For 19th. October 2018. Beit Warszawa.
Two words set the story in motion. Two unexpected words. The first eleven chapters of the Torah have been occupied with explaining the metaphysical basis of Existence: There is a Creator who Created, who got upset at what He had created (I shall use the term ‘He’ because this is grammatically correct to the original language, but this God is not a big macho male as in some other religions). We are never told Why, or Why certain things are the way they are, but they are so – there are different species, there are different lights in the sky, different cycles of Time. In a second explanation the reason for the existence of Humanity is explained and how they came into existence and why there are different genders, and then we learn of their initial relationship, their initial children, the way the species developed in a way that does not please God so God decides to wipe almost all land-based living things out and start over again…. from which we should learn that a global destruction IS technically feasible. Then Humanity grows again, in different ways, as different sub-groups – races, tribes, nations – and develops through God’s decree different languages….
It really does NOT matter whether you believe all this biblical story, one does NOT have to be a Biblical Fundamentalist and accept each printed word as scientific fact – what is important is that by the time the ‘story’ of Abram begins we already have an established World that is roughly as we ourselves would recognise it. There is day and night, winter and summer, there are continents and seas, there are different peoples living in different countries and speaking different languages, there are living creatures that have been domesticated for their milk, their wool, their meat and their skin, and there are other creatures that are wild and potentially even dangerous, so that sheep need protection from predators; there are fields of wheat and trees bearing figs and olives and dates. There are seasons when it rains – or at least, when it should rain, there is a catastrophic drought if the rains don’t come. People have developed hierarchies, social structures, there are Kings and others who say ”This is MY land” and there are also nomads who go wherever they wish, wherever they can feed their flocks, knowing that whatever bit of land they might be on, they are still under the same sky. There is a desire to find a partner, with whom to mate and breed – we call this ”marrying”, we speak of ”husband and wife” or at this period ”wives and subordinate wives, concubines”; we speak of parents and children, families, tribes, nations. People age and die and need to be buried.
So in the chapters that begin now with chapter 12 we will encounter, throughout the rest of the First Book, Bereshit, a family that wanders, a couple that has trouble fulfilling the desire to have children and has to ‘adopt’ the child of a slave, a family that has to wander away when there is a drought, and submit to the power exerted by local kings in Sodom or Gerar or later Egypt, that has to develop and retain its own identity and religion, that uses family links in Haran to keep things together but at the same time splits into different and often mutually-hostile branches – in other words, we have what one might call Normality, a state of human existence that has lasted essentially until the present. With whom are we related? Where do we come from, where do our families come from, what links do we retain to our different family members, are we closer to some and distant from others, what languages do we speak, in what cultures did we grow, do we come from countries that have fought each other, besieged and conquered each other’s cities, have we or our ancestors wandered, emigrated, fled to other countries and settled there?
We may have difficulty conversing with Adam, or Noah, but Abraham is in many respects – though he is rarely seen so – a modern person. He has modern problems, paying the bills, supporting his family and servants/employees, getting or raising children, worrying about who his daughter-in-law will be and how his grandchildren will be raised, he has arguments with his wife, he has a vague vision of a better future where he can settle and feel At Home. He has to plan a funeral.
And it all starts with two words that come from nowhere. This man, living originally in Ur, then in Haran, with a father, a wife, with brothers and sisters-in-law and nephews, hears a Voice that will from this moment on dominate his life and that of all his descendants – one could say, it will dominate world history, though if you say this you signify that you ignore many other parts of the world that were only brought into this sphere of influence much later, when the idea of a single, invisible God was brought by Christianity and Islam (in slightly different forms) to Asia, to Africa, to Australasia and the South Sea islands, to North and South America……
Let us be honest, what we call ”the known world” is a selective artificial construct, we mean simply that region for which we had some textual and archaeological sources!! We focus in synagogues (and churches) on what was happening in the Middle East several thousand years ago, on the conflicts and land disputes and struggles over entitlement to different countries, we read every week about the conflict between Jacob and Esau and their descendants, between the Hebrews and the Canaanites, the Israelites and the Egyptians, but if I were to ask you what was happening at that same period in the forests and swamps of what is now called Central Europe, the chances are that you would have no idea!
