Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lech Lecha

A True Visionary
by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

At the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha, we once again hear the famous call to Abraham Avinu: "G-d said to Abram, 'Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing". (Genesis 12:1-2).

RaSHI was sensitive to the fact that several blessings were made to Abraham during this one particular calling. It is written: "I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great". Perhaps it would have been sufficient to promise "You shall become a blessing"...Why was it necessary to give the blessings in such detail?
RaSHI brings a wonderful and penetrating response to this same question.

Why were three promises needed?

Since traveling causes three things: It inhibits the birth of children, and decreases one's wealth and lessens one's fame, therefore, these three blessings were necessary. He [G-d], promised him children, wealth and fame.

RaSHI states that a man who chooses to go on any new path might have to pay a heavy price for his decision. His family might have to pay a heavy price. His fortune might suffer. The person’s good name could be affected by the change.

According to RaSHI, a man of vision takes risks and it appears to me that this comment is also relevant in a week during which we commemorate the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z”l.

An interesting example to help understand the power of a vision is to look at the area of road paving. Today, we travel on orderly roads that have been paved with careful consideration by engineers and professionals. But who chose the path of the road upon which we travel?

In the present day, road builders can be assisted by modern technology such as satellite pictures during the planning of the project, but there are cases in which we travel upon a road that was paved hundreds and even thousands of years ago by some unknown pioneer who was searching for his way between the mountains. Others followed in his footsteps until these same footsteps became a dirt path. After many generations, those first footsteps became a stone road and then later paved with asphalt.

Today, travel is a simple matter. We know how to reach our desired destination, and sometimes we even know how long it will take to reach it. But the first person to go took risks. He did not know what awaited him on the other side of the mountain. He also did not know when he would arrive. He did not know if his donkey or ox would survive the hardships of the journey.

This is precisely what happened to Abraham Avinu. And so Abraham needed those three blessings, because it would be difficult for him as it is for any individual who wants to begin something new.

A few days ago, I read that Thomas Edison conducted two thousands of experiments before he succeeded in inventing the electric light bulb.

Journalists asked him at the time how he felt failing those thousands of times until he saw the fruit of his labor. He replied: “I didn’t fail, not even once. It was simply a successful process with two thousands steps.”

A famous saying goes: "All beginnings are difficult". I would like to add to this today: "If it isn’t difficult, it’s a sign that you have not yet begun". We have a tendency to think that Abraham’s journey to the Land of Canaan is the beginning of our Parashah. However, if we look at the end of the previous section, we see that at the end of Parashat Noah there was the point in time when Abraham left Ur Kasdim (see Genesis 11:31-32).

The Torah says something most interesting. Terah (Abraham's father) also wanted to reach the Land of Canaan, but he arrived in Haran and remained there. For Terah, going to Canaan was not a matter of values. Abraham continued on, even when he knew that he was taking a huge risk. But a person of vision always takes risks.

To be a person of vision, one doesn’t require the particular characteristic attributed to those of singular greatness such as Abraham Avinu, nor those of the other heroes of our nation. We also, in our simple lives, find ourselves standing at crossroads where we have to decide whether to continue in the direction of our vision, or come to a standstill from fear of taking risks.

And from this point in time, only we can decide whether we will fulfill ourselves in the world, despite the dangers, or continue our lives with the continuous feeling of having missed a new opportunity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Stone or Window

By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The story of Noah is one of children's favourites as it is a story full of animals, birds, colours and a rainbow.

We tend to picture Noah sunbathing on the deck of the ark with the elephant, the giraffe and the monkeys, but when we read the description of the ark in the Torah, we see that it is not at all the way we draw or imagine it.

There was no place to sunbathe because the ark had no deck. Actually, the ark was more like a submarine than a boat. There was one window in the ark and only through that could those inside see what was happening outside.

However, this too is a controversial point. The word Chalon (window) does not appear in the Torah portion which uses the word Tsohar which has more than one meaning. Some interpret it as an aperture, or skylight, which is a kind of window, while others interpret it as a precious stone (RaSHI).

