Lech L’cha: On Necessary Journeying

journeyingLech L’cha: Betake yourself. Get on with you. Go forth!

God’s first words to Avram are a command, a demand, even. Avram will be sent into a wilderness of not-knowing, a future he cannot predict. He leaves Haran, a city literally named “street” — harrannu, in the Akkadian.

Avram is ivri: a Hebrew, one who crosses over thresholds, boundaries. He is become, by his crossing, an immigrant and a stranger.

Our sages point to the many ways these two words might be translated.

Lech l’cha: Go by yourself. Or, “go to yourself.” Or even: “go for yourself.”

Go by yourself, the Holy One says: Are we asked to go it alone, to wander inward to our very souls? But if we do not venture into the depths of heart and soul and mind, how are we to know who we are, much less who we might become?

Go to yourself, YHVH says. Go into a new world, a new land. There, Avram is to find his roots. Must we leave in order to come home? Do we journey in order to know where we belong? We must know the vulnerability of the new because the new – not the known – teaches us how to stretch, risk ourselves, and go forward.

Go for yourself , Rashi insists, is the message here. If you do not go you will have missed the mandate: it is for you, yourself that you must leave, and see the world.

Again and again our Torah asks us to go deep inside its words, deep inside ourselves. Go by yourself, to yourself, for yourself. The answers we seek are alone inside us, to us and part of us, for us to find.

Goethe wrote: Wonach sollen wir trachten? Die Welt zu kennen, und sie nicht verachten. What shall we strive for? To know the world and not to despise it.

This last year we have, as a nation, journeyed into the deadliest of territories. We have traveled through thickets of lies and invective. We have longed for a peace and a forgetting.

We have been caught in a city of streets that led nowhere. We must cross over and leave. We must journey away into some open territory.

What might we meet there? Who might we meet there?

We might meet other immigrants and wanderers too – those who have escaped danger and death only to find themselves described as a hateful burden. We might find those have lived in fear of rejection after decades of offering their labor and their hope to this country. We might find those who have been exiled from opportunities to settle, to find the rest they need.

We might find fellow human beings who need to know that their lives matter. Black Americans must finally be freed from entrenched systems of violence and oppression.

When we lived in Haran, did we help build walls as well as streets?

I am privileged to teach at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Every day I go into that known territory to discover the unknown, and to discover myself.

Who can I be for Kamala, the student whose parents were immigrants, who works harder than just about any student I know because, she says, she is so privileged.

Who must I be for Caleb, a white boy from this state, who is desperately trying to escape his past as a drug dealer. The very dealers he used to work with do not let him go; they insist that he work with them again. They brought guns to his apartment this semester and gunfire was a part of their visit.

Who can I be for Alex, who lost his mother to cancer in the first weeks of the semester and who reads Lamentations for our class and asks me why God is absent in a text of the most extreme pain.

As Avram did before us, we must journey.

The Holy One tells us, too: Leave Haran, a city of streets and boundaries. Leave to find the world. Leave in order to find yourselves.

May we journey into the world this year so that we know our purpose. May our purpose nourish the peace and the safety we long for. May we fill the world with shalom by journeying into its very center, and ours.

 

The names of my students have been changed to assure privacy.

The Last Shabbat: On Noach and Election 2016

double_rainbow_with_niagara_fallsFor over a month I could not write anything other than lectures or lesson plans. I could write what I had to; I could not write anything else.

How could it happen? I live a life in which my students offer me extraordinary insights on a weekly basis. My studies offer me pleasure. Learning is a daily practice – even, in a sense, a prayer. Normally, I write with enthusiasm and joy.

But for weeks since the unrest in Charlotte, I have been unable to compose a word. I have felt helpless. Why add to the accumulated grief? We have been awash in vitriol for months, nearly drowned by the flood of slanderous speech. Violent language has been so mainstreamed we can hardly imagine a political conversation without insults and epithets of the worst kind.

Today, we read Noach.

It is no children’s story. All those brightly constructed toy arks and colorful storybooks ought to be banished. We may not pretend that this story is a happy one. The flood was mass destruction, a catastrophe we know in smaller, but terrifying forms: Hurricane Katrina. The 2011 T?hoku earthquake and tsunami. The nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Mother Nature and humanity alternately cause destruction beyond words.

I imagine him when I read it: Noach seeing the nightmare unfold, the bodies wash away. Noach listening as the trees snap in two, watching the refuse swirling about the boat. He must have heard the cries.

But Noach, the comforter, could say nothing. Not before, not during. And when he spoke after it was all over, it was to utter a curse.

This Shabbat was the last before the 2016 election. I tried to create a fence around my Sabbath. I have tried this for weeks. But never, I admit, with the full measure of success I longed for.

How could I? Like everyone else who has paid a modicum of attention, I have seen the effigies, the ugly signs. I have heard screaming protesters shout appalling slogans. I have absorbed this fact: Political leaders have excused the language of sexual assault and thus, the rape culture that engenders it.

Last summer, during the first days of July, I was visiting Chicago. My husband Ralf and I walked around the city for days. On one of them, we chanced by a rehearsal in Grant Park. The Chicago Symphony Youth Orchestra was practicing for their Independence Day performance.

The orchestra was made up of young people whose heritage was obviously and beautifully diverse. Asian and Caucasian, Latino and black — who knows how many other ethnicities were part of the musical mix.

They played the national anthem.

It was the only time I ever cried hearing that piece. I cried because the orchestra’s very existence seemed like an antidote to the misery this entire nation has suffered this past election year.

It has been an ugly, unforgiving time. I have been tired even when I slept well. I am exhausted even after I try to rest.

So why speak? Why write? What is there to say?

There must be a way to turn away in order to turn towards. There must be a way to repudiate what has been in order to create what must be.

May we long for a rainbow?