By Tamar Levin, November 12, 2016
Avram is 75 years old and has lived a large part of his life when he is told “Lech Lakha” – leave all that is familiar to you and the urban culture and home in which you were raised and go to a place that you have never seen. Everett Fox translates “Lech Lacha” as “Go-you-forth”, and my Yiddish Yehoash translation says “Gay dir avek”, take yourself away. Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch writes,”If all the Torah wanted to say was: Avram, Go from Aram to Canaan, it could say Lech or Tzeh, but adding the pronoun Lecha, gives the act a particular, individual, isolating connotation. Holekh is related to khalak, to be divided and connotes separating oneself from the place where one happens to be. This can be going away for the purpose of going somewhere else, or it can be a purpose in itself, simply to get away from where one is. By the addition of the pronoun, Lakha, the second idea is more precisely stressed; go for yourself, to yourself, isolate and detach yourself from all your previous connections.” The text elaborates that this requires separation from country, birthplace and even the site of his earliest development and shelter, his father’s house.
This demand placed on Avram is in contrast to the tenor of his times. Not individualism, not recognition of the worth and importance of the individual, but centralization was the prevailing view in Mesopotamia. Men were mere nameless workers as large city states were rising. The prevailing view was that majority opinion represented what was the highest and best in all spheres and everybody was expected to honor it. Attachment to community is certainly valued by Judaism, but from the start, the worlds “Lech Lecha- go for yourself” were higher still. Hirsch notes “ No one may say I am as good, as honest as everybody else is and that is sufficient. Everybody is responsible to God for himself and if necessary must stand alone. This is what was demanded of Avram at the starting point for his and his future people’s mission. “
‘How could we have existed, how continued to exist, “ Hirsch asks, “ if we hadn’t from the very beginning received from Abram the courage to be a minority
In the midst of Chaldea, Babylon, Assyria, Phoenicia, Egypt, where sensuality and power and killing of individual freedom were the values of the day, Avram arises. While everybody else in the world is making every effort establish themselves, and settle securely, he makes himself a refugee and throws a protest in the face of the gods worshipped by all nations. This requires courage, conviction of the truth of his inner feeling, consciousness of the Jewish God, Jewish confidence and boldness. That was the first thing Avram needed to do to justify his appointment.”
Avram and Sarah are to be the founders of a great nation despite their age.
Avram’s spirit is to repeat itself in his descendants; Yitzkhak and Yaakov. We still refer to,Elokay Avraham, Elokay Yitzkhak, Elokay Yaakov. God as each of them knew Him, as He revealed Himself to them, and guided their lives.
Considered more closely, Hirsch continues, the whole scheme of Jewish history is given to Avram in a nutshell: “ First Avram appears merely as an individual who dares to be alone, then the Nation appears but without external contact and finally the Jewish nation is connected to others. Others may bless him, or others may curse him and by their choice they themselves will be blessed.” So Avram’s task was to isolate himself, live alone with God, create a people – out of homelessness, and wander until he came to a place where he would see , or be shown, by some visible sign ,that there he should remain.
He is blessed but is told that it is his task to be a blessing.
Others nations may strive to be blessed, but we are charged to be a blessing and devote ourselves to the Divine purpose of bringing blessings to the world and to all mankind.
Everett Fox notes that Buber comments on the unifying effect of the verb “ to see” throughout the Avraham stories. Buber understands that Avraham is the father of the Prophets of Israel, formerly called “seers”.
Hirsch, the traditionalist believes that all our revelations, ability to “see” emanate from God to Man. In this view, God speaks to the prophets not in them. The Hand of God comes on the prophet not out of him. Man is the receiver, never the active producer. How God spoke or speaks to us can remain an eternal mystery – but suffice to say that He did speak to Avram and made Himself visible in some way.
It seems to me that if we examine the history of our own families or our own lives there were and are times when we are called to step into an unknown place and make a serious change. I have pondered where the courage finally comes from to move from a known but abusive marriage to the insecurity of freedom. Making a change in the belief that life would be better elsewhere motivated our grandparents or parents who traveled to these shores. My grandfather had a good life in Lithuania, and his family had been there for many generations. But he sensed or saw or was enabled to see in 1924 that times were changing, and that his 7 children would have a better future elsewhere. He arrived in NY at the age of 64 with no knowledge of English and lived in reduced financial circumstances, but his courage to leave Lithuania insured the survival of our family.
I have wondered, what possessions Avram and Sara took along on their new path, and what did they leave behind. What did our immigrant ancestors carry on their journeys? Did they value and maintain their languages? Their minhagim? Their niggunim, folk ways and folksongs? Was it possible to pack Bubbeh’s candlesticks? Zaydeh’s kiddush cup? I am reminded of the famous Steiglitz photograph of people on the deck of a boat headed for Ellis Island. Amidst the packed deck there stands a lone Jew wrapped in a tallit. Clearly he had chosen not to leave that behind. On the other hand, there is the tale of my husband’s grandmother who threw her sheytl into NY Harbor. Do immigrants know what will be useful or of value in a new land? And what of the displaced of our own day. What are they able to salvage as they flee into an uncertain future?
For most of us, our life story has required making a move and the realization that change is a part of life. Even Avram is told that when he reaches Canaan, future generations will be strangers in a new land not their own . Permanence of place doesn’t seem to be part of the plan though the continuation of the Jewish people does. This knowledge has made me less fearful of change. The challenge had always been how to hold on to our authentic selves no matter where life takes us.
A friend was in a taxi in Washington, DC and the cabbie said ” I’m from Ethiopia.
Where is your famiy from?’
“Well,” answered my friend, “that’s a complicated story.”
“Jewish aye?” responded the cab driver.