Monday, September 25, 2006

Vayeira 1 - We are the Mustard

(a dvar Torah that I wrote for the UPenn Hillel dvar torah newsletter last year for P' Vayeira).

At the end of the episode of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham renames the location of the event “HaShem Yir’eh” - “God shall watch over”. The Rabbis tell us that this mountain is the eventual site of the Temple in Jerusalem. However, we never hear the name “HaShem Yir’eh” being used again, as all future references to this place refer to it as Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a combination of the name given by Abraham and the name that had been given to it centuries earlier by Shem, (the son of Noah), “Shalem”, meaning “complete” (Bereishis Rabbah 56:16). If Jerusalem already had a name that had been given to it by Abraham’s ancestor Shem, why did Abraham need to change it? What is the significance of this double name?

The author of the Meshech Chochmah, R’ Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, (1843-1926), notes that the two names reflect the different foci of these two great men. Shem was born during the years leading up to the Flood, where the primary problems in the world were social crimes, such as robbery and sexual perversion, and even the animals were implicated in sin. Ultimately, the only solution to this world gone awry was for everything to restart with a clean slate. During the year that Shem spent on the ark with his father and brothers, he was the sole provider of sustenance for the animals aboard, and he therefore had an opportunity to repair their corrupt nature. Once the period of the Flood ended, Shem founded the city of Shalem and an academy. The city was a monument to the peace and wholesomeness that he hoped would pervade all living species’ interactions with one another, and the academy was devoted to disseminating these ideals.

Abraham, on the other hand, was born in a time when the world had a different set of problems. Although people were generally able to live in peace during Abraham’s time, they had become ensnared by the intellectual perversion promoted by the priests of idolatry and the rulers who sponsored them. Although he is known as one who excelled in acts of kindness, Abraham’s agenda was not solely peaceful coexistence; to the contrary, the Midrash relates how he was arrested because of his dangerous ideas of monotheism that threatened to topple the existing social structure. The battle that Abraham fought was one for the truth - acknowledgment of god’s presence in the world. This is inherent in the name “HaShem Yir’eh”, which refers to the revelation and recognition of god’s interaction with the world.

The name Jerusalem is therefore a reference to the city’s two distinct roles in the world. Firstly, it is a city for all the nations of the world, the intellectual descendents of Shem, whose ideal was peaceful coexistence. When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem centuries later, he acknowledged this fact, expressing his hopes that this edifice would be a house of prayer for all nations. The Seven Noahide Laws also reflect this reality, as they are entirely bereft of ritual, but rather consist of six prohibitions that are especially crucial to a properly functioning society, as well as the requirement to institute a system of courts to enforce the rule of law.

However, the city also has a special additional connection to the Jewish people, the intellectual descendents of their father Abraham. Abraham recognized that, while peace and social harmony were very important ideals, their primary purpose was as prerequisites to a greater message, that of knowledge of the Divine. Besides being charged with the basic social laws of Noah and Shem, the Jewish people were given a second layer of responsibilities, which comprise the full body of the Torah. The Torah consists of a wide variety of laws, many of which are rituals whose importance can only be deduced by virtue of the special Divine decree that mandated them. It is precisely these laws that set the Jewish people apart from the other nations, causing them to suffer hatred and xenophobia over the span of history.

At the same time, though, it is these laws that have caused the Jewish people to have a disproportionate effect on world civilization. Primo Levi expresses this realization in his autobiographical The Periodic Table: “I am the impurity that makes the zinc react; I am the grain of salt or mustard”. Jerusalem symbolizes our relationship to the nations of the world. On the one hand, we seem on the surface to be more alike than unlike, in that we devote ourselves to fulfillment of the legal obligations upon which society is built; on the other hand, though, our mission often drives us into a frontal collision with societal norms and with the values that a given civilization has adopted. It is our duty to remain loyal to the trail blazed by Abraham, and not to complacently value peace and assimilation over all else.

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