11 Nov. 2000
[A d'var by Irwin Brodo, on the occasion of his retirement]
In this long and pivotal parasha, many momentous events occur, and many concepts are introduced. G-d speaks to Abraham and tells him to "Get up and go!"... leave "your country, your kindred, your father's house". G-d clearly indicates the severity of this command by laying it all out: leave your country (Babylonia, a rich, cultured and advanced civilization); your kindred (i.e., all your family and relatives and who may have supported you); and your father's house (all the influences you learned as a child). A parallel can be seen when Abraham is called upon to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis Chapter 22, verse 2 where "Lech-Lecha" occurs for the second time. G-d tells Abraham to "get thee into the land of Moriah" ... get up and go, don't waste any time,... and G-d again lays out the severity of the command with excruciating clarity..." Take your son, your only son, the one you love, yes, I'm talking about Isaac..."
We learn from this wording that Abraham knew exactly what he was being asked, and yet he submitted to the word of G-d because of his faith that this G-d had much to teach the world, and that He would do it, apparently, through him. Unlike Noach or Moses, we know nothing about Abraham's past directly from the Torah, although there are many stories and midrashim about Abraham's childhood. It is said, for example, that his father, Terah, was apparently a maker of idols, of all things, but when he left Abraham in charge of the store, Abraham would discourage people from buying them, and one night, he finally broke all of them up.
And so, Abraham, with Sarai, his wife, and Lot, his nephew, travels from Haran to Shechem in southern Israel. He was about 75 years old at this time. Then, a famine forces him to travel farther south into Egypt. Although Sarah is 65, she is said to be so beautiful that Abraham is afraid she would be abducted and he would be killed, so he claims that she is his sister. In fact, there is evidence in the Torah that Abraham and Sarah had the same father, although different mothers. This lie (or partial lie) works in Abraham's favour, and he becomes quite wealthy when Sarah enters the Pharaoh's harem. When the Pharaoh finds out, he sends Abraham and Sarah away, and they all go back up north to Bethel. By this time, Abraham and Lot have so much cattle that they have to separate, so Lot remains in the Jordan valley. Later there is a war in the area and Lot is taken captive. An escapee runs to tell "Abram the Hebrew" of the news, and Abraham is forced to assume the role of a warrior to rescue Lot, which he does. This is the first time the word "Ivri" (Hebrew) occurs in the Torah. It may refer to the nomadic tribe, the Hibari, know from excavations, but the word derives from "other" or "other side"(aiver), referring perhaps to the other side of the Euphrates, which is the country of Abarahm's father (Ur), or perhaps "other" in the sense that Abraham had a different view of the world than anyone else of his time.
Sarah despairs of having a child after many attempts, and gives her servant, Hagar, to Abraham. When Hagar conceives, Sarah becomes jealous and treats her badly. Hagar runs away, but in the desert, she is visited by an angel, who tells her that her son will give rise to a mighty nation. This, by the way, is the first time we see the word "angel" in the bible. It means a messenger of G-d. Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah and gives birth to Ishmael, the traditional father of the Arabs. Abraham is 86 years old.
When Abraham is 99 years old, he is told that Sarah will have a boy, but he laughs at the idea (just as Sarah does later), and he assumes G-d's promise to make his descendants "a great nation" will be through Ishmael. No, says G-d, it will be through Sarah. G-d then enters into a covenant with Abram and changes his name to Abraham and he changes Sarai's name to Sarah. The covenant... to make him the father of a great and numerous nation, and to give him the land of Canaan as a possession... was to be sealed by the act of circumcision. Abraham them circumcises himself and Ishmael (who was 13), and establishes the practice for all his male descendants.
The rite of circumcision is one that has persisted in spite of persecutions and troubles throughout the centuries. That such a procedure, which has its bloody and painful aspects, should be such so universally practiced even by the most marginal of Jews, is somewhat of a mystery. It reveals, if anything, the strong bond Jews have with their roots. The cutting of the prevents the cutting of historical ties that go back thousands of years. Theologically, circumcision renews the covenant and provides the continuity that has, in part, maintained the identity of the Jewish people. That this continuity is important and is a fundamental element in our very nature as Jews has been beautifully expressed by another Abraham, the poet, A. M. Klein:
Not sole was I born, but entire genesis:
For to the fathers that begat me, this
Body is residence. Corpuscular,
They dwell in my veins, they eavesdrop at my ear,
They circle, as with Torahs, round my skull.
