Monday, October 21, 2013

The Little Prince's vision / Chayei Sara

I was 12 when I first read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in summer camp. I returned to it in high school when we read it in the original in French class. 

If you have read the book, you undoubtedly recall the drawing of a boa constrictor that swallowed an elephant, which children easily recognize, but adults—lacking imagination and insight—mistake for a hat.

The Little Prince travels through the universe to allay his loneliness. His first stop is Asteroid 325, home of a king, attired in magnificent royal habiliments, seated on a throne—and entirely alone. The king claims to rule over all the stars and planets, yet there is no one who obeys him because no one is even aware of him. The king’s way of ruling is to promulgate laws that coincide with what people are already doing or wish to do. Seeing that the Little Prince is reading, he imperiously demands:

I order you to keep reading! I order you! You see, you are already reading so my request is reasonable. I order you to keep reading. I do not allow insubordination, but I do not ask unreasonable things of my subjects. I order you to keep reading, but only if you want to. If you are going to stop, I command you to do so, but only if you are going to. I have a magnificent air of authority.

When the Little Prince asks the king to order the sun to set, the king consults an almanac and says yes, he will do so at 7:40 pm. The king wears the accouterments of a ruler, and speaks grandly, but his authority is meaningless, his power illusory.

The king leapt to mind as I perused this week’s parashah, Chayei Sara, and came upon a rabbinic comment, which I will share just as soon as I explain what the Rabbis are responding to in the Torah text. Preparing to send Eliezer off to Haran to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham adjures him,

“Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 23:2-4).

We might be curious about the hand-under-the-thigh ritual, but the Rabbis latch onto a far more ordinary, seemingly prosaic, phrase: “the God of heaven and the God of the earth.” The Hebrew here is not the usual Elohei shamayim va’aretz/God of heaven and earth, but rather Elohei shamayim veilohei ha-aretz/God of heaven and God of earth. Rabbi Pinchas explains it this way:

Abraham said, “Before I made God known to God’s creatures, he was the God of heaven; now that I have made him known to his creatures he is the God of the earth.” (Genesis Rabbah 59:8)

Is R. Pinchas saying that God needs Abraham to make God known to people in order for God to rule on earth? Like the king on Asteroid 325, whom no one knows, God cannot influence people until they know God, which is to say, until they are mindful of God, aware that divinity resides in them, fully conscious of their moral capacity, and attuned to their spiritual power. Without these, people simply do what they want to do, or what is instinctual, dutifully obeying the vapid commands of the king on Asteroid 325: they are beholden only to themselves.  We all need to know that, and while we sometimes succeed at reminding ourselves of our divine potential and capacity, often we need another to remind us or tell us. Conversely, we can be that someone who reminds another person.

Abraham’s role is to introduce into the world some radical ideas: People are not just subjects of the King, but children of the King. People are not merely animals that eat, breath, compete and procreate, but human beings endowed with insight, moral discernment, and the capacity for so much good. People are far more than slaves to the Sovereign; they are architects, designers, and builders of civilization and guardians of the planet. Knowing God means recognizing our own moral and divine potential.

Without awareness, we cannot know that. And so the Rabbis also explain a verse from the book of the prophet Isaiah:

“You are My witnesses—declares the Lord—My servant, whom I have chosen, to the end that you may take thought and believe in Me and understand that I am He. Before Me no god was formed, and after Me none shall exist” (Isaiah 43:10). R. Shimon bar Yochai explained: “If you are my witnesses then I am the One, the first One, neither shall there be any after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.” (P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, 12)

Without mindfulness, we cannot fulfill our mandate.

Long ago, I read a moving story recounted by Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, published in several books, and circulated far and wide through the internet. Perhaps you’ve already heard it. It is told by the father of a learning-disabled boy named Shaya, who longs to play baseball with his peers although he barely knows how to hold a bat. Shaya watches the boys in his class playing and asks to join them. With a shrug, Shaya is given an at-bat in the ninth inning since they are behind by six runs in the eighth. By the time the boy comes to bat, however, the score is even. Shaya swings clumsily and misses the first two pitches, so the pitcher takes a few steps forward and tosses the ball gently. Shaya swings and hits the ball, a slow grounder. The opposing team throws the ball wildly far over the first baseman’s head, allowing Shaya to run to first. Again the ball is thrown too far, and Shaya reaches second base. The children cheer him on. He rounds third and runs to home with the children from both teams cheering him on. Shaya’s home run wins the game.

God says,

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)

Shaya’s classmates understand this verse in its fullest sense. They were God’s witnesses.

Is there someone who reminds you of the divine spark of holiness within you, your value and potential? When was the last time you reminded someone else? The question before us today and every day, especially in all the challenging, stressful, aggravating and infuriating situations we face at work and at home, with friends, family and community, is: Can we see, and do we help others to see, beyond the ordinary, beyond the mundane? Do we see the boa constrictor swallowing the elephant, or does our vision extend no further than a mere hat? Can we see beyond what is, to what might be?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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