Friday, October 30, 2009

The Illuminated Fortress and Abraham

I was struggling in my Midrashic Literature class yesterday (probably all of the stuff on my mind that is stressing me out -- I could be elsewhere than class doing important things), but there was one thing that really struck me as fascinating and personally significant. It's the text of Genesis Rabbah 93.1-3, which is based on the text from Genesis 12:1-3. Here's the text!
And the Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.
And the Lord said to Abram, "Take yourself from your land, etc..."
Rabbi Isaac opened, Listen, lass, and look, and incline your ear, and forget your mother and your father's house (Ps. 45:11)
Rabbi Issac said, This is like someone who travels from place to place, and sees a certain fortress illuminated (lit. burning, doleqet). He said, Is there no master (lit. ba'al) of this fortress? Above him, the master peeked out and said to him, I am the master of this fortress.
Thus it was when our father Abraham said, Would you say that this world has no master? The Holy One, Blessed be He, peeked out and over him and said, I am He, the Master of the World. So shall the King desire your beauty, for he is your Lord. So shall the King desire your beauty. To beautify you in the world, and to bow down to him. Hence, and "the Lord spoke to Abram." (The beautifying text comes from the end of Psalm 45, actually.)
Now, this translation isn't the exact translation that we used in class (I fudged with a version I found online), but it works.

The interesting thing about this midrash is there are really two ways that we can take this. If we read it as the fortress being ablaze, as in literally on fire, then we can understand why the wandering guy would say "who's running this joint?" Essentially, the wanderer wants to know why there's such chaos and madness at this fortress because if there were a master, it wouldn't be ablaze. Then we understand Abraham, as he sees the chaos and madness in the world and must ask if there is a master to the world, to which G-d says "Yo, it's me!"

The second reading is if we understand doleqet as illuminated. The wanderer sees this glorious and amazing fortress and asks aloud to no one in particular, Who is the master of such amazing splendor and beauty? Then we can understand Abraham's query of the world because he looks around and sees the creation and wonders who is the master of such an amazing and profound thing. Thus G-d answers and says, "Yo, it's me!"

Maybe I'm preferential to the second reading of the text, but I think it's probably the more likely because if you read it that way, then the explanation of the verse makes sense. We have to explain why G-d is speaking to Abraham. After all, when we look at Noah, it's explained that he was righteous out of all the men of the world. The text often explains WHY G-d chooses certain individuals (the prophets for example), but Abraham is just given through the genealogy and then it says that G-d spoke to him and told him to go forth. The big question is: WHY? Why Abraham? What'd he do to warrant G-d's command?

If we use the second reading, it's simple to understand! Abraham looks about, sees the splendor of creation without any prodding or pushing, and G-d recognizes that Abraham understands. It could be said, then, that Abraham is choosing the religion of HaShem, but it's more likely that they met in the middle. Abraham sees creation and is in awe -- he understands HaShem's beauty through the world around him. G-d sees Abraham seeing him and bam, G-d speaks.

I like this midrash for a simple reason: I see myself in Abraham. I didn't come to Judaism through knowing Jews or having had some significant Jewishly related experience. I developed my own set of beliefs outside of organized religion, convinced that I'd developed my own religion and set of beliefs. But really, once it was suggested -- based on these beliefs -- that I examine Judaism, I realized that this beautiful amazing way of life I envisioned was already there. In essence, I stood before the fortress saying "Who is the master of this place?" and there was G-d, waiting for me.

At any rate, I think this is a beautiful midrash. Which reading are you more inclined toward?