In exit and in entrance all day pull
The latches of my heart, descend, and rise--
And there look generations through my eyes.
- Abraham M. Klein
It is said that after circumcision, a baby is deemed to be "perfect." If that is so, the rabbis ask, why wasn't Adam created already circumcised? They answer, "Because creation was not perfect or complete." Mankind is assigned the job of completing creation... to make it perfect. Creativity is still regarded to be among the most "human" of traits. We have to foster and encourage it... whether it is finding a new way to cook chicken soup, composing a symphony, or discovering a new way to look at the human condition.
Science is also creative. I've just spent 35 years at the Canadian Museum of Nature trying to make discoveries and find novel ways of interpreting the observations I and others have made. Now, after 35 years, I hear a call saying "Lech-lecha!" Get up and go! adding, to paraphrase the Torah, "Leave your job, your favourite job, the job that gave you financial security and satisfaction, and change your status quo." I don't hear that call as saying, stop doing all the things you've enjoyed doing in the past," and certainly not, "Stop doing things," but rather, "Take a new look at your potential.. reshape your future... take change of your remaining years."
Rabbi Joseph Teluskin in his new book on Jewish Values, points out that retirement is a relatively new phenomenon, so there is relatively little Talmudic commentary on the Jewish view of the concept. If anything, it would seem that we are encouraged to keep on with it. Look at our role models. Moses, Rabbi Hillel, Yochanan ben Zakkai, and Akiva all were active until they were over 100. Age is associated with wisdom in Judaism, not with incapacity. A Hasidic saying goes," For the ignorant, old age is as winter; for the learned, it is a harvest." In the Book of Job (Job 12:12), we read that "With age comes wisdom, and length of days brings understanding." All this doesn't fit in with the modern ideas of disposable people: 65, sick or strong, and you're out; in with the young and beautiful. New ideas count; experience doesn't.
As a retiree, I will probably be just as active as I've ever been as long as I have good health. But what if I decide not to be as active? What about retirement in the context of a well-deserved rest? Maimonides (Eight Chapters, 5) said that "Just as the body becomes exhausted by hard labour and is envigorated by rest, so the mind needs its weariness relieved by rest." The Saadia Gaon said, Rest, yes; idleness, no. He said, "A man's body grows sluggish through too much rest--- . Even if a man has all his needs [can we add, through a pension], he dare not stay idle, for the idle man will end in weakness, insanity and sickness." When it comes to studying Torah, even Maimonides says that you should keep on doing it "until the day of one's death." I find it very sad when a retiree says, "I'm too old to learn that," or "What good will that do me at my age." I'm reminded of the famous old midrash from Ecclesiates Rabbah (2:20) about the Emperor Hadrian's encounter with an old man planting a fruit tree. Hadrian asked him, "How old are you?" And the man replied, "100 years old." Hadrain then remarked, "Fool, do you think you will live to eat fruit from these trees?" and the old man replaied, "If I am worthy, I shall eat; if not, as my ancestors planted for me, so I am planting for my children and grandchildren."
Will my friends and colleagues think that I've become lazy if I work from 10 to 4 instead of 9 to 6?. In the Ottawa Citizen last week, various religious leaders were asked what their religions thought about "sloth" in indolence. The Islamic, Hindu and Catholic leaders talked about the importance and desirability of industry and zeal, both at work and in religious observance. Rabbi Bulka took a different tack. He pointed out that what one person sees as laziness, another may see as reflection. One should not be judgemental in viewing the way people run their lives. Everything is relative, he said. What may look like laziness may actually be efficiency. And anyway, says Rabbi Bulka, "we are judged on what we achieve relative to what we are capable of achieving." I therefore hope people will not think I'm slacking off if I'm not the first to volunteer for everything that needs to be done. Remember that it may simply be a matter of timing and pacing. One thing is sure... I'll enjoy even more being part of this wonderful congregation and will participate as much as my abilities will allow. Rest assured, I plan to go out and plant a quite a few fruit trees.