Cantor Sandy Horowitz
Journeys are complicated. Fraught with the unexpected, they can bring out one's best and worst qualities. But the beginning—the moment of outset—can be a moment of perfection and purity. Consider the newborn, or a decision to embark on a new career, or those first steps of a backpacking trip.
Such a moment opens this week's Torah portion.
And God said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And 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."
Vayelekh Avram—and Abram went forth (Genesis 12:1-2, 4).
If there was hesitation, we don't read about it. If Sarai gave him a hard time about leaving, that was kept between the two of them. Without regard to what came before or what will happen on the journey itself, the moment captured in these first verses is clear—God called, Abram went.
Debbie Friedman z''l composed a well-known interpretive setting based on these opening words:
L'chi lach, to a land that I will show you,
lech lecha to a place you do not know,
l'chi lach on your journey I will bless you,
and you shall be a blessing...
The paraphrasing of the biblical text is a derash on that pure moment of beginning. The song is intended to transform this moment into what a modern day person might feel when setting out on a significant personal journey. When sung at b'nei mitzvah ceremonies, the words are directed towards a child on the cusp of adulthood. Time stops, and for that moment no one is thinking about the frustrations and challenges that led to this day, or of the difficult and unpredictable teenage years that lie ahead.
So too with Abram at that vayelekh moment. His past is unknown and the future will quickly get messy, but these initial verses contain powerful certainty. The journey of his lifetime is about to begin, which is also the start of the journey of our people. While almost nothing is mentioned in the Torah regarding Abraham's past, there are the midrashim. In Genesis Rabbah 38:13 the young Abram, son of Terah the idol-maker, smashes his father's idols in order to make the point that they are not real gods, and then survives when Nimrod throws him into the fire. Since according to this midrash Abram is already aware of the presence of the One, it serves to explain his readiness when God says Lekh lekha. One might also consider, however, that this story suggests another aspect of Abraham's character. For the youth who willingly destroys the source of his father's income in order to prove a theological point, will become the husband who doesn't consider the feelings of his wife, when in Egypt he will tell Pharaoh she is his sister in order to save himself (Gen. 12:11-13).
Abraham's journey through this Torah portion, even after Egypt, is one of war, nightmare and pain. In Chapter 14 his nephew Lot is captured and then rescued by Abram. In Genesis 15:12-14 God speaks to Abram in a terrible dream, predicting his descendants' four hundred years of suffering as slaves before being freed by God. Hagar bears a child in the face of Sarai's barrenness. Finally though, there is the promise of Isaac and the covenant with God which culminates with Abram, now Abraham, circumcising himself and all his household.
How often are moments of hope and expectation followed by periods of slogging through the muck of reality. The newborn won't let you sleep and when he/she won't stop crying you feel helpless and ignorant. You discover that learning your new profession is tough and often tedious. The pack on your back chafes your shoulders, and your self-esteem is lost in the realization that you must have missed the trail when you took a wrong turn five miles back. But there is also the sublime redemptive moment of connection with your infant, of understanding a new skill, of finding the path once again.
Despite the inevitable muck, we take the journey. When we are called, we go. We may falter, there will be nightmares and fears and mistakes, and we will be changed. May we, like our ancestor Abraham, be blessed when we go forth.
Sunday, November 2, 2014
Our Cantor wrote the D'Var Torah for the Academy for Jewish Religion this past week, and we're pleased to be able to share it with you here on our congregational blog: