Friday, November 11, 2016

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Leḥ Leḥa 5777–Embracing the Spirit of Avram

[Introductory note – my regular readers know that I go through periods of using different ways to spell “G”d, ” and different preferences in transliteration. I’ve decided to forego using “ch” or “kh” for now and go back to the academic practice of using ḥ to represent the sound of the Hebrew letters ח and כ/ ך. I may not stay with it long, as it’s a pain to do, and only certain fonts contain the necessary characters. Oh, and I settled on the G”d spelling a while back because I felt the double-quotation mark was close in feeling to the double ײ we used to abbreviate G”d’s name, so it made it clear that I was not referring to any generic god, but to Ad”nai. Better than a dash or a zero. Philosophically, I’m not all that troubled with writing the Divine name out even when it can be erased or disappear, but call it one of my inconsistent quirks that has personal meaning and value for me.]

Anyone who has ever taught about parashat Leḥ Leḥa to a group of young students (or even adults) has probably asked people to imagine what it would have been like to pick and and move somewhere without having any idea of where you were going and what would happen when you got there. We ask our students how many would be willing to that risk, and hold up Avram/Avraham as an example of a bold and brave person willing to do so. We play role games, imagining the conversation between Avram and his wife Sarai. (In often sadly misogynistic fashion, we imagine Sarai as shrewish wife, sounding like Golde, Yenta the Matchmaker (or even Fruma Sarah,) saying to Avram “You want to do what? Are you out of your mind?” Then Avram reveals that G”d told him to do this. We imagine Sarai saying “What are you, a luftmensch? (airhead.) A lokshen kopf?” (noodle head)  Maybe Avram stomps his foot and Sarai obediently falls in line. Or maybe you see Sarai as simply doing what her husband says to do, because what else is there to do? If your group is creative, you might imagine Sarai as the bored middle-class housewife and spoiled princess thinking “anyplace is better than this dump. Let’s go!” If your group is even more creative, and able to step out of the misogynist paradigm, you might imagine Sarai’s reaction more positively. “Tell me about this G”d,” she might ask. “Did he really promise to make us into a great and wealthy nation?” (If you’re even more progressive, you might have her asking “Did She really promise…”)

The distance from Haran to Sheḥem is about 400 miles, so it obviously took some time. Yet all we read in the text is the end of 12:5 and the beginning of 12:6:

…and they set out for the land of Canaan, When they arrived in the land of Canaan…

Torah is good about leaving out the details when it feels like it (and at other times, is ridiculously detailed.) We’ve toyed with our little biblio-dramas about the discussion that ensued between Avram and Sarai before they set out. Now imagine the conversations that took place during the journey.  Even assuming a theoretically high travel rate of 20 miles per day, it would take 20 days. On foot, with such a large caravan, probably a lot longer.

They arrive at Sheḥem and G”d makes another pronouncement that all this land would be assigned to Avram and his descendants. Then, in just another few brief verses, the caravan makes it way to Bethel, wends it way south into the Negev, and then off into Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan. The text gives us no idea how long Avram and company took to trek the additional 225 miles or so from Bethel and into Egypt (and it never says where in Egypt he went.)

How long they were in Egypt is also unclear. We only know that Avram was sure the Egyptians would take a fancy to Sarai, and pleaded with her to say she was his sister, so they wouldn’t kill him so they could take the beautiful Sarai for themselves. She agrees, and of course see is taken to Pharaoh. There are a lot of unspoken possibilities here. Whatever Sarai was doing it Pharaoh’s house was good enough to make Avram wealthy and prosperous. The cynical among us – oh wait, that’s me – might suggest that Avram prostituted his wife. Kind of hard to conclude otherwise. It says quite clearly in the text that Pharaoh had taken Sarai as a wife (see 12:19.) Then, of course, the inevitable Divine intervention afflicts Pharaoh and his household – so of course, Pharaoh’s first assumption is to blame the Jew (well, in this case, the visitor, since there weren’t really any Jews yet.) Avram admits his deception and is thrown out of Egypt (and for some reason, gets to take his wife and all his wealth with him. Hardly sounds like an angry Pharaoh. As SNL’s church lady used to say “How convenient.”)

