November 4, 2011

It is not a secret, I am an avid baseball fan, or in my wife’s parlance “a baseball nut.”  So, of course I was riveted last week to Game 6 of the World Series, as one of the greatest games of all time unfold as Texas blew an opportunity to win the World Series three different times, allowing St. Louis to come back and win the game dramatically in the 11th inning.  This was a game that no matter who I have spoken to that you had to see as it cultivated both the sports world and even the casual fan.

The process of looking, being seen, and being transformed in the process is discussed with particular insight this week by  Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 –1619) in his Kli Yakar  on Genesis 13:14-17 from this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Lech Lecha.

Kli Yakar notes how God first instructs Abram to look up and see the land, and then instructs him to rise and walk its length and breadth. The former instruction includes an unequivocal promise that Avram will instantly inherit the land and bequeaths it to his descendants “forever.” The latter instruction promises only that he alone will receive it.  There are other variations in language—the instruction to gaze includes the urgent Hebrew word “na” but the instruction to walk does not. Kli Yakar compares this to the story of Moses at the end of his life.  God offers him the ability to see the land from Mt. Nebo, but he urgently (e’ebarah na) desires to cross theJordan and walk it himself.  From the divine perspective, looking is the more significant act. From the human vantage, it is movement that we desire.

Kli Yakar brilliantly reconciles all of this with a nuanced theory of acquisition. Normal acquisition of property requires a physical action—walking the land and demonstrating ownership, but acquisition of the land’s spiritual qualities requires more than physical motion—it requires looking at and being seen by God (or the place of God—Mt. Moriah).  And even when one stops looking (or when God’s earthlyTemplehas been destroyed), the connection with heaven (and the heavenly temple) has been made permanent.  This idea of a sight that changes everything forever—and that has greater force than a physical experience—is extremely powerful.  But Kli Yakar notes that most people don’t feel the same urgency to look as to act. God uses the word “na” regarding “looking,” but leaves it out for “walking.” Moses reverses the sense of urgency, mistakenly associating it with a physical crossing rather than a visual experience. People are naturally inclined to “active learning” but sometimes physical activity is a distraction, and focused contemplative observation leads to deeper learning.

What relevance does this insight yield about our experience?  I suspect that this relates to the enduring challenge of creating inclusive communities—places where all people have not only physical access, but the ability to see and be seen as full participants.  Over the past 50-60 years, American society has struggled with successive campaigns of inclusion. These campaigns have, with enormous effort and sacrifice, transformed society in ways that grant greater access to people who had been excluded for reasons of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability and so on. Every court decision and piece of legislation, every policy and invitation that has opened the door to fuller participation is a precious victory.  These physical acts of “kinyan,” of acquisition are necessary.

But physical acquisition is not sufficient by itself. It does not suffice to ensure access to an asset, whether the asset is a physical resource like a bus or house, or a spiritual asset like Torah and mitzvot. In addition to the way we walk, there is the matter of how we look. Do we look at each other as sources of wisdom, worth and holiness?  Finally, getting back to baseball, last week’s World Series game was an incredible sight, but it is what has to be thought of or gained from a pivotal moment in our lives that matters the most.  Are we capable of “shifting the gaze” so that we see one another not as objects but as subjects—individuals with unique perspectives that can change the landscape forever?  As the physical and cultural norm of our community continues to grow more diverse, what adjustments can we make in the way that we behold one another, and how will these new ways of seeing change us?

Parashat Lekh Lekha takes us from the image of a physical journey to that of a visual transformation.  Raising our gaze we see a reality that is other, but which also has the potential to become our future.  May we see one another with the capacious and generous eye of Abram—and may we not fear what permanent change can result from our gaze.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham