Bible study in Technicolor: If G-d called you, what would you do?

6 Nov

A religious thought to share. In Judaism, we read the Torah (the first five books of the bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuterotomy), in a series of weekly portions called the “parshah” over the year. As the new year just started, we are working from the beginning again – right now in the early parts of Genesis. This week’s portion, which we studied in B’Chavanah services (our upstart little Jewish thing led by my pal and Rabbi, Marc Belgrad), we were at Genesis 12:1 – the start of the story of Abraham.

A little biblical back story. I find is simply fascinating to study the Torah and the Bible (well, at least the Old Testament) from a Jewish perspective, as the viewpoint is NOT one of “this is the word of God and this is the way it is” – in other words a black and white viewpoint, 1 dimensional, but is instead full of color and dimension. Technicolor. My upbringing in a Presbyterian church, thankfully, wasn’t expressly literal interpretation of the bible, but instead did have some color to it, and I”m sure with adult bible study, there was much more to it, but my adult religious study has been as a Jew, and I have really appreciated it. Read on:

Jews study the Torah by REALLY STUDYING it – the book we use, called a Tanach, has the page divided in thirds vertically, with the words of the original text at the top, definitions and expansions in the middle (typically through annotations), and then opinion, called midrash or simply “drash” in the bottom third. The midrash is where things get really interesting, and where study of the bible from a Jewish perspective gets a lot of its color. There are also then additional layers and colors revealed by studying both the structure of the stories, and in even the words, as they are written in Hebrew. Words in Hebrew can have multiple meanings and there are whole midrash sections written entirely just on “why was this partcular Hebrew word chosen here?” My Rabbi, Marc, really is into the structual study of it and the embedded numerology, symbolism, etc. etc. in it and I find it simply fascinating. In the midrash, there are usually interpretations that were written through the ages, and they can be quite contradicting – Maimonides said this, Hillel said that, the ancient sages said another thing, etc. What I love about Torah study in a Tanach is the fact that it is all reported – without opinion. It is almost like reading a newspaper – this happened, and this person said this about it, this person said that about it, etc. but without choosing sides and without opinion given as to what YOU should think. Again, simply fascinating. I could write an entire blog post on this.

Anyway, in this Shabbat’s parshah, we learn of Abraham. And the story starts with an interesting structural note. In the bible, Adam was of course the first man. G-d put him on Earth to populate the world. After 10 generations, G-d realized the wheels were off the apple cart, and called upon Noah, whom he chose because he was basically the least corrupt guy on the planet – which is to say, he may not have been any choir boy, but was the best guy compared to all the rest of the idiots, apparently. And he gave Noah a task – build an ark, save two of every critter that walked the earth, male and female, plus yourself and your family, because, well, it’s gonna rain. And when it’s done raining, open the ark up and go out and repopulate the world. At the end of another 10 generations, comes the story of Abraham. In the Torah, repeating patterns like this are used as a literary trick to say “Yo, wake up – something important is happening.” With Avram/Abraham, again, G-d realizes that things aren’t all milk and cookies down here on the blue planet, and instead of grabbing what appears to be the best guy and giving him a task, he finds 75-year-old Avram (not yet known as Abraham), and tells him “dude, we got plans together.” WHY Avram was chosen for this is subject of much debate – some say it is because he demonstrated monotheism by destroying his father’s idols – a made up story by the ancient sages, I understand – and some say it was just out of the blue. The bible is unclear. But, he was chosen and was G-d had plans and he needed to hop to it. And he did.

Which, of course brings me to my point in the story and what REALLY resonated with me this week, given all the hubbub about the Occupy movement, about the need to take care of our poor, about how it appears one party is very focused on only the needs of the wealthy, etc. etc. No politics in my religion here today, but it has me thinking about this. Abraham was simply told by G-d – “go forth, bring your family and go to a new land where I will lead you, and set about creating a new people” – sort of a “go forth and multiply” message – and if Abraham would simply do this, G-d will become his promoter and defender, and the new people that he will be the founder of, will be known as Israel, the Jews, the chosen people. But, being chosen, as Abraham and the rest of us would learn later, with G-d promoting and defending you, came with another side of the deal – the Covenant – that the people Israel would be G-d’s agents on Earth, chosen to heal the sick, feed the needy, defend the defenseless, clothe the naked, educate the illiterate, etc. “Make the world a better place”, G-d said. “That’s your side of the deal. Good? Let’s roll.”

A pal from college, Kevin S, shared this image this morning on his Facebook wall:

I find this message interesting, but then I also challenge it with what occurred to me when I read it (and what I posted as a response to his picture) – it’s a bit Kennedy-esque: Instead of asking “what can G-d do for me”, ask: “What can I do for G-d?”. It is a classic Jewish interpretation of G-d. We are not put here to use G-d as a candy machine – and ask for favors whenever we need help. (That leads me to a funny story that perhaps I’ll do a different post on). We instead are here, per G-d’s challenge to Abraham and per the G-d’s Covenant with the Jewish people, to do G-d’s work of making this a better place for us all. To help the sick, feed the hungry, house the homeless, give charity to the needy, clothe the naked, and more. And to take care of this place. What can I do for G-d? is the foundation of the entire covenant with us.

That said, I do like this image here – and Kevin, thank you for sharing it today. It does answer my question, honestly. I hear all the time, “we are screwed”, when it comes to thinking about our economy, and our world and planet. Global warming, 7 billion people, pollution, disease, unrest, financial meltdown, etc., but if we stop thinking of ourselves, and ditch this greedy, “I got mine, better not take it away” mentality, and instead focus on the Covenant – of “how can I do G-d’s work of making our world a better place”, we CAN surmount these problems.

So, a challenge dear friends and readers:

If G-d called you, what would you do? And even if you’re not hearing voices over the radio, seeing George Burns in the canned goods aisle, or even a burning bush (how trite, been done before) … What can you do for G-d?

Happy thinking!

As you were,

Stew

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5 Responses to “Bible study in Technicolor: If G-d called you, what would you do?”

  1. Linda C November 6, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    I wouldn’t be your mother if I didn’t point out that it was Noah who built the ark and not Adam.
    Well written piece.
    God has already called….I do what I can do to make life better for some….one person at a time.

  2. susan glazer November 6, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

    Wow, you were really paying attention. This is a great version of the portion and what it means. Thanks for taking the time to present the info and the challenge!

    • susan glazer November 6, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

      Wow, you were really paying attention. This is a great version of the portion and what it means. Thanks for taking the time to present the info and the challenge to think about it!

  3. Lois Cox November 6, 2011 at 10:53 pm #

    I was going to remark about Noah, but your mom has already covered it.

  4. Lois Cox November 9, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

    Stewart, I didn’t mean to criticize your accuracy and let it go at that.
    I REALLY like “stew’sbrew” and read all of them. Your Aunt Lois

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