He Fell On His Face

He Fell Upon His Face


The Grandchildren’s Story

Meeting on the afternoon of the fourth night of Chanukah, a little chaotic getting started late, but all gathered and a question posed: I wonder how the grandchildren of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar told the story of their grandparents’ lives? How would the stories handed down by the sons and daughters of Abram and Hagar differ from those told by the sons and daughters of Abram and Sarai? A hint: while Jews read every year at Rosh HaShanah of the binding of Isaac, the Koran relates that it was Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed by his father. And both religions exhalt Abe for his great faith in God. Perhaps it’s more accurate to admit that both peoples live with the scars to the collective unconscious from a child-abusing patriarch. But such is the realm of mythology. Is Abram the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Titan who ate his children?

Genesis 17:1: “I am El Shaddai

Significantly, God identifies himself to Abram in His/Her aspect of El Shaddai. Often translated in poor English translations as “God Almighty”, El Shaddai is explained as God Who Said” Sufficient” (El=God; Shin = She = that; Aleph = Amar = Said; Dai = enough , as in Dayenu). It is also has the meaning of mountaintop, or breast (women’s breasts are shadayim in Hebrew). So this aspect of God has the connotation of God as nurturer, provider of sufficiency, a Feminine aspect. In the Jewish tradition, God has 72 different names, each connoting a different aspect, while in Islam, there are 99 different names. It is significant that God here calls himself El Shaddai, because later in Torah we read of God telling Moses that he appeared to his ancestors as El Shaddai, but to Moses, as Ehyeh (“I Will Be”), and it is the name of Ehyeh that Moses is to use as his password to convince the Israelites suffering under Egyptian slavery that he is their true leader.

How is this use of multiple names for the same God different from polytheistic cultures with single names for multiple Gods? These aspects are likely human projections, explanations for the forces seen and experienced in nature and in life. In Judaism, each of these aspects is referred to as a different part of the same God (as in the tale of the 12 blind men each describing an elephant differently, depending on which part of the elephant they were touching), whereas the Greeks and other polytheistic religions gave individual, autonomous attributes to each of their Gods, each acting independently from the others. In Judasim we also speak of angels, and archangels, each again representing individual archetypes and having very specific characteristics, but none worshipped as autonomous individual “Gods”. But can’t this really be considered a form of polytheistic monotheism? The key difference: the idea, from Abraham, that all these different archetypes are part of the ONE: “YHVH Hu HaElohim” . . . or if you prefer, “Hear O’ Israel . . . Adonai Echad”.

Genesis 17:3 “And Abram fell upon on his face.”

In this age of pews and nicely ordered rows of seats inside permanent structures, it may be hard to re-imagine a form of worship, outside, in nature, where one is overcome with the awesomeness of the experience of the Divine Presence, where one is so acutely aware of one’s own insignificance, that the only proper response is to throw oneself down and prostrate oneself before the Creator. This is a new move for Abe in response to his visitations from God. In the past he’s walked when God said “Walk” (aka Lech L’cha), he’s built altars to God (as when he arrived in Canaan), but he hasn’t before thrown himself to the earth in complete supplication to the Universal. Why now? Perhaps this represents a metaphor of how the human family evolved in its relationship to God, how we learned prayer, a kind of spiritual progression from the time when Adam and Chava hid when God came looking, now reflecting a full-force submission to an overwhelming sense of awe that one feels in that direct, personal encounter with Spirit. We know that Muslims in prayer routinely prostrate their bodies physically, and it has become a practice in many Jewish renewal synagogues on Yom Kippur to have not only the rabbi and cantor, but the whole congregation, fall to the ground, tallitim covering their heads, and assume the relationship of Abram to El Shaddai that we are reading about now. It is a profound, and humbling, experience. Perhaps it is one we can experience together in our mishkan at the next Joshua Tree seder?

Genesis 17:4-8: “As for Me, this is My covenant with you”

What follows is God’s statement of his part of the agreement, an amazingly legalistic statement of “this is what I’ll do, here’s what you’ll do”. First, for God’s part, He will make Abram a father of many nations, adding a Hey to his name to denote the change to Avraham – “father of multitude”. But He said the same to Hagar in the last chapter, that her son, Ishmael, would lead a great nation. How is this different? What follows is a description that describes Abraham’s seed in terms of nationhood, ownership, kings, land – the promise of the whole land of Canaan, and the personal relationship between God and those who will descend from Abraham: “I shall be their Elohim”.

Some might read into this a sense of arrogance in the “Chosen People” – who are you so high and mighty to place an exclusive claim on God? But there is nothing in the text suggesting exclusivity. The Torah is the mythology of the Jewish people, it tells our story, and therefore, now, the story of the nature of the connection between the Hebrew people and their very present and personal El Shaddai. This does not exclude other people having their own personal relationship with God – indeed our teachings say they do. Those stories would be found in the written and oral traditions of those peoples. And they are (witness Jethro Tull’s song, “My God”, on the”Aqualung” album - great album!). But in our mythology, we see here described an intimate sense of the relationship with the Beloved, with our personal nurturing sustaining God, El Shaddai.

Genesis 17:9-27. We read quickly through the rest of the chapter, describing the Hebrews’ side of the contract, because the latkes were simmering and we were all getting schpilkes to light the Chanukah candles. A few of the major lines and actions to take note of, and perhaps dive deeply into next time:

· Every male among you shall be circumcised

· . . . do not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name . . . and she shall give rise to nations;

· Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed

· . . . he (Ishmael) wil beget twelve princes . . . and Ishmael was 13 years old when he was circumcised . . .

Next meeting:

Saturday January 8, 10 AM – noon

Location: To be determined

Note: The January meeting typically also is the time we start planning for next year’s Pesach encampment at Joshua Tree, Thursday, April 21- Sunday, April 24

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