Parashat Lech Lecha
Now Sarai was barren, she had no child (ein la vlad).
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.”
Bereishit Rabbah 38:14
R’ Levi said: Whereever in Scripture it is stated she had no [ein] …, it means that eventually she did have.
[Note Kleinman Edition: The word ein, there is not (present tense), indicates that at this point in the narrative there is not, but later there will be.]
Alternate translation Zornberg:
Whereever it is written ‘Ein la — there is not,’ there essentially is.
Rabbi Ami said: Abraham and Sarah were originally tumtumin, people whose sexual organs are concealed and not functional. [Their sexuality and gender had to be constructed.]
Go forth (literally, go for or to yourself): for your own benefit, for your own good: there I will make of you a great nation while here you will not merit the privilege of having children.
this first human experience of ein is a new and difficult mode of being and having: absence leads a man and a woman to travel far in search of a realization of self that comes effortlessly to those who preceded and surrounded them.
what is most striking here is the indeterminancy of the journey.
This directionless traveling is … intimately connected with the quest for birth.
An act of radical discontinuity is, it seems, depicted in the Torah as the essential basis for all continuity.
He and Sarai are akarim, they recognize the sterility of the place that nurtured them. In the full tension of that paradox, they exile themselves to place after place and encounter new possibilities of being.
journey itself, the travail, as essential to the birth and growth of self.
Being barren — disconnected from the lineage or culture — is acted out through wandering and travail. There is a pain to be disconnected but it is necessary to give birth to something new. It requires accepting uncertainty.
Why Abram and Sarai? The journey also has a motive of love. Abram and Sarai are seeking a future together.
Midrash Ha-Gadol (translated by Avivah Zornberg)
[Midrash haGadol was authored by Rabbi David Adani during the 14th century. It combines multiple sources, ranging from the Talmud, classical midrash, Yemenite midrash, Maimonides, and kabbalah. The parable of the Castle reworks an earlier Talmudic parable from a perspective informed by Maimonides’s analysis of Abraham.]
Abraham would roam in his mind, thinking,”How long shall we bow down to the work of our own hands? It is not right to worship and bow down to anything but the earth, which brings forth fruit and sustains us.” But when he saw that the earth needs rain, and that without the sky opening and sending down rain, the earth would grow nothing at all, then he thought again: “It is not right to bow down to anything but the sky.” He looked again and saw the sun which gives light to the world, and brings forth the plants, and thought, “It is not right to bow down to anything but the sun.” But when he saw the sun setting, he thought, “That is no god.” He looked again at the moon and the stars that give light at night, and thought, “To these it is right to bow down.” But when the dawn broke, they were all effaced, and he thought, “These are no gods.” He was in distress at the thought: “If these phenomena have no mover, why does one set and the other rise?” To what can this be compared? To a traveler who saw a tremendous large castle, and wanted to enter it. He examined it from all sides but could find no entry. He called out a few times but there was no response. Then he lifted up his eyes and saw red woolen cloths spread out on the roof. After that, he saw white flaxen cloths. The traveler thought, “Surely a man lives in that castle – for otherwise how would the cloths appear and disappear?” When the master of the castle saw that he was in distress over this, he asked, “Why are you in distress? I am the master of the castle.” Similarly, when Abraham saw the appearance and disappearance of phenomena in nature, he thought, “Unless there were someone in charge, this would not happen. It is not right to bow down to these, but to the One in charge.” And he wandered in his mind, trying to find the truth of the matter. When God saw him in distress, He said to him, “You love righteousness”– to justify the world.
Why is Abraham’s distress important? What does it tell us about Abraham? What does it mean to wander in your mind?
Why is “justifying the world” loving righteousness?
When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the divine beings saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them. … It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth — when divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown. The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The LORD said, “I will blot out from earth the men whom I created — men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” But Noah found favor with the LORD.
And it grieved him at his heart: He mourned at the failure of His handiwork.
