Thursday, November 06, 2008

Lech Lecha

The poetry and prose in these pieces is original, please give credit in citing If you find my words useful in an internal (work on self) or external (use in an essay, paper, oral Dvar Torah) way - kindly let me know.
I am an onion
and have to leave Ur Kasdim
to unpeel my self
We each cut through our layers
If we are to say we've lived
“G-d said to Avram: Go forth from your land, and from your birthplace,
and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you."

Why is Avraham told that he must leave country, birthplace, and father’s home to get to G-d’s land? The order seems backwards. When heading out a person first leaves home, then community, and finally country.

In light of the ecological approach to social work (see Social Work Practice: An Ecological Approach by John T. Pardeck, Auburn House 1996) the meaning is clear. Avraham was told to work his way through the concentric circles that influenced him in life. He had to travel through the worlds that enveloped him. The world that most tightly wraps itself around us is the world of family. Our place of birth affects us greatly, but not as much as our home environment. Finally, we are all somewhat affected by our country’s general environment. G-d advises Avraham to deal with these influences in the order progressing from what affected him least strongly to that which affected him the most. Only after sifting through these worlds could he arrive at “the land of G-d.”

A careful translation of the opening two words of this portion –" lech lecha," strongly supports the idea marshaled above. Avraham is commanded “Go to yourself.” His mission was to travel through the layers that separated him from his true self. He, like all of us, needed to take on the external influences that impeded his being who he was truly meant to be.

The big question on the first day of class in my social work graduate program was “how is social work different than psychology?” Here’s what Professor Beder told us: Social work is more about looking at the whole person than psychology or psychiatry. Looking at the whole person means seeing their strengths and considering their environment rather than focusing solely on the pathology. It’s this holistic view that distinguishes social work from other disciplines.

The ecological approach to social work emphasizes the worlds that surround an individual like circles drawn around them. Sometimes these worlds are concentric, sometimes they branch out of one another, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they seem to be independent. A child grows up in a home, which is in a community in a city in a country in a planet. Within the community there is school, and Shul, and Karate that all branch out of community but they may not interface with one another. Within Shul there is prayer, and friends, and family. Every person lives in a variety of circles. It is the importance that social work attributes to environment that brought social work close to my heart. The discipline seemed to me to fit naturally with a Torah approach to life.

The teacher in my Human Behavior InThe Social Environment class was purpoely vague regarding our first assignment, which was to write about what it meant to be a person. We were to focus on one character of a book and on ourselves. And we were to glean from what we had learned in class and "in the field."

I chose to write about Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Brooklyn (Betty Smith, Harper and Brothers 1943). What jumped out at me from the book was the depiction of different worlds. Francie has many worlds, all of them real: one world in the library, another on her porch, one in school, another at home. Within her home various relationships stand alone for Francie. Francie’s father Johnny lives in different worlds too. The reality of these worlds is driven home after Johnny dies. When Francie goes to his barbershop to pick up his shaving cup, the barber tells her that her father was a good man. At this moment, Johnny’s worlds of friends and family touch for the first time.

I think a lot about the circles around me, these worlds I live in. As I work on myself, I remember my environments. Being an American, born and bred in Queens, growing up on 225th street, attending yeshiva day schools, learning in Israel, Getting Semicha from YU, working in Frisch, reading poetry at Makor, performing stand-up at Park East Synagogue, typing these emails at my table – all of these worlds are relevant to the question of me. In order to grow, I must look at my worlds and see how they’ve effected me.

Avraham was told to go to the land of G-d. The land is described as land that G-d would show him. This can also be read to mean the land in which G-d would show Himself to him, meaning the place where Avraham would reach his spiritual peak. It is also interesting to note that each place that’s listed is separately described as a place he had to leave. Rather than saying leave these three places the Torah goes out of its way to say “Go out of your land and go out of your birth place and go out of your father’s home.” This indicates that what is commanded here is a spiritual leaving with separate and distinct stages. Avraham was told to leave his birth place, but he was no longer in the place where he was born. The idea is that he was influenced and metaphorically born in this place, but now needed to work towards rebirth.
May we all be blessed - in the spirit of maaseh avot siman lebanim - the actions of the fathers pave the way for the children - to go to and become our selves.
SHabbat Shalom
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann


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