Sunday, November 6, 2016

Parashat Lech-Lecha: Es brent - The town is burning[1]

In memory of Paul Michael,my father and teacher in social responsibility
The ETERNAL said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)
Rabbi Yitzchak said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a bira doleket (an illuminated or burning building). He said, “Is it possible that this building lacks a person to look after it?” The owner looked upon him and said, “I am the owner of the building.”
Similarly, because Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that this world has no one to look after it?" The Holy Blessed One looked upon and said to him, “I am the Owner of the world.” (Genesis Rabbah 39:6).
Reading quickly it is easy to think that Rabbi Yitzchak is claiming that Abram looked upon the wondrous world around him and concluded that creation is evidence of a Creator. The author of the commentary attributed to Rashi understood the midrash this way, and following in his footsteps, many later commentators understood that the “bira doleket” is a magnificent, illuminated building.
But…
Midrash should not be read quickly.
Doleket” in rabbinic Hebrew as in the modern language does not mean “illuminated” but rather “burning.” The bira is indeed a large building, but not a particularly magnificent one. As Paul Mandel has demonstrated, “bira” is the rabbinic word for a Roman insula, a large, crowded residential building, a tenement; and Abram is searching for its lead tenant (Latin: conduco), not the owner! In Roman law, the lead tenant was responsible for the building’s maintenance, including organizing tenants to fight to the all too common fires.[2]

Burning building in Shahtersk, August 3, 2014Abram searches but does not find.
Only then does the O/owner appear to him and says, “I am the owner of the building.”
God can be understood to have spoken from heaven, but if the landlord is speaking from above, where might he have been? Perhaps on the top floor or even on the roof waiting to be saved, trapped in a position where he cannot extinguish the fire. Apparently the tenants have already fled, leaving him dependent on the assistance of passersby. Only Abram is alert enough to his environment to notice or care. Like Moses at the burning bush, he turns to look. Because he pays attention, God reveals Godself.
The command that begins with “Go you forth…” ends with a blessing to Abram “I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you” and the expectation that he will transmit blessing onward,“the families of the earth shall be blessed by you” (Genesis 12:3).
That is we are told in chapter 12, but we later learn that the covenant between God and Abraham is more complex and demanding: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the ETERNAL by doing what is just and right” (Genesis 18:19).
The world is still on fire. Many are trapped on all its floors, surrounded by the flames. God is looking down from above, waiting for people to pay attention, people who can serve as His agents, like Moses at the burning bush or Abram in the midrash. The covenant is still in force. As descendants and heirs of Abraham, will we pay stop and devote our attention and action to do what is just and right, to save lives and represent the Owner in God’s world?”[3]
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[1] Es Brent - It’s burning: a Yiddish song by Mordechai Gebirtig. “S’brent! Briderlekh, s’brent." English: “It is burning, brothers, it is burning. Our poor little town, a pity, it burns… and you stand around with folded arms.” 
[2] Mandel, Paul. (1994). The call of Abraham: A Midrash revisited. Prooftexts, 14(3), 267-284.
[3] I would like to thank my teacher Rabbi Shai Held, whose article, “Wonder and Indignation: Abraham’s Uneasy Faith” and the footnotes there inspired me (as always!) to think about the bira doleket. Although my understanding of the midrash differs from his, this drasha is infused with Rav Shai’s Torah.

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