As We Continue Our Journey, We Note What We Leave Behind

Earlier this week I had the honor of giving the d’var Torah at the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, a body on which I hold an ex officio seat as President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. This is what I shared:

Thank you. I am honored to share some words of Torah as we begin this meeting together.

It is always interesting to me to share a d’var Torah in the middle of the week. Traditionally we look forward to the upcoming portion, in this case, Lech Lecha. We count time up towards Shabbat—Sunday is yom rishon (“the first day”), Monday is yom sheni (“the second day”), etc. until we reach Shabbat. And traditionally we read the beginning of the next week’s portion at the Shabbat mincha portion. As one Shabbat ends, we anticipate the portion to come.

Yet at the same time, when we are in the middle of the week last week’s portion—and in this case Noach—still lingers with us, it still echoes.

This week’s portion of Lech Lecha is that powerful story of Abraham being called by God: “God said to Abram, go forth from your country, from your native land, 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, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

It is a story of radical change, of transformation, of moving away from what was toward the unknown of what will be. It is taking the first few steps into an unknown future.

It is a story that inspires us, especially as we are reading it so close after the High Holidays in which we all made our commitments to a new future for ourselves.

But as I mentioned, we can also see ourselves as being in between portions, so we can look back at Noach, particularly the end, to help inform our reading of Lech Lecha. And when we read the end of Noach with the beginning of Lech Lecha, as it follows in the Torah, as opposed to just the break that comes with the beginning of the portion, we can understand Lech Lecha somewhat differently.

At the end of parashat Noach, at the end of chapter 11 of Genesis, we have a genealogy leading up to Abraham. And in verse 31-32 we read, “And Terach took his son Abram and Lot the son of Haran is grandson and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and lived there. And the days of Terach were 205, and he died in Haran.”

Abraham, with his family, was already on the way to Canaan, when something stopped them and the settled in Haran. Lech Lecha is therefore less a radical shift and transformation, but the continuation of a journey already undertaken.

So we remember that even what seems like a radical break from the past is still build upon what comes before. We shift, we pivot, but all of what led to this moment in which we find ourselves is what made us who we are, and indeed, allowed us to make the change we need to make.

Abraham may not have been receptive to the call if he heard it in Ur, but he was ready when he heard it in Haran.

There is another piece of this “in-betweenness” of the portions that I want to hold up, and that is the last verse, the verse that speaks of Terach’s death.

Rashi, the classic medieval French commentator, does a close read of the text and notices something interesting. He points out that according to Genesis 11:26, Terach was 70 years old when Abraham was born. And according to Genesis 12:4, Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran. 70+75=145. Terach was 145 when Abraham left Haran to go to Canaan, and he lived another 60 years longer. If this is the case, Rashi asks, then why does the Torah record Terach’s death before telling the story of Abraham’s call if he was still alive?

The answer, Rashi says, is that the Torah wants us to think Terach died before Abraham left. The Torah does not want us to realize that Abraham left his father in his old age, and that Abraham did not show his father the proper respect. And it worked, we don’t realize this fact that Terach was still alive.

Here then, is a lesson about the nature of growth and change. For each new endeavor we embrace, whether individual or communal, whether examining our sense of self or our communal direction, we are also leaving something behind, and with that comes loss. And we do what we can to minimize the sadness, hurt, and loss that comes with that. The Torah does this by recording Terach’s death before Abraham’s call even though the chronological order is different. And we do it on our own ways.

Every opportunity to gather around this Board table is an opportunity to hear the call of Lech Lecha, to go forth towards something new.

And each time we remember that we are really continuing a journey that we have always been on, and with each new step of that journey we embrace what is to come and we also mourn, remember, and offer gratitude for what we leave behind.

We look forward to Canaan, and we don’t forget Haran.


Yes, Go Forth. But Don’t Forget to Smash the Idols.

This post was originally posted on the Rabbis Without Borders blog, as my monthly contribution you can read it in its original posting here.

Last week’s election prompted strong reaction and reflection from the Jewish community. With a majority of Jews supporting the Democratic candidate, and the troubling echos of anti-Semitism and xenophobia which permeated the campaign, the victory of Donald Trump has brought Jewish organizations to issue statements, hold gatherings and assess what the next four years will mean.

