Sitting at the dinner table, the conversation drifted to a young man’s complaint about an absent elder’s reminiscence. The newly-minted college grad had dismissed the elder’s story as mere prattle not worthy of his consideration. An elder at the table objected to his youthful callousness: “But that’s his story,” melting the condescension – at least a little bit. Yes, the teller is as important as the story.
We Jews tell our stories over and over again. While rabbinic tradition teaches us to turn each story over and over again, many leave or never appear at the table because they are not interested. Still there are Jews who take their places. And yes, we are worried that fewer and fewer of us will listen, learn, and engage in strong conversations about who we were, who we are, and who we may be.
We tend to tell immigrant stories, a universal genre that can evoke sympathy for the traveler and nostalgia for an imagined past. Jewish immigrant stories massage Jewish souls as if their souls are the latest edition of a compiled heritage waiting to be updated by someone else’s Jewish experiences – although not theirs. The Abraham story is one of those stories.
Listening to the Abraham story unfold, the immigrant, still named Abram, who with his family will fulfill a divine request, at first seems to understand only the rewards of answering God’s call: a magnified reputation, increased wealth, safety, and a land his progeny will inherit. As time goes on, we see a more complex Abram. But we moderns are ill at ease with Abram’s willingness to experience naively the journey in store for him. If it were we, we would want to know all the details at first, planning our journey to make it meaningful and also to make it safe. We don’t get any of that in God’s bargain with Abram. We are tested by Abram’s lack of intellectual involvement in his destiny although it is Abram’s responses to circumstances that give us insight into Abram’s complex character. No sooner is Abram given God’s blessing than he disappoints us by his seeming cowardice out of fear of Pharaoh by not revealing to him that Sarah is actually his wife and not his sister (commentaries aside). But we are impressed by Abram’s resolve to rescue his nephew Lot from his captors. We do perk up at the conclusion of the war among the kings when Abram rejects the king of Sodom’s offer of wealth for his part in defeating the other kings because he doesn’t want the king to take credit for his wealth. Abram is no hero. However, we do not have to imagine a flaw or a virtue. Surely not all is revealed in the Script, but there they are.
Abram’s big story is exactly that. God dreams, Abram does. Earthly Abram’s faith allows him to trust Heaven’s perspective, but finally, it is Abram’s journey that we follow.
Lech l’cha is typically translated “go forth.” The sages play with “lecha” which may be translated “for you” or as Rashi had it, “for yourself.” The Zohar has it “go and refine yourself.” In neither translation do we understand that Abraham is to complete his journey. But it is the Zohar’s perspective that intrigues.
For us in the 21st century the challenge is not either or but “both and.” For contemporary Jews, like our ancestors, what matters most are the journeys themselves. On this Shabbat lech l’cha, let us begin our journeys anew; let us Go forth, both for the sake of God and for our own sake as well.