A historic election looms in the week ahead. People will differ on how whether the election results are tragic or triumphant, and our tradition urges us not to let these differences tear our communities apart. Like Abraham, we prepare to step into a new land with courage, conviction, and compassion.
Beholding the Palace Lit Up
Shabbat is a sacred turning point from one week to another. We enter with residual feelings from the week behind us, and we strive to use these sacred hours to prepare for the week ahead.
But this Shabbat is different from most as we stand in anticipation of a national election. Regardless of whether you voted—indeed, regardless who you voted for—in the next few days, all of us will enter together into a new reality.
The opening of this week’s Torah portion is a perfect reflection of our current moment. When God calls to Abraham לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ, “Go forth from the land you know” (Gen. 12:1), it may as well be us hearing the call. After all, our tradition insists, “Everything that happened to our biblical ancestors is a sign for their children.” So we are invited to slip our feet into Abraham’s sandals and to tread with him tentatively into a new and unknown land.
We may find there, as Abraham does, sacrifice and strife, divisions in family and expected blessings long delayed. We may also find there, as Abraham does, prosperity and hope, promises kept and a legacy entrusted to a new generation. At this point, we simply cannot predict what will happen. But our tradition offers us guidance on how to meet the events that lie ahead, underscoring our responsibility to stand up for our beliefs while embodying the principles of blessing and peace.
A midrash on the opening lines of this week’s parashah is among our most important stories about Abraham. It also speaks directly to our current situation. The midrash reads:
The Eternal said to [Abraham], “Go forth from your native land…”
Rabbi Isaac said: This may be compared to one who was traveling from place to place and saw a certain palace lit up.
The traveler said, “Is it possible that there is no one who cares for this palace?” The master of the palace looked out and said, “I am the master of this palace.”
And so it was with Abraham our Father, who said, “Is it possible that there is no one who cares for this world?” The Holy One of Blessing looked out at him and said, “I am the master of this world.”
Usually, this midrash is used to explain why God chose Abraham to be the founder of the Jewish people. But what is it that Abraham actually sees? The Hebrew is tantalizingly, even frustratingly, ambiguous.
The key Hebrew phrase is birah doleket, which I have translated as “a palace lit up.” This is my best approximation of the Hebrew’s double-meaning. Doleket comes from the same root as l’hadlik—“to kindle”—as in l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat. So doleket might easily mean “burning.” But in other contexts, this same word can mean “to shine.” So the birah doleket might be a palace on fire, or it could be shining with untold splendor.
In classic form, our tradition offers us both possibilities.
The Lithuanian Orthodox rabbi known as the Netziv (1816-1893) wrote 150 years ago that “Abraham saw the world like a birah doleket … [meaning] that it was burning but no one cared to extinguish it.” In this reading, Abraham is distraught that suffering and injustice run rampant with none to stop them. God assures Abraham of a divine presence within the burning world but also teaches him that God is not משגיח על מעשי ב״א [בני אדם], “watching intently over every act of humankind.” This is meant to inspire Abraham to work with purpose and without despair to help extinguish the world’s fire.
Around the same time, a Hasidic Polish rabbi known as Zadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900) read the passage differently. He saw the birah doleket as glowing with the light of God, a light שדולק בלבו, “that shines within [Abraham’s] heart.” In this interpretation, Abraham is awed by the glory of the world, which he sees reflected in the human soul. Heartened by God’s gift of enlightenment, Abraham commits himself to spreading this light wherever he goes.
These are just two examples of opposite understandings of the “palace lit up.” One focuses on fire, the other on light. What they share in common is that in both stories, Abraham remains committed to act based on what he sees.
The theologian and civil rights hero Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel fled as a refugee from Nazi Europe and dedicated his career to peace and justice in the United States. He wrote in 1955:
There are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of wonder, in moments of joy; there are those who sense the ultimate question in moments of horror, in moments of despair. It is both the grandeur and the misery of living that makes [us] sensitive to the ultimate question. Indeed, [our] misery is as great as [our] grandeur.
Heschel’s teaching is perfect for our time. Whether we perceive the birah doleket as a terrible fire or a great shining light, we can allow it to arouse within us questions of meaning and purpose, questions we share with every human being.
