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Shavuot: Does the Book of Ruth Matter?
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There are three brothers living together. One of them dies; he dies young, in the lifetime of his father. Immediately following his death, vayikach Avram v’Nachor lahem nashim – the two surviving brother, Abram and Nahor, jumped into action, marrying the daughters of the deceased, seemingly, in an act of Proto-yibum. What is the purpose of yibum according to the Torah? As Sefer Dvarim outlines it, v’lo yimcha shmo misrael– “that his name, not be blotted out.” It’s an attempt to perpetuate legacy, it’s exactly what the Tower was about with just one little difference that makes a huge impact; it’s not about building your own name, it’s about building up the name of your brother.
When I care about making myself breakfast in bed every morning, we call that narcissistic. When I make breakfast in bed for my wife, we call that love. If my brother has died, died before his time, and the tragedy is compounded by him not having children, there is no one who can carry on his name, who can carry on his legacy forward in the world; there is an act of supreme kindness that I can undertake. Who us the most vulnerable person in the world? The most vulnerable person is a dead person. Dead people still have interests, but they can’t look after them because they are no longer alive. Who is the closest person in the world to you? Your brother. What’s the most precious personal gift you could ever give to anyone? It would be the gift of a child; sharing your own personal biological legacy.
When the most vulnerable person is the person most closet to you in the whole world, your brother, and you share the most precious personal gift in the world, your own legacy with your brother, it’s the greatest act of chesed, of kindness, imaginable. It’s the perfect counterpart to the tower. In the largest community imaginable, the world itself united to build the Tower, it was a narcissistic attempt to promote their own name. Now, in the very next story, the smallest community imaginable, Abram and Sarai, Nahor and Milcah; man and woman, man and woman, unite and share what by right would be their own, the child that would come from them with their dead brother, and give him a lasting name, and that we call love. And now let’s read as the story continues.
The next verse, vathi Sarai akarah: ein lah valed – “But Sarai was infertile, she could not have a child”. We now understand what that verse is doing there. It’s saying whereas Nahor and Milcah, whereas they may have succeeded in having a child, Abram and Sarai could not. And therefore, although it was a good try Abram, all of your best intentions did not yield any fruit in the real practical world. You have not succeeded in building a name for your brother, in helping to perpetuate his legacy. And then, Abram goes on a journey, a journey with his father, with Sarai, they leave all the way to Canaan to what we know would become the Promised Land.
I want to suggest that there’s two journey’s here; one perhaps a metaphor for the other. There is an external journey, the journey to the Promised Land, but it mirrors an internal journey; the journey of love, the journey to help your brother. It’s a quest that will animate Abram’s life. Will he ever fulfill the dream to help carry on his brother’s legacy? They set out on this quest to the land of Canaan but then something ominous happens. They get as far as Charan and they stopped. They just don’t stop overnight, vayeshvu sham – “they settled there”. “They settled there” means, that the quest is gone. They’ve abandoned the quest. They are in Charan now, this is where they set up shop. Canaan is just a distant memory. Is there something ominous happening here? Remember, this is the second time vayeshvu sham appears, “and they settled there.” Where is the first vayeshvu sham? It’s the Tower, when the tower builders settled there. We are hearing echoes of the Tower in Abrams’ story, as if to say that the question that faces Abram now somehow is, “will he become a tower builder? Will he abandon the quest for Canaan and with it, the quest to help his brother?”
What challenge faces a man when he tries to do something altruistic? He married the orphan daughter of his brother, try to take care of her, try to have a child that could keep his brother’s name alive, but it wouldn’t work, she can’t have children. And years go by and she still can’t have children, and still more years go by. What challenge, what question faces you now? If you’re Abram, the question that dances around in your mind is, “it’s all very nice to try to have a child to help my brother, but at a certain point, a man has to worry about his own legacy right?” A man has to worry about his own legacy- that’s tower builder language. Will he stay with Sarai? Maybe you’ll abandon the orphan daughter of your brother. Maybe it’s time to worry about your own legacy. And at that moment, God intervenes. Vayomer Hashem el-Avram – “And God appeared to Abram and said, no, no, no”, lech lecha – “I like the quest, I like the journey. Keep on going to Canaan”. El-haaretz asher arecha – “to the land that you were starting to go to, the land that I am going to show you. The place where you will build a nation.” V’e’escha legoy gadol – “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you,” vaagedlah shemecha – “I will make your name great.” I will make your name great – echoes of the Tower once more. The story of the Tower creates both the necessity for Abram, and the challenge - the reason why he could fail.
First the necessity for Abram. God, in creating mankind, has sought out a relationship with all of mankind. It was possible in the days of Adam, it was possible in the days of Noah. But after the Tower, it was no longer possible. Humanity had fragmented into different peoples with different cultures and different languages and at that point, God needed to take a fragment; one family, and begin to develop a relationship with them and to work outwards to select a person that could build a family dedicated to spreading God’s name in the world. But if the Tower creates the need for an Abraham, it also creates the reason why an Abraham might fail, because what did the Tower show? It showed the propensity of men to become narcissistically self-involved in the perpetuation of their own private legacy.
What if you choose someone and you said,”you guys are special. You guys are going to spread my name.” And eventually, that family grows, and they said to themselves, “we’re special, look at us. God loves us more. It’s all about us; it’s about me”, then the plan fails. The family has given in to the illusion of the tower builders. They have exchanged the mission to bring God’s name into the world with the aggrandizement of their own name. So with that danger, if you are in God’s position, who are you going to choose? You are going to bet on someone with the beginnings of a track record.
Abram had defined a dream, a dream to dedicate his own creative ability to have a child to the legacy of someone else. And God said, “Maybe you can be the one to perpetuate my legacy in the world. I like the quest. Keep on going.” Abram begins to walk the land, and as he does, he built altars, altars of stone, altars to God; little Towers. A tower builder, infatuated with their own creativity, build huge towers out of brick monuments to themselves. These altars out of stone, out of God made material, would be altars to God. And as Abram builds his second altar, vayikra beshem Hashem – “he calls out in the name of God.” It’s about the name of God, not my private name. As Abram build these altars, where does he live? Bayit ohelo– “he lives in a tent.” His habitation is temporary; the altars for God, they are the things that are forever.
We’ve began to progress in understanding the Abram’s prologue, but in order to truly see it’s significance, we need to open up the zoom lens still further, because if we look carefully, farther back in Biblical history, we will realize that the story I’ve just told you, the story of Terah and his three children, has actually happened before. Everything we’ve seen thus far is an echo of another story; a story that happened ten generations before this. Come with me and let’s look at that story.
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