A word of Torah.
“Adonai said to Avram: ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. Avram went forth as Adonai had commanded him, and Lot went with him.
Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons they had acquired in Haran. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Gen. 12:1-5, adapted)
Thus begins this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech-L’cha — an exploration of journey and change, calling and adventure. Indeed, Abraham (still Avram in this early Genesis portion) is often looked up to as a hero in this week’s Torah reading. How so? For his courage to venture out from his homeland, embark upon an unknown course, accept a bold and uncertain call. Yet if we exam the text a little more closely, is what Abraham does really so heroic?
Yes, leaving home is hard. Any of us who have had to do so — for college, or service, or even summer camp — know this to be true. For some more so than others. But Abraham is 75 years old when he’s asked to “go forth … from [his] father’s house.” I mean, it’s kind of time, right? And if our response is, well, that’s a lot of shlepping for a 75 year old… note he gets to take his nephew, Lot; two youthful hands to help him along the way. Not only that, he gets to take this journey with his wife. So it’s not like he’s leaving his family behind. His hometown? Yes. But Abraham’s father has died, his younger brother is no longer living, and his middle brother is married with a family of his own. Abraham even gets to take all of his wealth with him, including his many servants. Some might say: Married, without kids, in possession of a small (or perhaps not so small) fortune… it’s the perfect time for something new!
And not only that, but he’s not exactly doing this on a hunch either. This isn’t some random idea tossed out by one spouse to another over dinner and quickly hatched into a half-baked plan pursued on a whim. Abraham is doing this because God told him to. “Adonai spoke to Avram, saying: ‘Go forth.’” If anything, the courageous thing might have been not to go. I mean, can you imagine Abraham saying: “Yeah, God, I’m gonna have to turn that offer down — we’re good here. But so kind of you to think of us. Thanks!” Now that would have taken courage.
But perhaps I’m being too critical of our tradition’s treatment of Abraham. Because while he gets to take his family, has the reassurance of divine directive and protection, is encouraged by the promise of blessing, Abraham is missing one key piece of information — Where is he going?
“To the land that I will show you,” the text says.
God doesn’t send Abraham off with a GPS; there’s no blue line pointing him to a singular and specified destination. God doesn’t hand him a TripTik, with a highlighted path to get him from Point A to Point B. Abraham doesn’t even know what Point B is. All Abraham knows is this will be a journey, and only once he’s a ways in will God help to illuminate the path, give him perspective, paint the picture of where he’s been, how far he’s come, and where he might yet, with purpose and drive, still go.
Which is to say, that this week’s Torah portion isn’t so much about Abraham and his particular journey, as it is about life. For even when we know the place, do we really know where we’re going?
Seven and a half years ago, my family — Aaron, Eli, our adorable dog, and I — journeyed from the Midwest to Charleston, South Carolina. In many ways, it was as much a calling as Abraham’s — the term is even used in ministry. We were called to this amazing congregation, KKBE, with its rich history, vibrant present, and exciting future. We were called by the wonderful, warm people we met on each of our visits, and the opportunity to share our journeys together. We got a glimpse of what the move might hold for us, not much more, but much like Abraham we embarked upon the path anyway encouraged by the sense that it would be one of blessing.
It has been — beyond our greatest hopes and expectations. Who would have guessed that the move, preeminently driven by the job I was taking, would have opened so many doors in Aaron’s rabbinic career — more than he’s been able to enter. He’s now in his seventh year of service to Beth Israel Congregation in Florence, SC, and regularly teaches and officiates at funerals and weddings in and around the Charleston area. In just the past two weeks, he’s taught prophets to Jewish religious school students in Florence, and the basics of Judaism to adults in a church and sixth grade students in a school here in Charleston. He officiated at a wedding in town and a funeral in Georgetown. I don’t think we ever imagined that, in South Carolina, he’d keep so busy and be so fulfilled.
Who would have known that, coming to Charleston, our son would be so deeply influenced by the beauty and topography of the Lowcountry — a savant in all things marine biology, undoubtedly the future owner of a vehicle with a prominent bumper sticker declaring, “Gone fishin’.” What would his interests and passions be today if he didn’t drive over marshes, an eye out for dolphin, on his way to and from school each morning and afternoon? If the salt water at the beach, and the rarified air in our annual retreat to the mountains, weren’t a part of the rhythm of his year?
And even I, who had the most clues about what future life in Charleston might look like, could never have imagined the path it would take. Not particularly drawn, in previous communities, to interfaith study, much less community action, how could I have guessed that my involvement in the interfaith, and particularly the interracial Charleston community, would become as meaningful and important to me as my work within the congregation and larger Jewish community?
I think about the first time Aaron went to Florence, the first time we took Eli to the beach, the first time I sat down with a small group of interfaith clergy… Never would I have known — nor could I have — that each of those moments would begin new chapters in our lives, new chapters in the book that might ultimately reveal what this journey to Charleston was really all about. But that’s the thing about firsts: They aren’t firsts when they happen. In the very beginning of the Torah, after God creates heaven and earth, light and darkness, it doesn’t say: “There was evening and there was morning, a first day.” It says: “There was evening and there was morning, one day.” Only after there was a second day, a third day, a fourth day, would God be able to look back and realize where it had all begun — the first day. Until then, there was just a step. A decision. A journey.
“Adonai said to Avram: ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Lech L’cha is often read as a call to make bold first steps. And maybe some of us are at a point in our lives when that’s what we need to do, or we face the possibility that we may yet still. But, for me, Lech L’cha is an acknowledgement that most of us probably already have taken first steps — the question is, have we taken the time to look back, to reflect, to realize how or when we did so? Have we asked God to show us — to illuminate the path, give us perspective, paint a picture of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and then where we might yet, with purpose and drive, still go?
I’m drawn to the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who once saw a man running in the market place. “Why do you hurry so?” asked the Chasidic master. “I am pursuing my livelihood,” the man replied. “Well, how do you know that your livelihood lies before you?” asked Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. “Maybe it lies behind you and rather than running after it, you’re running away.”
By all means, if great courage and resolve are required of us, and we need to take first steps — to answer the call of L’cha L’cha and “Go forth” into the unknown — then may this Shabbat find us bold and resolute, fortified for the journey, excited for its prospects. But, on this Shabbat of Lech L’cha, may we each also be granted with vision and insight to see the great distance we’ve already traveled, and appreciate it. For life, from its first moments to its very end, is a journey. As we continue down its path, may we be granted the wisdom and awareness to make it journey of blessing. Amen.