One thing we can know for sure is that America will remain deeply divided, but our differences of opinion need not tear us apart. Our common humanity and the divine spark within bind us morally and spiritually to those with whom we disagree. These bonds, our tradition insists, must be strong enough to withstand the most strident conflict, which we can endure with patience and love even as we assert our side of the truth.
Rabbi Rachel Adler, a professor of theology at the Hebrew Union College, offers a crucial reminder about truth. She teaches, “only those who are certain that they possess the whole truth … can totally reject pluralism.” In other words, we cannot meaningfully coexist with others if we cannot tolerate their seeing things differently. Adler continues, “The problem is not how to eradicate our differences, but how to differ without breaking apart.” This emphasis on peaceful coexistence with those with whom we disagree has always been a central pillar to Jewish life and belief.
After all, God’s charge to Abraham itself is one of dignity through difference. “Go to the land that I will show you,” God instructs, “And I will bless you, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3, excerpted). Abraham is destined to bring blessing to disparate groups around the world.
So we, as Children of Abraham, bear this sacred duty today. We know with dreadful certainty that rancorous division lies ahead of us. So let us make sure we are prepared, no matter the intensity or heat of the birah doleket, to strive for blessing.
This should never mean complacency, for Abraham was not complacent. And it should never mean surrender or, on the other hand, conquest, for Abraham did neither of these. Bringing blessing to the families of the earth requires conviction, courage, and compassion, not to mention the indispensable strength we draw from community. As Rabbi Regina Jonas preached during the most harrowing days of her imprisonment in Theresienstadt:
Our Jewish people have been sent by God into history as “blessed.” To be blessed by God means to give wherever one steps, in every life situation, blessing, kindness, faithfulness - humility before God, selfless and devoted love to his creatures sustain this world. 
May this be our purpose in the days, weeks, and years ahead.
May we merit the wisdom and the fortitude to stand for blessing even and especially where there is tremendous strife.
And may we meet the fires of this world with the light in our hearts, pledging to stand together as Children of Abraham beholding the palace lit up.
 See, for instance, Ramban’s comment on Gen. 12:6: כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים. This principle is often known as “מעשה אבות סימן לבנים”.
 Genesis Rabbah 39:1:
אמר רבי יצחק משל לאחד שהיה עובר ממקום למקום וראה בירה אחת דולקת אמר תאמר שהבירה זו בלא מנהיג הציץ עליו בעל הבירה אמר לו אני הוא בעל הבירה כך לפי שהיה אבינו אברהם אומר תאמר שהעולם הזה בלא מנהיג הציץ עליו הקב״ה ואמר לו אני הוא בעל העולם.
 In the midrash, Abraham is compared to a traveler who sees the palace lit up. Since repetitions of this midrash in various retellings blur Abraham and the traveler, I have chosen to do so here as well.
 Harchev Davar on Genesis 11:
וכמבואר בב"ר ריש פ' לך שראה אברהם אבינו את העולם כמו בירה דולקת ואמר תאמר שאין לה מנהיג הציץ עליו בעל הבירה ואמר אני בעל הבירה, ר"ל שראה שדולקת ואין אדם מזדקק לכבות ותמה ע״ז וכי בירה זו אין לה בעלים. השיבו בעליו שבכונה כך הוא. כן השיב הקב״ה שבכונה אינו משגיח על מעשי ב״א [בני אדם].
 Tzidkat Hatzadik 261:
נאמר לך לך וגו' שנתגלה לו זה אחר שראה בירה דולקת פירוש שדולק בלבו אור זה דהשם יתברך.
 God in Search of Man (1955), 367.
 Engendering Judaism: An Inclusive Theology and Ethics (Beacon Press, 1998), p. 206.
 Notes for a sermon quoted in Katharina Von Kellenbach’s “‘God Does Not Oppress Any Human Being’: The Life and Thought of Rabbi Regina Jonas,” The Leo Baeck Institute Year Book, Volume 39, Issue 1, 1 January 1994, Pages 231-225, https://doi.org/10.1093/leobaeck/39.1.213, p. 225. There, she cites “Pamatnik Terezin, Ustredni Kartoteka.”
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