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Lech L'cha 5781: "World on Fire"

The world is on fire.

No, I don’t mean literally, though we are seeing unprecedented fires out West, most likely exacerbated by climate fluctuations.  I don’t even mean rhetorically, though God knows the words we’re hearing — and sometimes saying — are certainly  inflammatory.

I don’t even necessarily mean now, though of course it is burning now.

This week we find, in the Torah, something new. We’re in Parashat Lech L’cha. “Get up and go,” (1) God says to Abraham, the world’s first Hebrew man, the original Jewish founding father. Go from your home, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land I will show you.

Meaning you haven’t seen it yet. Meaning that it is unknown.

This week we step into the unknown. As a people, as individuals.

Abraham answers the Call, walks off the map. Into danger, into possibility.

Why?

I mean sure, God said so — but lots of people ignore messages right in front of their faces.

The Midrash talks about Abraham’s choice to follow the Voice.

“Rabbi Isaac said: [Abraham’s journey] can be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a birah doleket — a castle all aglow.”

According to the Midrash, the man asks, “Is it possible that this palace lacks a caretaker?” And the owner of the palace looks out and says, 'I am the owner of the palace.”

You probably get the point. Abraham looks around at his world. He asks, “Is it possible that it lacks a caretaker?” And the Blessed Holy One looks out and says, “I am the Sovereign of the Universe.” (2)

What is this bira doleket? Why is the castle aglow. Doleket like l’hadlik ner. To kindle light, like Shabbat or Chanukah candles.  Maybe it means the lights are on. Like the motel commercial, “We’ll leave the light on for you.” It means in a world with all sorts of double-talk and distractions, there is a Force of Blessing. Abraham looks for order in the world, and finds God, and in the process founds a new spiritual tradition.

But there are lots of ways to talk about light.  A deleikah and also be a blazing inferno. The term birah doleket, which we might translate ambiguously as “a palace aglow,” could also be translated as a burning palace. A palace scorched by fire.

The nineteenth century Russian commentator, the Etz Yosef, combines the two readings. As Abraham discovered, “the world testifies about itself that there is a Creator, who leads it with wisdom and kindness. Yet,” the Etz Yosef continues, “when the Creator saw that evil people cause damage to the world, the loss and annihilation burns like fire.”
 
The world testifies about itself. The world is lit up from within, unspeakable awesome power in nature, planetary majesty, crashing breakers, shimmering light of the sun on autumn leaves after a downpour. There is a Creator who leads it with wisdom and kindness. There is selflessness and integrity, vulnerability and empathy and the light of boundless love.

And.

And there is also loss and annihilation. It burns like fire. The fire of hate and bigotry and subjugation and the sacrilege of white supremacy. The scorch of the sun baked into air pulsing with triple-digit temperatures. The heaving flames of cruelty and cynicism and lies.

The world can feel the flames. Immigrants hiding in shadows, trans folks afraid to walk home, workers of color forced to inhale infected air, women whose equality is still subject to debate.  But that doesn’t mean everyone names the fires. Some people go about their business, keep their heads down, ignore the flames.
 
To be a Jew is to notice that the palace is alight. It glows with possibility. And to be a Jew is speak up and say that the palace is on fire. It burns with groaning.

And, in the midst of all this, here comes Tuesday. We don’t know what will happen. We get a say, of course, but the ultimate decision happens out there. We’re not in control of it.
 
But we’re in control of what we see.
 
And we’re in control of what we say.
 
Because, whoever takes the Oath of Office in January, the palace will still be aglow. No matter who wins, there will still be the glow of blessing, the light of possibility, the Wonder inherent in this world. And no matter who wins, there will still be the fire of destruction, the fire of cruelty, the white-hot flames of hate.
 
It is up to the Jew to see it.
 
It is up to the Jew to notice it.

It is up to the Jew to name it.
 
As I was writing this, it occurred to me. The Midrash of the glowing palace isn’t the only time where a Jew pays attention to fire. There’s also a minor character in the Torah — some guy named Moses.
 
Born a Hebrew, raised in a literal palace, Moses awakens to the injustice in Pharaoh’s Egypt. But after noticing that Egypt is aflame with the fire of subjugation and oppression, he bounces. Runs away to Midian. Makes a nice life for himself, a shepherd with a wife and kids.
 
But out in the pasture, he sees something. Notices it. A bush on fire. A bush that isn’t consumed by that fire.
 
Asura-na v’ereh, Moses says, to nobody — and directly to us.
 
“I have to turn and look.”(3)

It’s only after he looks that God calls out to him. Moshe! Moshe!  Like Abraham was called. Avraham! Avraham!

(When God calls you twice, you know it’s serious.)

A double call, for a double fire — burning with threat, burning with blessing. Moses sees the flame of blessing within his world.  And Moses’ also sees the fire of injustice of his enslaved family in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
 
The world is on fire.
 
Like it’s always on fire. Like it was in Moses’ time. Like it was in Abraham’s time.
 
Our tradition imagines this glowing palace, God’s Voice emanating from within: “I need you. I need you to look at this world, and see the glow — and see Me. I need you to see that you are part of it, to see that I am part of you. I need you to be My partner, my co-conspirator in this impossibly beautiful project of struggle and blessing — to extinguish the fires of cruelty and hate, and kindle fires of light and warmth and compassion.”
 
May we, like Abraham, like Moses, say asura-na v’ereh. “I have to
turn and look.”

And, having done so, find the courage to see what must seen.
 
And do what must be done.
 

(1) Genesis 12:1
(2) Genesis Rabbah 39:1
(3) Exodus 3:3
 
Sat, July 24 2021 15 Av 5781