You remember this story, right? It’s the one that must have been really popular with the people, but occurred in all sorts of variants, so that the Torah’s creators/redactors wound up using the same tale three times in the text! Who did it really happen to? They couldn’t be sure, so they just threw in all three versions!

As usual, I digress. I want to get back to the leḥ leḥa bit. What really got me thinking about how we play biblio-drama around this story is our assumption that picking up and moving simply because G”d said so must be such a brave thing to do. Is it an accurate assumption?

I look at the path of my own life.

1. Born in the Bronx and lived there for two years.
2. Family moved to the Inwood section of Manhattan (north of “the Heights.”) and stayed there for 16 years.
3. Family moved to the Bronx next to Yankee Stadium for the last 2 years of High School.
4. Moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for college.
5. Lived and worked back home in the Bronx the first summer of college.
6. Winston-Salem, NC for the sophomore college year.
7. Charlotte, NC for a summer job.
8. Winston-Salem for the start of the junior college year
9. Back to home in the Bronx during an apprenticeship in NYC
10. Back to Winston-Salem and school after the apprenticeship

11. Henrico County, VA for a summer job
12. Winston-Salem for the senior college year
13. Back home to Brooklyn, NY (my family had moved)
14. Moved to Doswell, Virgina for a few weeks
15. Moved to Mobile, Alabama for a few months
16. Moved to New Orleans, LA for a year
17. Moved to Clearwater Florida
18. Moved to Largo, FL
19. Moved back to Clearwater, FL
20. Moved somewhere else in Clearwater, FL (total 3 years in FL)
21. Moved to Bristol, Indiana
22. Moved somewhere else in Bristol, IN (total 8 years in Indiana.)
23. Moved to Fargo, North Dakota (for ten years)

24. Move to Nashville, Tennessee
25. Moved somewhere else in Nashville, TN (three years in TN)
26. Moved to Alexandria, VA
27. Moved within the same complex in Alexandria, VA (total of 8 years in VA)
28. Moved to Boyds, Maryland (suburb of DC) for a few months
29. Moved to Amherst, MA (for 3 years)
30. Moved back home to Brooklyn, NY (for 1.5 years)
31. Moved to Skokie, IL (not a full household move)
32. Moved to Deerfield, IL (for 2 years)
33. Moved to Southington, CT (been here for 2 years.)

Now, according to Census data, the average US citizen moves 11.7 times in their lives. Obviously, I’m way above average. Even if we take out the summer college moves, and any others where there wasn’t an actual full move of my household goods requiring a professional mover (or me and a rented truck) it’s 22 times. If we only include my moves as an adult, it’s 20. I have had legal addresses in 13 states, some states multiple times. Where’s home? I’ve lived outside of NYC more than I’ve lived in it (but still think of myself as a New Yorker.)

I can tell you, after all those moves, that I am truly tired of moving, and hope to never have to do it again, but the chances of my not moving again are between slim and none. I can also tell you that, while it has been a big drag to move so much, I am grateful to have experienced life in so many different places in the United States. I may still be a die-hard east coast liberal progressive, but you can’t say I haven’t lived in and exposed myself to life in the mid-west and the south, to life in big cities and small communities. I have not lived in a bubble.

Now, I can’t compare my situation to Avram’s. I didn’t have a Divine voice tell me to just pick up and move, and that I’d be told when I’ve gotten where I’m supposed to go. I moved, as a child, because my family moved, and as an adult because my life took me down that path. We could argue about how many of these moves were truly voluntary as opposed to being a result of circumstances, but that’s not really important. (At least one of Avram’s moves was necessitated by famine. How voluntary is such a move?)

