Abraham the Introvert

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 18, 2022 / 24 Heshvan 5783

Summary: In this week’s Oasis Songs, I share a memory of living in Israel when I was 19, what it taught me about our Biblical ancestors, and how to live a more attuned life. Finally, I include an invitation to a special Shabbat this coming Friday night.

Reading Time: Four minutes

George was sick the day I took over for him at Kibbutz Ramat HaShofet, which is also the day I came to a new understanding of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Ramat HaShofet is situated in the Menashe Heights in Northern Israel; when I was 19, I took a year off from college to spend time in Israel, initially as a kibbutz volunteer where I first was assigned to work in the wood factory. I didn’t love it there—not the noise and not the labor, so when some opportunities came to work with the animals, I jumped at the chance. I ended up working in the lulim, the chicken roosts. We arrived at work by 5 AM or so, then gathered eggs, changed out the straw in the roost boxes, and removed sick chickens to prevent illness from spreading throughout an entire chicken house. This is also where I learned to drive a John Deere manual tractor, but that’s a story for another time.

What is relevant to this week’s parsha of Chayeh Sarah is what happened next. Although kibbutzim were considered radically egalitarian, they also ascribed to a famous line in George Orwell’s Animal Farm that “all animals were equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” On this kibbutz, those who worked the land or cared for animals were a little bit more equal, because their jobs were tied to the rhythm of the land and our ancient connection to Eretz Yisrael, an attachment that was forged by Abraham himself when he purchased the Cave of Mahpelah in which to bury Sarah, a land acquisition that this week’s Torah reading records. Because I worked with the chickens, I had a greater connection with those who worked in the refet, with the cows, as well as those who tended to the sheep. Thus it was that on the day George got sick, he asked if I would fill in for him by shepherding the flock of two hundred sheep.

One of the things to understand about Israeli culture is its emphasis on self-reliance and trust in a person’s innate and natural capacities. When I asked George what I needed to do with the sheep, his answer was as simple as it was opaque. “Just take them out for a long walk; they’ll follow you.” I was nineteen, and I didn’t quite believe him.

Yet there it was. I opened the pens and as I began to walk, they followed. I looked at them in shock and said, “Hey, guys, I don’t really know what I am doing,” but that didn’t much bother them. They knew the routine. For the next several hours, we walked down into the pomegranate orchard and through winding, stone-strewn paths. Because it was a cool, sunny, autumn day, the trees were mostly bare. Periodically, I would pause so they could graze. During those breaks, my gaze settled across the hills as I recalled the Bible stories of my childhood. Abraham the nomad, discovering the one God in the silence of wilderness. Moses at the burning bush, or atop Mt. Sinai. Joseph wandering alone in search of his brother. David composing psalms before he donned the mantle of kingship.

We can’t recover from the Biblical narrative whether our ancestors were introverts by temperament. What is clear is that the ancient world provided time for many to nurture the natural inwardness that all people possess and to befriend themselves and the insights that arise from quietude. This way of structuring society gave to the world a recognition and experience that there is but one God flowing through all of creation. It allowed our people to transmit the moral implications of that realization, recorded in the Bible and developed continuously since then. It reinforced our connection to the natural world; I would like to imagine that this minimized the levels of anxiety that sadly define our era.

When the sun started to tilt to the horizon, I turned back up the trail and made the climb homeward. Two hundred sheep left with me. As I shut the pens and did a headcount, two hundred sheep had returned. My ancestors would have been proud.

It is still possible to have such experiences, but it requires that we seek them out, for they are not a normal part of our advanced, technocratic society. We have largely lost the indigenous spirit that teaches us how to live in balance. For that reason, I hope you will attend Friday night services on November 25th. Yes, that’s the day after Thanksgiving. It is also Native American Heritage Day, and my friends Randy and Edith Woodley who carry Cherokee and Shoshone lineage, will join us during services at 6:15 PM to share their thoughts on what an indigenous state of mind can teach us, and how it can help bring healing to the planet, our community, and ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    1. Share a time when you felt a kinship to our ancestors.
    2. Recall moments in which you were deeply connected to natural cycles.

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