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger makes an interesting comment: What is the difference between a precious stone and a window? A window lets light in and through it we see what is happening outside. A precious stone has light within but we cannot see through it.

This difference is that between those who say that Noah the righteous man sat in the ark but his heart was with what was happening outside, and those who say that Noah cared only about himself and didn't care about what was happening outside the ark.

The ark, in the story of Noah, symbolizes security, the bubble or the ivory tower.

Everyone in his life sits in his own ivory tower. There are those who are financially secure and forget that there is poverty and hunger in the world, maybe even in their neighbor's house. There are those who have the support of family and friends who forget that there are many people in the world who suffer from unbearable loneliness.

There are many bubbles that may enclose us.

There is a famous dispute in the Gemarah (Megilah 24b) between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages as to whether a blind person is obliged to recite the blessing on the lights. How can a blind person say "forms the light and creates darkness" (Yotser Or Uvore Hoshekh) if he has never seen daylight?

Rabbi Yossi in the Talmud states that he was always puzzled by the verse "You will grope at noontime as a blind person gropes in the darkness" (Deuteronomy 28:29).

What difference does it make to a blind person whether it is day or night? He cannot see in either case! Then Rabbi Yossi himself answers through the following tale:

It happened that he himself was walking in the dark of night and came across a blind man carrying a torch.

He said to the blind man, "My son, why are you carrying a torch?".

The blind man answered: "As long as I carry the torch, people can see me coming and come to my aid so that I do not trip and fall".

The purpose of light is not only to light the way for ourselves but also to enable us to see others and their world.

The controversy regarding the word "Tsohar" is not marginal. It is about the essence of a well-ordered society.

"Go out of the ark", says G-d to Noah when the waters subside, for there is a world outside your bubble.

Only Noah will decide whether he will turn the Tsohar into Zohar (brightness, radiance) and bring light to the world, or whether he will turn the Tsohar into Sohar (a prison) and enclose himself as he was in the ark and keep the light to himself.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


The Righteous Bird

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A rather short and wonderful commentary tells us that everyone tasted from the Tree of Knowledge except a bird called Chol (Genesis Rabbah 19). According to our Sages, the same lone and righteous bird still lives in the Garden of Eden to this day. He lives alone in the Garden and no one knows him.

As our Sages see it, the Chol bird symbolizes the tension between public opinion and personal opinion. Would we be prepared to pay the price of social exclusion in exchange for choosing a moral and correct course of action? Isn't it really preferable to act according to the opinion of the widest majority, even if it is warped?

And we are not only speaking of corruption here. There are less meaningful social customs which we would prefer not to choose, and which social pressure causes us to choose anyway. Even the smallest and most irrelevant things such as clothing fashions.

And here is another example connected to Israeli reality: I am driving in a massive traffic jam on the road which is moving ten meters per minute, and I see one car, then a second and a third car overtaking me from the right hand side, along the edge of the road, which is forbidden, and nevertheless arriving home one and a half hours before me. And at the same moment I would like to be just like them, but I know that it would be wrong...

This is the tension between personal and public opinion...and this is the point of the midrash about the Chol, the righteous bird.

I read about a very interesting experiment performed by an American university a few years ago. On one board was a drawing of ten equal parallel lines of equal length and ten volunteers stood opposite the board. They were asked to answer only one question: Are the ten lines identical? They all replied in the negative.

How is it possible that ten people would say "no" to something so obvious and openly visible? Wasn't it clear to everyone that those lines were equal?

The answer is simple. Out of the same ten volunteers, nine belonged to the university staff. Only the tenth was an outsider. The experiment was supposed to test the reaction of the tenth person, and his ability to express an opinion which contradicted that of the majority. He thought that it was an experiment of the Exact Sciences Faculty, but it was, in fact, of the Humanities Faculty...

In this same experiment, the Chol, that lone and righteous bird, would have contradicted the majority. And how about the rest of us?

According to the book of Genesis, two cherubim stand at the entrance of the Garden of Eden in order to guard the way to the Tree of Life. But…who knows? Perhaps they are also standing there to prevent that righteous bird from leaving. Because public opinion is such a persuasive force, and the temptation is always so great...