Parasha Lekh Lekha

The phone rings on the wall of Mrs. Gerda Weinblatt’s kitchen in her apartment at 303 Avenue S in Brooklyn.  “Mrs. Weinblatt?”  a voice says.  “I have Worthington Rosecroft of Lakeview Capital on the line.  Please hold.”                                                                           There’s a pause and then a man’s voice comes on the phone.  “Mama,” he says.  “Stanley,” she says. “Mama, where were you?  It was Beatrix’s birthday last night and she so wanted you to come.  She kept asking for her grandmother.”                 “I was there, Stanley, I was there,” she says.                 “What do you mean?”                 “Listen, Stanley, she says. “I left the house at four o’clock.  I walked over to the D train.  I took it to Fulton Street and walked about three blocks underground to get to the Lexington Avenue IRT.  I took that up to 77th Street.  I got out.  I walked over to Park Avenue.  I went into your lobby at 895 Park.  I sat there for three hours.  Then I went home.”   “What?” he says.  “Why on earth didn’t you come upstairs?”  “I couldn’t remember your name.” This joke was published in the recent edition of Commentary Magazine.  This joke, it seems to me, zeros in on the Jewish anxiety about assimilation, and the tension we feel between wanting to fit in and wanting to retain our unique identities as Jews.  Worthington Rosecroft of Lakeview Capital, formerly Stanley Weinblatt of Flatbush, changes his name to both flee from his Jewish identity and to advance in the business world. He names his daughter Beatrix, a name of Latin origin meaning “one who brings blessing.” Yet, he remains tied by blood and by affection to the Jewish people.  However much he disguises his identity to the outside world, he remains Gerda Weinblatt’s son. The name he chooses for himself, however, is so foreign to his mother that she is unable to remember it – or, perhaps accept it. She is better able to negotiate the complicated route to his Park Avenue apartment, than she is to negotiate her son’s transition from an ethnic Jew to an assimilated American.                                In some ways the joke is dated.  After all, in today’s America, Jews no longer feel the need to change their names to get ahead in business or in a profession. The Worthington Rosecrofts of the world would likely keep their given names and might well name their daughter the Modern Hebrew equivalent of Beatrix — “Bracha”. Although one might encounter the occasional anti-Semitic comment, there is relatively little discrimination against Jews in America today.  Yet the joke reveals a tension we Jews experience that transcends the times in which we live. How different from others do we feel comfortable in being?  An interesting midrash on this week’s parasha addresses that very question. In this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha, G-d commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all of the males of his household. The midrash relates that when G-d told Abraham to circumcise himself, he sought the advice of three friends – Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre.  Aner advises against circumcision. If the relative of one of the Kings against whom Abraham had gone to war were to come upon him, Abraham would be at a disadvantage, says Aner. Eshkol advises against it as well.  “It is dangerous at your age, 99, to perform such an operation,” is his advice. Only his friend Mamre advises him to go ahead with it. Mamre points out that G-d had protected Abraham when Nimrod threw him into the fiery furnace when he was only just a boy. G-d had protected him on the long journey he and his family made to the Promised Land. G-d had protected Abraham from the Pharaoh when he traveled with this wife to Egypt. G-d had made him victorious in the war with of the Five kings. G-d had protected Abraham throughout his long life, and now, when G-d asks you to sacrifice a small bit of your body, how can you refuse? Abraham, of course, proceeds to circumcise himself. The rabbis ask, “Since Abraham knew that G-d had protected him throughout his life – Mamre was not telling him anything he did not already know — what was Abraham so concerned about?”  They answer: Abraham was concerned not about his safety, but about being different.  Abraham was concerned that once he did such a thing, and others found out, that he would be separated from the rest of the population of Canaan. He was concerned that nobody would listen to him or take him seriously again. He was concerned that he would become an outcast from the local peoples amongst whom he traveled. In fact, very few people actually want to be different! We can see it in our teen-agers, who all want to dress the same way so as not to stand out from the group. We can see it in adults, who all want to keep up with the latest fashions.  There are even some in this world who believe that the way to redeem humanity is to erase all differences between people. They believe that ethnicity, class, religion and nations – everything that is unique about a person’s heritage and culture – belong to an old world whose time has passed.  They see it as the root of all evil. In this view, differences are a source of strife, jealousy, and competition. Let everyone be the same, they argue, and we would usher in a new world of peace and fellowship.  Who are the first they want to give up their identity? Often, it is the Jewish people.You go first. Natan Sharansky, the famous Soviet refusenik, actually lived in such a world. In the Soviet Union, where he grew up, Jewish history, language, and culture was legislated out of existence, as Communist authorities sought to eradicate all religious, social and economic differences among people.  All he knew was that he was a Jew, and nothing more. He grew up rootless, unconnected, and without identity, like all Soviet Jews of his generation. This taught him that personal freedom was in fact connected to strengthening ones identity, on returning to ones roots. “Only a person who is connected to his past, to his people, and to his roots can be free,” he writes, “And only a free person has the strength to act for the benefit of the rest of humanity.” In other words, a strong Jewish identity doesn’t chain us; it roots us, and makes us freer to operate in the world for the benefit of all of human-kind. I suppose this is what Abraham learned as well. Far from making him an outcast, circumcision strengthened his identity, and freed him, so that he was able to spread his message of the one G-d – and not only to those of his generation. The Jewish family that descended from him would continue to spread his message throughout all generations, as it continues to seek to liberate humanity from idolatry in whatever form it may take. Shabbat Shalom