In the annual cycle of readings from the Torah, the Jewish story could be said to begin this week. Earlier stories - the mythic narratives of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel and the diversification of languages – all these tales are universal, there’s not a Jew in sight, the Hebrew people don’t yet exist; these stories are the backdrop to the drama to come; the storytellers are creating, narrating, a prologue to set the scene for the arrival on stage of the first ‘hero’ (as it were) of this particular, peculiar story of the Israelite community that Jews today find themselves heirs to.
At the end of the sedrah we read last week, set in Ur of the Chaldees – it’s in southern Iraq – we hear over several verses about a large family dynasty: husbands and wives, sons and daughters, all named, the details lovingly recoded, the ages when they give birth, how long they lived, a family history of information only, no stories, no personalities, nothing to distinguish one person from the next, one generation from the next. Someone called ‘Abram’ is mentioned, but he’s just part of a list - he could be anyone, no one would know him from Adam, so to speak. He has a wife, Sarai – and there’s only one tiny piece of biography added, en passant: she cannot conceive, she has no child (Genesis 11:30). There seems no immediate significance to that – though later we find out that it’s crucial.
But the story moves on, Abram moves with his father and family from Ur, towards Canaan – no reason is given, economic migrants probably, people have always moved from land to land, it’s an ancient story – and they settle along the way, before they reach their intended destination, in Haran – it’s in southern Turkey – which is where Terach, Abram’s father, dies.
And before we can draw breathe, in our next paragraph, the beginning of this week’s sedrah (Genesis chapters 12-17) - but remember that the sedrah divisions are later than the Torah text, they are produced when the rabbis got to work dividing up the text for weekly readings – suddenly our unfolding story takes off in a completely new direction. Abram hears a voice, receives an insight, is opened up to something extra-ordinary. His father has died - and it’s as if that space opens him up to be receptive to something that comes to him about what he needs to do now.
The Hebrew (12:1) is brilliantly expressive but enigmatic – lech l’cha: ‘get up and go’, ‘go for yourself’, ‘go, for your own sake’, ‘go towards your real self’ (as the midrash has it), ‘go, journey, into your Self’, as the Hasidic masters interpreted it, psychologically. Lech – verb; le – preposition; cha – pronoun. But lech l’cha is more than the sum of its parts: it’s a pun, a play on words, generating a rhythm, which involves a repetition and a moving forward – “go, go on!”
What the divine voice reveals, invokes, becomes a prototype for Jewish history, personal and collective. On one level, life is a journey: we have no choice but to ‘go, go on,’ – even if we don’t always want to journey ‘into ourselves’, we do keep on going. And historically, this has been our fate: we have survived, we go, we go on. Stubbornly, joyfully, defiantly, thankfully, fearfully, crazily - we keep on going.
How does the verse continue? “Go, go on, from your homeland, from your family of origin, from your household” (12:1) – the Jewish story from Abram’s time onwards has been a story of journeying, geographically: mayartzecha, ‘homelands’ left behind over again over the millennia.
And then u’mi’moladtcha, ‘families of origin’ departed from – socially or economically or politically or spiritually, sometimes huge transformations in one generation, from rags to riches, from religious to secular, from no formal education to doctorates and Nobel prizes, dizzying transformations in a single generation, ‘go for yourself, go for your own sake’, it’s been the guiding mantra of Jews, particularly in modernity, families of origin left far behind.
And then u’mibayt avicha, ‘leave your household’, ‘your father’s house’: maybe the hardest leaving of all, not just to leave the shelter of the family home, but to recognise emotionally, or pragmatically, that your parents are not the only sources of wisdom, the only guides to truth, or love, or how to live in the world; you sometimes have to break with them, separate from them, as you move towards ‘your real self’, lech l’cha: journey towards who you really are - which is not a mirror of your mother, or a clone of your father. That can be the hardest, most painful, leaving of all.
And the Hebrew text speaks to all these levels of leaving – homeland, family of origin, parental ways of living. And Abram hears, realises, intuits, that if he can do this extraordinary physical and emotional and spiritual set of leavings there is another land waiting for him; “the land that I will show you” (12:1). It’s Abram’s first test, to trust this voice, to follow this voice, where it will lead him.
But the voice does not stop there. Abram hears something more, realises something else, intuits how much is at stake – this isn’t just a personal journey, it’s part of a larger story, it’s foundational for our Jewish story. Without it Jews would not still be gathering to hear this tale told again. This absurd and grandiose vision is presented to Abram as trans-historical. Our storytellers increase the stakes, they raise the bar up to the heavens, they broaden the narrative to embrace humanity itself, beyond the horizon of time.
