In most of my previous musings on parashat Lech Lecha, I've chosen to examine themes from later on in the story, and ignored the beginning. Was that because I found those initial verses of Chapter 12 too simple, or too baffling, I ask myself? Sure, I've often chosen to avoid the more frequently discussed passages when I write these musings, but I can't help but think there's something else at play in my avoidance of discussing these simple few words:
"Vayomer Adnai el Avram: Lech lecha meiartsecha umimoladtecha umi beit avicha el haaretz asher arecha.....vayeilech Avram ka-asher diber eilav Adnai, vayeilech ito Lot v'Avram ben chameish shanim v'shiv'im shanah b'tzeito meicharan."
Gd said to Avram: Go forth, for yourself, from your land and the place of your birth and your Father's house to the land I will show you...Avram went forth as Gd said to, and Lot with him. Avram was 75 years old when he left Haran.
It hit home for me just last night why this passage is so important to me, and why I may have avoided commenting on it. I had two different opportunities last evening to teach and talk about this passage with some teens. Both times I set it up as an exercise, starting by randomly commanding various people in the group to "go somewhere, and wait for something good to happen." Then we sat and analyzed why (or why not) each person actually did as I instructed. Of course, it was a complex and multi-layered series of reasons and rationales, ranging from respect for authority figures or elders, trust, curiosity, interest in a potential reward for following instructions, etc.
Then I asked the teens to put themselves in the place of Avram. Would they get from verse one to verse 4 as easily as he had? Most reluctantly admitted that, in Avram's shoes, they probably would not have gone. "So," I asked, "I have more power over your than Gd? That's interesting but a little discomforting." "But you're here." "I can see you." "I thought it might be fun."
"Maybe," one suggested, "Avram was just hearing voices in his head, having an hallucination?" "History," I replied, "is replete with brilliant innovators and courageous people that society labeled as mad. However, I'll grant your point, maybe Avram was hearing voices in his head. That doesn't mean, however, he was imagining them, does it?"
"Carrot and stick," said another. "What's the carrot?" I asked. "That Gd promised to make of Avram a great nation and a blessing, and that all the people of the earth would bless themselves by him." "OK, but what's the stick?" "The stick is that Avram is a primitive man, and his Gd just told him to do it." "So Avram acted out of two base instincts-fear and greed?"
Maybe, perhaps, those were part of what drove Avram to so obediently follow Gd's command to go forth. How much so, I am not sure, and that's why that little piece of text appears as ellipsis above. "We moderns have a lot of hubris--pride," I told the speaker. "We always assume that our distant ancestors, because they lived in a less complex civilization, had less complex intelligence, and less complex intellectual thought. I think that Torah, and many other ancient writings prove otherwise. Our ancestors were capable of thought as sophisticated than we are --perhaps, in some cases, even more so, undistracted as they are by the mass of knowledge we have accumulated. When it comes to understanding the non-physical universe, I think Avram had a distinct advantage over us."
One student suggested that Avram was predisposed to accept the idea that there was this one special Gd. The idol destroying story is midrash, I reminded her. The text doesn't tell us that Avram thought the gd who spoke to him was the one and only Gd. We just happen to know that because we read the preface before reading this story. There's no credible evidence Avram was a monotheist at that point in time.
"Monotheist, shmonotheist," I replied. "It doesn't matter exactly what Avram believed. We're the ones who put all these labels on ideas of Gd, we're the ones who try and make an intellectual exercise, to make a science of it all. Maybe Avram had a better understanding of Gd than we do."
And there it was-I opened my own eyes. This simple passage made me uncomfortable because this one man, thousands of years ago, had the intellectual capacity, the simple faith, the curiosity, the fear, the awe, and more that I, myself, cannot seem to find within, try as hard as I might. Every time I ask myself, would I do as Avram did, I'd like to think that I would but know in my heart I probably wouldn't.
There's no great miracle here. No sea parting, no burning bush, Just Gd speaking to Avram. (Gd "suggesting" to Avram--are we sure it was a command?) And Avram doing as Gd suggested. For what compelling reason? Dropping our modern paradigms, and our view of the ancients as our intellectual inferiors, it really is possible to believe that Avram had a better handle on the import of this suggestion from Gd.
Did Avram ask "why me?" Did he go because he feared this unseen power? Did he go out of simple curiosity? Did he go for the promise of reward? The text doesn't say a word about this. Is it up to us to try and put thoughts and ideas into Avram's head? Maybe we do this because we ourselves can't seem to find it within us to believe the Avram did what he was told to do by Gd for reasons we cannot rationalize, fathom, or understand. Because maybe Avram had a better understanding of Gd than we do. Our understanding is cluttered and littered with the detritus of millennia of thought, ritual, history.
The Torah strips all that away with this simple and powerful story that offers no explanations. And we can't stand not having explanations, can we?
Maybe we all need to pray for ability to lose our need to have everything explained. Maybe not losing it all the time--I'm not quite sure I'm ready to go that far, to put my life totally in the hands of whatever incomprehensible fortune the Creator of the Universe has in mind. I want to hold on to that desire to have things explained. Yet I know there are times I might be better off not being a slave to it. I think that's what I'll be praying for this Shabbat. How about you?
©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5762-Plainly Spoken
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh Lekha 5760-Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
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