There are many directions one can take to answer this question. Yesterday I came across a marvelous teaching of the Netivot Shalom. He frames it in a particular textual peculiarity Genesis 24:1
1. And Abraham was old, advanced in days, and the Lord had blessed Abraham with everything.
The question he raises is why the phrase “advanced in days” is needed. The verse says he was old. Is this not the definition of advanced in days? Basing himself on the traditional understanding that the Torah uses an economy of language, the seemingly needless phrase must teach us something more than just telling us Abraham was old.
He suggests that “advanced in days” is a way of describing how Abraham lived. Each day was lived to the fullest, which for Abraham meant each day was infused with an act of hesed, loving-kindness or compassion. Abraham in Jewish tradition is the exemplar of hesed, the person who opened his tent to wayfarers. The Netivot Shalom says that to live a day without an act of hesed is to uproot the very existence of that day. It is as if that particular day did not happen.
He connects this to a verse in Psalms 89:3 “The world will be built with/through hesed.” (Admittedly this may not be the simple meaning/translation of the verse but it does reflect the Hebrew). He develops this further through the concept articulated in the daily liturgy that God renews creation daily. To renew creation each day means that we must perform each day an act of hesed or loving-kindness/compassion for someone. It is the act of hesed that creates each day anew.
The legacy of Abraham in this teaching is compassion/loving-kindness practiced on a daily basis. This is not to reduce the importance of other commandments or to reduce the complexity of Abraham’s life in any way. Rather it is an expression of the importance of hesed, its creative component, and its accessibility to all. To model Abraham is to be a compassionate human being. To experience God’s hesed is to to practice hesed. The Netivot Shalom also warns us that to act in the opposite manner is to be destructive. Withholding compassion improperly and acting in a negative manner can destroy the day you have lived.
We have all been witness to multiple acts of compassion/hesed that people have performed as a result of Sandy. People of course must remember that many people are still in need and must be hesed personalities each day. But I do wonder in the light of the election how hesed/compassion could be part of the national conversation instead of the millions upon millions essentially wasted on the political campaigns. What if opposing sides on the abortion argument could agree to be pro-life, not as a political agenda, but to work together to provide safe and secure environments for children to be raised independent of one’s belief whether there is a right to abortion. A truly compassionate society does cost money. Imagine if all that campaign money had actually gone to help people and not to bloated self-promotion.
There is an oft quoted description of Torah being a combination of black fire and white fire and, perhaps surprisingly, the white fire is holier than the black fire. The black fire represents the letters of the Torah scroll and the white fire is the parchments upon which it is written. Meaning is derived from not only the letters and the words, but the spaces in between, the gaps between words, the interpretive possibilities the Text leaves open for us, the “seventy faces of the Torah.” While many may correctly debate the boundaries of possible interpretation, the tradition is rich with multiple viewpoints on just about everything.
In a certain twist, the Torah portion for this week, Parashat V’yechi, begins without the white fire, the usual open space between the conclusion of the previous week’s portion and the beginning of the new one. This anomaly also calls for interpretation and the Biblical commentator Rashi suggests that this lack of open space, this closure, alludes to the dimming and closing of the hearts and minds of the Israelites in Egypt as they began to become slaves to Pharaoh and lose their freedom.
The great Hasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, points out that the actual slavery did not begin until some years later after the passing of all of Jacob’s children. He suggests that with Jacob’s death they suffered a deep spiritual loss, a loss of inner spiritual authenticity, of which they were not even aware. They became closed to their inner spiritual truth and this was the beginning of slavery and exile for the Israelites. They were not even aware of this closing. This inner spiritual loss is the true meaning of exile.
My friend Rabbi Josh Feigelson runs an exciting project for Hillel called “Ask Big Questions.” One of these reflective questions is “Where is home?” It is not really a question of geography, although one’s answer can certainly include certain geographical space. George Steiner, in a beautiful (and somewhat anti-Zionist) essay, Our Homeland, the Text (1985) asserts that home is the “…the ‘textual’ fabric, the interpretative practices in Judaism are ontologically and historically at the heart of Jewish identity.” There is no question that I feel most at home in that textual fabric.
The “big question” the Sefat Emet asks us is “Where is exile?” It is an important question to keep in mind and challenge us as we so often feel at home in so many places and environments that welcome us and engage us. It also compels us to ask that specifically in the places where we feel most comfortable are we remaining true to our inner spiritual truth. Given all that has happened the past couple of weeks in Israel, this teaching can remind us that one can be in exile even at home when our inner core is hidden and our concern for external appearance governs our behavior.