VaYishlach 5777 Dvar Avot Blessing

Posted December 19th, 2016 by Or Shalom London with No Comments
Parshat VaYishlach
Rabbi Catharine Clark @ Congregation Or Shalom
December 17, 2016 ▪ London, Ontario
Shabbat shalom.  In a moment, we will begin the Musaf Amidah with words we say twice a Shabbat morning every Shabbat: Elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzhak, veilohei Yakov; elohei Sarah, elohei Rivkah, elohei Rachel veilohei Leah.  God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob; God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah.
Why does the Amidah, the centerpiece of our liturgy, begin by invoking God as the divine being of our ancestors? This question might seem most pressing to our Talmud Torah students to whom the stories of our matriarchs and patriarchs are freshest.  And as they have observed, these biblical characters are a bit dodgy.
They are sometimes violent.  They are often selfish.  They do questionable things.  Abraham almost kills his son Isaac.  Sarah orders her husband to send Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, perhaps to die.  Isaac loves one son more than the other.  Rebecca loves the other son more and helps him plot against his brother.  Jacob steals his brother’s birthright and has four wives.  Rachel and Leah, two of these wives, are lifelong rivals for Jacob’s love.
As the Talmud Torah students taught in their Dvar Torah, Jacob is forced to wrestle an unnamed adversary before reuniting with his brother Esav, possibly because it is the only way Jacob will not run away as he has run away from every other difficult situation in his life.
Our Talmud Torah students are likely not alone in wondering why these are the particular individuals we read stories about as children, why these troubled persons are the ones we remind ourselves (and God) of every time we pray.
My personal answer to this question probably relies a bit too much on the idea that oral tradition is a source for many parts of our Torah, especially the stories of the matriarchs and patriarchs in Genesis.
Before these stories became part of the written Torah, they were told around firesides or watering holes.  In some ways, these tales were the evening entertainment of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert or tried to establish their first homes in the land the Lord had promised them.  Back in the days before television or Shakespeare, these stories are entertainment and the dramas that conveyed history and culture from one generation to another.
That’s part of the reason the characters are so troubled and the stories often so violent.  No one wants to gather ‘round the hearth to hear “Little Kobe grew up surrounded by the love of his parents Rivka and Yitz.  He and his brother Savi sometimes argued over toys, but they loved each other and always wanted the best for each other.  There was peace in the land, the harvests were good, and everyone prospered.  The end.”  That story is boring.  It’s a story without drama.  There’s no character development, plot twists or conflict.
The stories that got told again and again and then passed down to us in the form of Torah are the ones in which things (often bad things) happened.  We know the stories we know from the Torah because they are interesting, not because they are necessarily uplifting or morally instructive.  We invoke these ancestors in our prayers because they are the ones fascinating enough that we know about them; thus, Elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzhak, etc. at the beginning of the Amidah.
The commentaries in our new siddur, Siddur Lev Shalem, take a less cynical approach.  One commentary points out that our matriarchs and patriarchs are complex characters, just as we are.  Yes, you could think of Abraham as the unstable father who almost sacrificed his son. Or, when you pray the Amidah, you could call to mind the Abraham who welcomed strangers to his home and defended the inhabitants of Sodom against God.  Sarah is not just the jealous wife who banishes Hagar; she is also the mother who persevered through a long wait for her beloved son Isaac and does what she can to protect him.
This perspective reminds us that we all have the parts of our personal histories we’d like people to remember and the parts that we would be happy to have disappear from the record.  As we begin Judaism’s most important prayer by recalling similarly difficult characters, we are thereby exhorting ourselves to do more of the things that are worthy in our pasts and less of the things that are shameful.
Not only does this blessing from the Amidah influence how we think of ourselves and our actions, but also it influences how we think of God and our relationship to God.
As another commentary to the Amidah points out, in other blessings, such as the ones over wine or Shabbat candles, God is melech haolam, “Sovereign of time and space.”  In those blessings, God is transcendent and remote.  But in the formula of blessing we use for the Amidah, we name God as the God of specific ancestors, reminding us and God that God is immanent, particular and in relationship with individuals.
Moreover, because we name these complex matriarchs and patriarchs, it is clear that God is in relationship not just with angelic individuals, but with individuals who, like us, are far from perfect.  This observation makes clear that, even at our worst, we are not alone.  God is still the God of us, caring and interested in what we do (even if God is most interested in us repenting of what we do).
It is for these reasons that we read those crazy stories in Talmud Torah or the sanctuary each week.  It is for these reasons that we invoke God, each time we pray the Amidah, as the God our matriarchs and patriarchs.  We are not perfect, but we can be better.  God is in relationship with us, regardless.  These are good reasons to begin the Amidah as we do.
  Shabbat shalom.
 
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