Monday, October 15, 2018

Lech Lecha (You Must Go)

For this year’s e-Torah, I will be looking at each week’s portion through the lens of a song.  The music will serve as a kind of midrash, a commentary on the sacred words.

God said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . .” Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.  Abram took his wife, Sarai, and his brother’s son, Lot. . . and they set out for the land of Canaan.           
            -Genesis 12

On pilgrimage the traveler is a foreigner in several ways: a stranger to the companions she meets along the way, a stranger to places visited, and a stranger to the inward journey of meaning and transformation.  On some level, pilgrimage always connotes a life-changing journey. . . What is consistent across cultures and religions is that the path of a pilgrim is a challenging one
            -Dr. Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook, Pilgrimage: The Sacred Art

You must go and you must ramble
Through every briar and bramble
Till your life is in a shambles
Maybe then you will know
You were born to blunder
Born to wander, born to wonder
Even when you’re six feet under
There’s a place that you must go
            -John Hiatt, You Must Go

This week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, begins with God’s call to Abraham: “Go!  Leave behind everything familiar and journey to the land of Canaan.” 

Abraham—and Sarah—set out on what proves to be a lengthy and arduous course of voyages.  Their travels take them through a series of hardships that the Talmudic sages describe as the Ten Trials, beginning with this command to forsake their ancestral home. Ensuing challenges include famine, war, physical and emotional trauma, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and, ultimately, the binding of Isaac on the sacrificial altar.

Sometimes Abraham and Sarah face these trials with grace and wisdom, while at other times they stumble and fail.  But in the end, their journey—which lasts their lifetimes—proves to be transformative.  Their travels—successes and failures alike—re-make them from Mesopotamian shepherds into the father and mother of the Jewish people.

Another name for this kind of transformational voyage is pilgrimage.  This is very different from tourism or business travel, which are, essentially, utilitarian endeavors.  Pilgrimage is about changing your life.  As Professor Huston Smith notes: “You target a distant place—your Mecca, your Jerusalem, your Mount Meru—and set out.  Obstacles enough will erupt.  But by attending to them now—openness, attentiveness, and responsiveness are the essence of pilgrimage—you will be able to surmount them by yielding to them in the way that life always requires that we yield to it.”

The Hebrew Bible is full of pilgrimage journeys: Jacob’s night visions and wrestling, Joseph’s descent into Egypt, young David’s flight from Saul and, of course, our collective forty year voyage through the wilderness.  All of these journeys follow the pattern set by Abraham and Sarah: a physical passage accompanied by inward transformation that requires the traveler to leave her/his comfort zone, overcome significant hardships, and live with openness to learning from the unexpected.  TS Eliot describes this ethos beautifully in his poem, “Little Gidding”: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Or as John Hiatt sings, in his perfectly-suited, well-worn traveler’s voice:

When that howling wind
Comes to carry you again
Just like your next of kin
You must go
To a faraway place
Where you don’t recognize one face
Don’t unpack your old suitcase
Cause you must go

You must go and you must ramble
Through every briar and bramble
Till your life is in a shambles
Maybe then you will know
You were born to blunder
Born to wander, born to wonder

That’s how it begins—for our forebears, for John Hiatt, for each and every one of us.  Whether we long for it or not, the call always, eventually, comes:

You must go. 

And so we ramble through the briars and brambles, back and forth between victories and defeats, , and somehow emerge anew.

To be a Jew—a child of Abraham and Sarah—is to be born to wander and to wonder.

To hear John Hiatt’s You Must Go, from his superb album, Walk On:

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