So – no change there! Even now the world’s attention tends to focus almost exclusively upon this troubled region and unless there is a major war or a natural catastrophe no-one really notices what happens in other countries in Central Africa, in Asia, in northern Siberia, in Pacific countries…. It is as though the politicians of the entire world cannot break free from the feeling that this tiny area of the globe is THEIR ancestral home too! That they are entitled to have opinions about what happens there, even though they do not live there! Then there is the question as to whether a Universal God should be allowed to have ‘favourites’ – we see from the reactions of those who feel that somehow they were NOT chosen the anger and bitter jealousy that this can create against those who feel they were chosen!
Two words: ”Lech Lecha”. Variously translatable but basically meaning ”Move!” Move from Here and go to…. Somewhere Else. A Somewhere Else that will one day become a home to – well, not to You, but to Your Descendants, maybe soon, maybe in four hundred years. A Land that is Promised but not Given, and this Promise is given to Abram / Abraham but, irritatingly, is not announced at the same time to the current tenants. Would not history have been so different had God said also to the Canaanites, ”Listen, I am giving you all notice to move out in two generations because I have decided to give this Land to another group I have especially chosen”? No, the Torah just states baldly that ”There were already Canaanites in the Land”, that God has promised to Abram a country that is not lying there virginal and empty, waiting to be settled and developed, but a land that is already filled with people, with farmers, with city dwellers, with petty kings and their armies. No clue is given as to how this problem is to be resolved and in some respects it has still not been resolved!
So even now, when the distant descendants of Abraham (through his second son Isaac) have taken control of a part of the Land that was promised (only a part! Not ”from the River of Egypt to the Euphrates River”!) there are conflicts, bitter conflicts both with the Others, (some of whom claim descent through the first son Ishmael) and within the Israelites themselves about how to deal with these Others, whether with severity or with mildness, whether to make even more compromises and share the small area that is left or whether to keep all there is and even expand. It doesn’t really matter what position you take on this question, the arguments of all sides are all based upon the verses in chapter 12. Do you accept that there is a God who, having created the entire world, can decide which group should go where? Who can make promises? Who can move peoples like pieces on a chess board, depending on whether they obey and serve and show gratitude for what they have, or whether they cease to deserve what they have been given? One who can tell them to move from Here to There and make the best of it?
The Torah never tells us WHY God picks Abram, WHY God speaks to him, WHY God plans that Abram should have to move and settle in a new country. Jewish tradition has tried to fill some of these more obvious gaps with anecdotes and commentaries, midrashim, but the text itself is bare and abrupt. ”Go!” – ”Lech Lecha” literally means ”Go for You!” but God really means ”Go – for Me”! And precisely here lies the Big Mystery: To what extent, when we live our lives according to certain commands from an invisible, unnamed but all-powerful God, are we living our lives for our own sakes or for God’s sake? To what extent do we feel ourselves partners in a Brit, a covenant which ties us inextricably across all the generations and continents to this nomad in the Middle East and his domestic, spiritual and political troubles – and through him to God? To what extent can we feel that a piece of territory in the Middle East was really promised to Us and that we should live there, come what may, or at least defend it, support it, yearn for it from outside? Are we a part of the promise? Or part of the threat?
At some point God says to each of us: ”Lech Lecha” and we have to leave our home, our parents, and set out into the Big Wide World. Some of us have the good fortune to leave in times of peace and prosperity, some of us are merely survivors of a total destruction, orphaned and exiled. Some of us have a vision of the career we want to follow, the subjects we want to study, the places we want to visit and where we may want to settle, while some of us are happy just to be breathing still. Some of us will physically create and raise another generation, some of us may teach and influence another generation. None of us can know what the long-term outcome of our actions can be in, say, another four hundred years’ time. But when the call comes – We have to Go.
It really is as simple, and as complicated, as that!
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild.