Thursday, October 29, 2009

Got Your Marching Orders?

Below is my D'var Torah for this week. Enjoy!

I grew up greatly admiring some of the great explorers of history. Vasco da Gama. Christopher Columbus. Ferdinand Magellan. James Cook. William Bligh. Okay, maybe not so much William Bligh; he was definitely a bold explorer, but his legacy is obviously mixed. Lewis and Clark. Roald Amundsen. Richard Byrd. Amelia Earhardt. Neil Armstrong. This isn’t an exhaustive list; there are many more!

Living lives that center so much on familiar ground and familiar routines, we admire those who are able to break free, who go forth boldly with confidence. But that’s not to say that we plan to emulate them. We wish we had their chutzpah, but our self-awareness informs us that we largely do not. We find comfort in the familiar. The great explorers of history are admirable primarily because they did what we know we cannot.

And yet most of us, at one time of another in the course of our lives, will venture into uncharted territory. Some will do it unintentionally. It will take us out of our ‘comfort zone.’ But when it happens and we end up acquitting ourselves well we can and should celebrate our accomplishment. Modest accomplishment is still accomplishment. Not all of us can be a Christopher Columbus, but each of us can rise to the occasion when forced out of our usual box.
In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is forced out of his box. He didn’t set out to break new ground. But he received a call. G-d called him to step outside his box, to go forth in trust and confidence, to perform the audacious act of breaking with the patterns of his past. And he did. The reason we revere Abraham today, the reason we identify with him, is that he had the courage to step out and see the possibilities over the horizon.
Most of us would not ascribe to ourselves a Divine Call. Our rational sides don’t see G-d as interfering in our lives and charging us with a new mission. And yet, there are times in our lives when we see a clear vision of what we’re supposed to do. If those clear visions defy the existing, rational plans and notions of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, then our response is often to squelch the visions. Most of us try to stay on the rational side of life, and for good reason.
But sometimes the vision of what we’re supposed to do, despite being in conflict with accepted ‘wisdom,’ is so clear that we are compelled to follow it. I have to tell you that I made my best decisions in life, those which led to lasting good for myself and for others, when I defied reason and followed such visions. And that was certainly the case with Abraham.

Abraham’s life comes to us through the narrative largely as a life lived for good. If we’re reading only the simple text, we might take issue with him on a couple of points, but the Torah does not lend itself well to that sort of fundamentalist reading. No, we’re supposed to read between the lacunae and read the ‘story behind the story.’ That’s the enterprise called ‘midrash.’ Much midrash has already been done for us, but there is additional midrash to discover.

Abraham went forth on faith, and found his way to a land flowing with milk and honey, but that isn’t the end of the story. He then kept his retinue alive during a famine. And he took to the field at the head of an army to rescue his nephew, Lot and fellow residents of Sodom and Gomorrah in the war of the kings. And he later argued with G-d for the lives of those same people. And he was willing to give everything to G-d, even the son for whom he had prayed so long. Through it all, Abraham was imperfect – that is to say, human. But his legacy is a life lived large, a life that mattered, a life that impacted for the good on so many. And it started with his answering a call, responding positively to a specific vision.

Each of us will receive our call, our vision at a different time and to a different cause. Our task is not to be chomping at the bit to break free from the fetters of a predictable life. Rather, it is to be open to that vision when it comes. To discern that vision. To differentiate between the vision for good, and the interference of the desires of our eyes. It isn’t easy. It can be frightening. But if we are to reach our own potential, there will come a time when we will have to Go Forth.
There is a delightful midrash of a Rabbi Zusya, a midrash that I retell often. Zusya, nearing the end of his life, was ashamed of the smallness of his accomplishments and cried out to G-d: “I’m sorry I wasn’t an Abraham, I wasn’t a Moses!”

G-d’s response was: “I don’t blame you for not being Abraham or Moses. I blame you for not being Zusya.”

In other words, our clear vision of what we should do is not only a possibility – it is a sort of marching order. If we are true to ourselves, we will respond positively. Even if, and when, it is not convenient. Even when it is not comfortable. Even when conventional ‘wisdom’ would tell us to ignore it and take a different path. Because if we ignore it, we will not be able to rise to the greatest potential that is within us. Unlike Zusya, who pleased G-d simply by being not only Zusya but the best Zusya he could be. Who, at the end of his life, did not need to be ashamed of accomplishing more. Rather, when we don’t answer the call we will be forced to go through life thinking ‘if only.’