Friday, 19 October 2018

Who Owns the Castle?

At the opening of this week’s Torah reading God calls on Abraham to go, and he goes, and so the story of our people begins.
I have often referred to the famous tale of Abraham in his father’s idol shop, smashing up the idols and being dragged before the local potentate, most recently here But this year my attention has been taken by a more nuanced tale, from Midrash Hagadol.

In this tale, all the wrestling happens within Abraham’s own mind. He is ‘Shotef b’Daato’ roaming in his mind. He is initially attracted by the power of the sun but when it sets he turns to the stars. He gives up on the stars as they disappear before the dawn. He yearns to know if there is something truly ultimate, something which has no causation. The Midrash continues, “To what can this be compared?
To a traveller who saw a tremendous large castle and wanted to enter it. He examined it from, but could find no entry. He called out, but there was no response. Then he lifted up his eyes and saw red woollen cloths spread out on the rood. After that he saw white flaxen cloths. The traveler thought, ‘Surely someone lives in that castle, for otherwise how would the cloths appear and disappear?’ When the owner of the castle saw that he was in distress over this, the owner asked, ‘Why are you in distress? I am the owner of the castle.’”

In later Chasidic thought this Midrash inspires a much-cited teaching about a King hidden in the innermost chamber of a palace. Fine draperies and gold trinkets abound in the outer courtyards and most of those who come to seek the King are distracted by the first piece of sparkle they find and give up on a deeper search. It’s only the truly great seeker who penetrates to the heart of the castle to sit with the King.

The point is that Judaism prizes theological questing (a favourite word of our founder Rabbi). Theology isn’t supposed to be easy. The easy theologies are the stars and the fancy drapes, simple, but dishonest and false. The quest of a source of power that has no causation isn’t a childish vision of a deity on a cloud, it’s stripping back of distractions and accretions. It’s ultimately a belief that there is an owner of the castle, that all this beauty is not without any meaning at all. Talking about God is hard, expecting it to be easy is refuse to consider a true theology at all.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

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