Nevertheless, having done it so many times, I can tell you that it often does feel like one is going somewhere that is a place you do not know. Not just feels like it, but actually is like it. Think of this Jewish New York City kid discovering the realities of places on the other side of that famous New Yorker Magazine cover, Saul Steinberg’s “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” More people lived in the city housing project where I spent most of my childhood that lived in some of the places I have lived. (Bristol, IN had 1200 people when I lived there in the 80s, and had just changed over from 5-digit phone numbers. The housing project I grew up in had a population in just its 7 buildings of 2500.)  The greater neighborhood of my youth had an equivalent or higher population than a number of places I have lived.

When you move some place new, it can be disorienting, scary, stressful. It can also be invigorating, refreshing, and positively challenging. It takes a while to get to “know” someplace new. Some of the places I have lived remained a “place I did not know” for quite some time. Others became home and familiar quite quickly.

So I’m thinking to myself that, despite how we lift up Avram’s example, is it really that bold and brave a thing to do? Seems to me a lot of us do it – perhaps not as a result of a clear Divine call (though who I am my to say that some of us might not have moved on an impulse, some unknown force whispering in our ear?)  Some of the times I have moved I didn’t really have much choice. Other times, I have had more options, more freedom to choose where I would go. Something caused me to make the choice I did, and I can’t always say it was simply a matter of cogitation and logic. I think of the choices I didn’t make, and wonder what life might have been like in those other places that I considered moving for whatever reason. 

On the other hand, maybe it is special, and I am lucky to have, perhaps, something of Abram’s spirit in me, giving me the ability to pick up and move to a new place that I do not know so many times. It is a frightening thing and it does take courage.

Of course, here would come the typical joke about being the wandering Jew. Danger, Will Robinson!  Sadly, in our collective Jewish ignorance, few of us know that this is one of the earliest of anti-Semitic tropes. The wandering Jew is a Christian legend of the Jew doomed to wander the earth until the second coming of Jesus for the offense of having taunted and struck Jesus on the road to Calvary. To be a wandering Jew is not a good thing. At least on the basis of that trope.

The story of Avram’s willingness to pick up and go serves as metaphor in so many different ways, for so many people. One can choose to place emphasis on it being a Divine call, or one can choose to place emphasis on Avram’s willingness to try something new.

Every single time I have moved someplace new (at least since I have had a driver’s license) I have made it a point to drive aimlessly around the area of my new home, trying to feel my way around, almost trying to get lost.  (What is most interesting to me is how, even though I do this so purposefully, after years of living someplace I can still take a different turn and discover some area I’d never seen before. I love when that happens.) I’m fairly sure that not everyone has the innate ability (and willingness) to get deliberately lost, so I’m thankful for the gift. (No fair, btw, if you use GPS to find your way at any point.)

Once in a while, I still find myself deciding to just go out for a drive, with no destination in mind, and just see where I wind up. I’ve discovered some very interesting places doing just that.  Try it, it’s fun. Try it close to home. Try it someplace on vacation or a business trip. Sure, it’s fun to look at Atlas Obscura, or turn on Google Field Trip on your phone, and seek out interesting places to go. Imagine how much more interesting it could be to simply just discover someplace interesting randomly. Embrace the spirit of Abraham.

Now, it would be impossible for me to not make some connection between what is happening in this country right now, and this parasha. Many of us are worried and fearful about the future of this country. Many of us are not only scared, but unwilling to go where our newly elected leader may want to take us. Whether we choose to go forth in a spirit of hope, a spirit of concern, a spirit of anger and defiance, a spirit of cooperation, a spirit of love, a spirit of active resistance, a spirit of wait and see, a spirit of give it a chance, a spirit of fear, and so many other options, we must go forth. Some commentators like to raise up the peculiarity of the Hebrew Leḥ Leḥa and its apparent meaning “go forth, for yourself.”  We must each make the choice, for ourselves, how we will go forth from this point. Whatever your choice, may you have the spirit of Avram to go to a place you do not (yet) know. To go boldly where no person has gone before (that’s for you Trekker grammar wonks.) Live long and prosper.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2016 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Lekh Lekha 5776 - The Other Siders (Redux 5766)
Lekh Lekha 5775 - More Nodding Heads, Whistlign Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh L'kha 5774 - Theistic Singularity: Revisiting the Intellectual Ekhad
Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies


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