d after he was appointed to take the people out of the land of Egypt, that they won’t believe me – Li. He used the lamed, saying they are not going to believe me and have faith in me. Here the word is used with a bet –  he believed in G-d, Be’Hashem. The bet conveys that his worldview was constructed and rooted in G-d and everything that G-d had told him. That worldview is how he related to everything. That is what the concept of faith and belief in Judaism is all about. It is about being rooted in the worldview of G-d and seeing everything from that perspective.

Inheriting reality

The Mishna, in Pirkei Avot tells us, “Turn it over and over because everything is in it”. Judaism relates to everything. Every part of human existence is governed by the laws of the Torah and so Judaism constructs our reality in relationship to everything. It’s not only what we do, but the way that we view the world. That’s why one of our most important commandments is to study Torah because it’s through that study that the reality of the world around us is constructed for us. That is what emunah is –  faith that constructs all of our reality.

Judaism is also about an inherited reality, which means we don’t construct it for ourselves; we inherit it. Abraham was born into a pagan world where everybody worshipped idols. He had to go on a process of discovery to find G-d and construct his worldview; he had to arrive at all his decisions alone. We come into a world with an inherited constructed reality. That is why the concept of avot, of forefathers and mothers, is so important : we inherit from them a worldview that G-d gave to them and that has been constructed over the generations. And that’s conveyed in the verse that was said at the splitting of the sea, “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him the G-d of my father and I will exalt Him”.

Rashi asks on this verse, why does it say “my G-d” and then afterwards “the G-d of my father”? Because, he says, the individual is not the beginning of sanctity. This is sanctity which came from the past. So even though the people at that time were experiencing a level of a miracle that even the forefathers and mothers had never experienced they were giving expression to the fact that they, too, had inherited the sanctity and the construct of their lives. And we also have received a constructed reality which the Torah has given us, and that’s one of the great significant functions of the Book of Genesis because it deals with the forefathers and mothers from whom we inherit this construction. That’s why we begin our prayers by saying the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, the G-d of Jacob. We are not starting afresh, we are coming into a relationship that has already been constructed and a worldview that has already been constructed. We are coming to engage not with just a Divine, Almighty G-d who controls the world, but with a G-d Who was personally discovered by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and who was revealed to them and passed down the generations and as was revealed again at Mount Sinai, and whose presence in our lives was consolidated thereafter in the huge body of literature which is our Torah.

The tradition of our fathers

One of the Tractates of the Talmudis called Pirkei Avot.  This is often translated as Ethics of the Fathers when the direct translation is actually Chapters of the Fathers. One of the questions that the commentaries go into, is why the name Avot, Chapter of the Fathers, or Ethics of the Fathers? The answer is : Because it refers to the traditions that have been received and handed down through the generations. And the commentators point out that all of the Tractates of the Talmud are based on the traditions that were passed down from generation to generation. So why does this one in particular talk about the  spiritual fathers  who were the Sages of the Talmud and who were part of the handing down of the tradition, the oral law and the written law from generation to generation? And they answer further that this Tractate, Ethics of the Fathers, deals with character development. It deals with human decency and all kinds of things that a person may assume to be logical or obvious. And what it comes to say is that even with these kinds of things we are dependent upon tradition. We don’t just invent a philosophy of life ourselves. Ours is part of a constructed reality that we receive from generation to generation. That’s why this Tractate of all of them mentions in its name the fathers of our tradition.

There is a passage in Ethics of the Fathers, in Chapter 4, where we are told that any community dedicated to heaven will endure forever. There are a variety of interpretations offered to understand this passage of the Talmud, but Avot De Rabbi Natan says that this refers not to one specific community at a particular point in time, but to the vertical community that makes up the Jewish people from the time of the forefathers and mothers and then the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai all the way to the present. In fact we are told that the ultimate community dedicated to Heaven stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and that anyone who forms part of that community will endure forever because ultimately that community is indestructible, which has of course been one of the great miracles of history –  the indestructibility of the Jewish people. One of our philosophers, Rabbi Jacob Emden, writing three hundred years ago said that the greatest miracle of all since the time of creation is the survival of the Jewish people against all the odds. And look what has happened since then – the holocaust and the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. But the Mishna is saying that to be part of that community dedicated to heaven is to be part of something enduring and something which is eternal.

When one enters the community that stood at Mount Sinai you accept and receive the traditions of that community. One enters into that constructed reality and into an eternal community. Entering into that community means entering into all of those constructed realities that have been given to us and not invented by ourselves. And that’s why the Mishna, in Pirkei Avot Chapter 1, says, “Make for yourself a rabbi, a teacher”. A very interesting dimension of Judaism is the enormous importance attached to Torah scholars, rabbis and teachers of the generations. Why is that so important? Because the rabbis and the Torah scholars are the guardians of the tradition that have been handed down from generation to generation. They are the ones who receive that tradition and hand it on to the next generation of scholars and students. Rashi says on that Mishna, make for yourself a rabbi, because Judaism is not based purely on logic. It contains much more : the traditions and constructed realities that we have received and to which we then we apply logic. Judaism is not a study of books alone. It is a living wisdom that is meant to be applied in the context of everyday life and is part of our engagement with G-d. We can’t just look at that wisdom and say we’ll decide how we are going to interpret it. The whole context of how this information is to be understood is passed down from generation to generation. That’s why make for yourself a Rav becomes such an important part of it because that is how we access this truth and wisdom that has been handed from generation to generation. That is why the concept of forefathers and mothers is so important.

Abraham as a guide

In this week’s portion we see an example of how practically we inherit our constructed reality when Abraham teaches us the important value of chesed, of loving kindness. The portion begins with his famous act of kindness to wayfarers. Abraham sees three people whom he thinks are Arab idolaters and doesn’t realise that they are in fact angels. Although he is in great pain from having gone through circumcision, as described at the end of last week’s portion, he runs out in the heat to look after them. His kindness is then juxtaposed to one of the most evil societies described in the Chumash and by the Talmud, the societies of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the Talmud their evil was their cruelty to the poor and to the underprivileged. They were a very wealthy society that didn’t want poor people asking for money, so they constructed all kinds of discriminatory laws which persecuted against the poor and the vulnerable, which is why that society was destroyed.

From here we learn that trying to construct a society and a community in which kindness to those who are most vulnerable and poor is regarded as very important. If the epitome of evil is a cruel society, then the epitome of good is a kind society which is also what G-d Himself teaches. The portion begins with G-d coming to visit Abraham and we learn from there the mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim. When we look at the world, we look at it through the eyes of Abraham, as that is the constructed reality that has been revealed to us in the Torah. The Torah tells us how you view the world, what it means to be descendants of Abraham – it is a world constructed on compassion and on kindness and on looking for opportunities to help others.

The other dimension of Abraham’s worldview is great faith. We see his faith rewarded in this week’s portion where he and Sara have a child at a very old age – he was 100 and she was 90. From this we learn that there are no physical constraints on G-d. Anything can happen in this world. It is part of seeing the destiny of the world from the perspective of G-d and realising that G-d has power over everything. That’s why G-d tells him in last week’s portion to come and look at the stars. The Talmud says what He was really saying was come and look above the stars. He took him above the stars and  taught him that you can rise above the physical world. That’s another dimension of this worldview that we inherit from Abraham. It’s a worldview of kindness and a worldview of G-d’s transcendent perspective – we can rise above the physical and anything is possible.

Posted on 17 November 2016 in Text, Transcript

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