I will blot out the man: He is dust and I will bring water upon him and blot him out [dissolve him, Zornberg trans.].
In a creative project that has proved a total failure (the text harps constantly on totality, through the repetition of the word kol, “all”), there is yet one detail that can be salvaged and can provide a basis for a reworking of the idea. … [but] glaringly exposed in many midrashic versions of the narrative, there is another reading. On this reading, Noah is not chosen because he is absolutely different, but because he “finds favor in the eyes of God.”
… God chooses Noah, not because he has achieved significant wisdom or virtue, but because He seeks to convey to some one [empahses in the original] the knowledge of Himself.
And Rashi, it seems, is inviting us to consider the questions raised by the apparently undiscriminating destruction exemplified by the Flood. Indeed, he insists that without such a searching reading, there is no way for people to face essential problems of the present and future.
Shetef [flood] denotes a quantity of water — mayim rabbim — and a force that leaves nothing intact. The word used in the Torah narrative to describe the effect of waters – mahah, “dissolve” — indicates a return to the “watery” condition of the universe before Creation.
For Avivah Zornberg, the midrashic ambivalence towards Noah’s moral uniqueness raises deeper questions about the morality of the Flood: The role of mass destruction and collective punishment in God’s response to human sin. Zornberg finds in the midrashic sources several answers to this problem:
After the giving of the Torah, God’s treatment of sin becomes more fine-tuned.
Morality and justice will make sense in the world to come.
The Flood was a response to a particular type of moral disaster — sexual sin.
The Flood was not an event but a process — the sin creates its punishment. The breakdown of boundaries and relationships is violent and destructive.
The sin of the generation of the Flood is an insensitivity to others and God, caused by a violent breakdown of boundaries. In the midrash the violence is identified as a rape culture — a culture based on the robbery of other people’s body integrity. Underlying this culture is an idolatry based on the ego, and inability to recognize the integrity of others, including God.
Noah’s experience in the Ark reflects a retraining of humankind. By taking care of animals, sensitive to their particular schedules and food requirements, Noah learns to recognize the needs of others. The Flood is a lesson about boundaries and sensitivity to others.
Bereishit, the Big Bang, and Quantum Foam
When God began to create heaven and earth — being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and wind from God sweeping over the water —
Rashi (Avivah Zornberg trans.)
This text says nothing but “Explain me!” … The text does not reveal anything regarding the sequential order of creation.
“Let there be”: Let the separation be strengthened. Even though the heavens had already been created on the first day, they were still liquid. They crystallized on the second day, in response to God’s rebuke: “Let there be separation.” This is what is written, “The pillars of heaven tremble, are astounded at His rebuke”. All that first day, that which the heavens stand on were trembling, but on the second day, they were astounded at His rebuke, like a man who is stunned and frozen in place under the rebuke of one who intimidates him.
Compare to the following description of the origins of the universe:
Natalie Wolchover, “Cosmic Triangles Open a Window to the Origin of Time,” Wired, November 3, 2019 [reprinted from Quanta Magazine]
… picture the hypothetical energy field that drove cosmic inflation … As this field of energy powered the exponential expansion of space, pairs of particles would have spontaneously arisen in the field. (These quantum particles can also be thought of as ripples in the quantum field.) Such pairs pop up in quantum fields all the time, momentarily borrowing energy from the field as allowed by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. Normally, the ripples quickly annihilate and disappear, returning the energy. But this couldn’t happen during inflation. As space inflated, the ripples stretched like taffy and were yanked apart, and so they became “frozen” into the field as twin peaks in its density. As the process continued, the peaks formed a nested pattern on all scales.
… particles were pulled apart before they could annihilate. The earlier in time the particles arose, the farther they separated. These divorced particles then served as the seeds of structure in the universe.
…the primordial universe [can be compared] to a system like water or a magnet very near the critical point where it undergoes a phase transition.
Time is not involved in the creation of the universe. Rather time emerges from the separation and interaction of the primordial particles.