A Palace in Flames
Genesis Rabbah 39:1
ויאמר ה׳ אל אברם לך לך מארצך וגו׳… אמר רב 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
“Hashem said to Abram: Go forth from your native land . . . ” (Gen. 12:1) . . . Rabbi Isaac said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a birah doleket. ‘Is it possible that this palace lacks a caretaker?’ he wondered. The owner of the palace looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, because our ancestor Abraham said, ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a caretaker?’ the Blessed Holy One looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Sovereign of the Universe.’
What inspires one to leave home, to embrace mystery, to seek insight into the nature of our world?
The story of Abram’s physical journey to enter Canaan and his spiritual journey to become “our ancestor Abraham” raises many questions about his life and ours. Like many of the early rabbis, Rabbi Isaac imagines a backstory to explain how and why Abram would respond to a sudden call from God to leave his home for an unknown land. The meaning of this parable, however, hinges on an ambiguous term, birah doleket, that describes what caught Abram’s attention and transformed his vision. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel discusses the implications of two contrasting translations—“a palace full of light” versus “a palace in flames”—in his masterpiece, God in Search of Man, that deserve equal consideration for informing our own worldview.
In imagining the world as “a palace full of light,” Heschel develops Abram into a personality who discovers through wonder that there must be a Creator who would both design and care for such a stunningly magnificent domain. He posits that Abram’s journey began not just with his sense of awe for nature but with the action he takes in response to God’s answer that such a Source of Life exists.
But towards the end of God in Search of Man, Heschel acknowledges an entirely different approach to religion. He asserts that, just as many “sense the ultimate questions in moments of horror,” perhaps Abram looked around himself and saw “a palace in flames,” a world engulfed in an inferno of chaos and evil. God’s answer to Abram’s query represents the still, small voice of resilience that somehow provides for courage and hope in the face of tragedy and destruction. In this light, Abram finds reason to believe in God, the world and himself in spite of seemingly overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Heschel’s dual treatment of this parable captures the full range of awesome and awful emotions that the ancient rabbis express in their love and fear of God. As a modern-day Abraham, Heschel asserted that post-Holocaust Judaism must engage both “radical amazement” and righteous indignation as responses to the beautiful and the terrible experiences we find in life. May we walk with God in both paths with conviction and grace.