In our Torah reading last Shabbat, we read portion Lekh L’kha, in which God called Abraham (then called Avram) to “go forth” (lech lecha) from his homeland to a new land that God will show him. This was the beginning of Abraham’s covenant with God, and a renewal of God’s relationship with humanity which hit a low point after the story of Noah and the flood. It was a new start, and a journey into a new future.

Because of the confluence between the election and this portion, several statements about the election evoked Lech Lecha. For example the Union for Reform Judaism wrote,

This week we read Parsha Lech Lecha with its clarion call to “go forth.” Just as Abraham went out into a place of great uncertainty, we now find ourselves in an unanticipated time and place. But we know, like Abraham, that our faith and enduring values will be a strong foundation as we move forward.  We love the stranger, feed the hungry and care for the orphan and the widow.

The (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly wrote, “As we approach Shabbat Lekh Lekha, we continue reading the saga of our forefather Abraham who models for us the Jewish values of welcoming the stranger and intervening to advocate for the safety of others’ lives.”

It is good to evoke our spiritual ancestor Abraham at these times, there is no choice but to go forth into the unknown. But we can not forget another key part of Abraham’s story, not what happened after he was called but what happened before.

Abraham just appears on the scene in the Torah, we don’t know why he of all people was chosen, and so our ancient commentators ask the obvious question, “why Abraham?” Various ancient midrashim (commentaries) seek to answer that question by telling stories of the young Abraham. One famous story (so famous that people often think it is actually in the Torah itself) is the story of Abraham smashing the idols.

As told in Genesis Rabbah 38, Abraham’s father was an idol salesman. When he was out one day, Abraham took a club and smashed all the idols, then placing the club in the hands of the largest idol. When his father returned and demanded to know what had happened, Abraham told him that large idol smashed the rest. “Are you trying to trick me?” his father demanded, “Idols aren’t real.” And Abraham responded, “Do you hear what your mouth is saying.”

In other words, Abraham proved that the idols are false; they can not act since they are merely wood or stone. This, the ancient rabbis say, is Abraham awakening to faith where he recognizes that there is just one unseen powerful God.

In light of last week’s events, we can understand this story differently. Perhaps in a classic theological sense, the story of the idol smashing was a story of awakening to faith. But it also can represent other things. For us, Abraham smashing the idols represents

  • Rejection: A rejection of what we think to be normative, of what we believe to be true about the world, of what we have been told about the way the world works. And with that the gaining of a new clarity of what might be.
  • Listening to the voice from within: Trusting that which is inside us that tells us something is not right, that we need to trust our own thoughts and ideas in face of evidence, that we should not get too comfortable about what is happening around us or too trusting of so-called “experts.”
  • Acting on strong feelings: That we are able to act out without being labeled as hysterical or dramatic or overly sensitive. That because of our actions, we are not easily dismissed. That we need to raise our voices and our fists when the situation demands it.

There is no moving forward without the smashing of these idols.

While portion Lech Lecha opens with Abraham being called by God to go on to Canaan, we sometimes forget that his family was already on the move headed in that direction. Terah, Abraham’s father, is described at the end of Genesis 11 (the end of the Torah portion Noah) as already traveling from Ur, where he is from, to Canaan. But they stop and settle in Haran.

We can imagine this story of the idols taking place in Haran, the place where Abraham’s family settled and grew comfortable and complacent. God’s call was therefore not a call to a new journey, but a calling him out of complacency, of comfort, and to finish the trip he had started.

So yes, in light of these election results, let’s move forward. Let’s break out of our own comfort and complacency. And as we heed the call to lech lecha, let’s not forget to first smash the idols that need to be smashed

Love Thy (Next-Door) Neighbor as Thyself

It was my monthly turn on the Rabbis Without Borders blog today. Here is my contribution, reflecting on a recent incident. Talking about The Twilight Zone, neighbors, our ancestor Abraham, Halloween and my chickens…

Love Thy (Next-Door) Neighbor as Thyself