Parashat Lech-Lecha – With ‘wonder and amazement,’ we see hope within chaos

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

“The Eternal One said to Abram: Go forth from your native land…to the place that I will show you”. (Genesis 12:1)

This Shabbat, we will once again read the well-known Parashat Hashavua of Lech-Lechah, which includes the Divine’s call to our ancestor Abram (later to become known Avraham) to leave his ancestral home and begin his life’s journey and sacred work. The opening words of our portion have generated many thoughtful questions and, therefore, much rabbinic commentary. Here is one such example. Rabbi Isaac said: 

“This may be compared to a person who was traveling from place to place when he saw a Birah Doleket. ‘Is it possible that this structure lacks a caretaker?’ the person wondered. The owner of the building peeked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the citadel.’ Similarly, because our ancestor Abraham said, ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a caretaker?’ the Blessed Holy One looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Sovereign of the Universe.’ ” (Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

Now consider the many possible questions raised by this brief Midrashic insight: What exactly did Abram see? Was he really the first to see it? What troubles Abram about what he sees? Why does Abram’s question elicit a reply from the Master of the Universe? What motivates the rabbis to share this particular tale as a way to explicate the biblical verse? What do you see in this fable? And what might this exegetical overlay to the text of our holy Torah have to do with us in year 5781/2020?

In his tour de force volume God in Search of Man (a book that becomes ever more important to me with the passage of years!), the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel discusses the implications of two contrasting translations for the Hebrew term Birah Doleket. Is it “a citadel filled with light – a building aglow,” or is it “a fortress engulfed in consuming, destructive flames”? 

Dr. Heschel, in his inimitable way, posits that both options deserve consideration as they each have the ability to help us understand who Abram was, who he ultimately becomes and what our religious obligations are as descendants of this first of our iconoclastic patriarchs. 

Abram discovers, through “wonder and amazement,” that the world as he understands it, must have a Creator, an architect. And moreover, this Designer is calling upon him to engage in the unfolding on history as Abram has a major role to play in the Almighty’s master plan for revealing God’s-Self to humanity. 

Additionally, toward the latter half of God in Search of Man, Heschel – one who saw himself as and Abraham as well as “a brand plucked from the flames” of the Shoah – acknowledges that many only “sense the ultimate questions of existence in moments of horror.” Our progenitor looked at the world and saw “a castle in flames,” a world engulfed in an inferno of immorality and malevolence. 

The Holy One’s reply from within the burning palace to Abram’s query is a promise that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there is always hope. As long as there are people who see the problem as a challenge in need of repair, there are grounds for positivity and optimism. 

Living as we do in in the midst of a pandemic, social unrest, economic uncertainty and environmental disasters, we would be wise to heed Rabbi Heschel’s sagacious advice and walk with God in both pathways – “radical amazement” and “righteous indignation” – a self-conscious recognition of both the beautiful and the horrific in the world we inhabit. 

For it is only in the integration of these two that we will we be moved, inspired and motivated to be change-makers and live up to our calling from time immemorial, to be “God’s stake in human history.” 

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona. Rabbi Rose is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light