‘You’ll become a great nation, renowned throughout the world, and you will be a blessing - but being a blessing and carrying a destiny will bring to you both blessings and curses, people will love you and hate you, yet ultimately the world will be a better place for your existence, your going-on-being, and all the families of the earth will come to realise that they are blessed because of what you are and carry and represent and live out.’ (12: verses 2-3, my paraphrase).
This is our myth, this is our sacred story, our grandiose fantasy - and our storytellers introduce us to it in these verses through this character, Abram, from Haran, by way of Ur of Chaldees, whose migration will become part of the living saga of the Jewish people through all our migrations. It’s become part of our psychic DNA, this extra-ordinary tale, fantasy, narrative.
And what do we make of it? In a way, we have no words with which we can reply to it. Like Abram. No words. No response. No dialogue. “Va’yelech Abram…” – “And Abram went…” (12:4). Actions speaking louder than words. Actions speaking instead of words. Because what was there to say? Lech, he’d heard : va’yelech, and he went. There was nothing to say.
So the Jewish story, our sacred journey through time and history, begins in obedience, and in silence. And maybe in bafflement – who knows? Obedience to the Word, submission to what is revealed, intuited, understood in a new way. The arguing came later: all the words, all the questions, all the complaints, all the dissent, all the struggling with the Word, all that wrestling with angels and strangers, that all came later - it’s part of our story too, part of the sacred story. But this week we read how the journey starts: in vision, in promise, in separation, in journey, in silence, in submission, in hearing the heartbeat of Jewish life: ‘be a blessing, become a blessing…'
Let’s jump now two thousand years, more (countless years more): if this was a film, say by Stanley Kubrick, our next scene follows straight on, a jump cut from mythic time into history. November 5th, 1938. It’s a Shabbat, and the sedrah of the week is Lech l’cha, read in synagogues that day throughout Germany, along with everywhere else that Jews gather to hear their sacred texts. These same words, this story of leaving homelands, and families, and homes – who knows how those words resonated in people’s hearts in Germany in autumn 1938?
Four days later, during that week of Lech l’cha, on November 9th (81 years ago today) paramilitary forces and civilians attack synagogues and Jewish-owned shops, houses, schools, hospitals. An orgy of looting and violence sweeps through Germany, Austria, Sudetenland - 267 synagogues destroyed; 7,000 businesses vandalised or closed down; 30,000 Jewish men rounded up into concentration camps.
“I will bless those that bless you and curse those who curse you” (12:2) – they knew back then, those ancient storytellers, that the Hebrew people, the Israelite community, the Jewish community, carrying this vision, would attract both blessings and curses, both admiration and appreciation, and envy and hatred. How did they know that? They couldn’t know. And yet they did know. Abraham’s journey begins, symbolises, a history of journeying, Jewish journeys through the millennia, bringing blessing, attracting curses, generation after generation.
Jump cut. 51 years exactly, November 9th, 1989. The week leading up to Lech l’cha, and Germany, risen from the ashes and the shame, but now divided, has news that transfixes the world. News about journeys, and leaving homelands and families of origin.
In the early evening of November 9th, 1989, an East German government spokesman, following an autumn of political protests about travel restrictions, told a press conference that East Germans would soon be free to travel into West Germany. Asked when, he hesitated and then, to the shock and amazement of the press corps, said ‘From now, immediately’.
The Western press reported that the border had opened – it hadn’t, they were wrong – but when people started gathering in large numbers in Berlin on both sides of the border (and remember it’d been closed since 1961 and you’d be shot if you tried to cross it), the officials were overwhelmed by the crowds and around 11.30 that night passport checks by the guards were abandoned as people just flooded through, and in the next 24-48 hours – over Shabbat Lech l’cha itself, in fact – the first pieces of the hated wall were pulled down. ‘Go, go for your own sake, go: leave your land, your family, your home…’.
The Jewish story is a universal story as well. Jewish history and European history are intertwined in unbreakable bands of steel; or better, bands of silk, knotted together so they can never be undone, and their colours and textures just merge into a profuse riot of dense and vibrant patterning.
Thirty years later, as the anniversary of these events is marked – on this fate-filled Shabbat of leaving and journeying and blessing and cursing – we are now able to see that this opening up to the West was also a source of pain for many; millions moved for a better life, millions more lost their jobs, their security, their sense of who they were - it brought a curse as well as a blessing, and not just in Germany but in Poland and Hungary and may of the former lands where communism had held sway. And the rise of right wing nationalism in Europe, that once more threatens Jews, is just another turn in the wheel of history.
So Brexit or no Brexit, it may be worth remembering, as our Torah returns to the symbolic point of origin of the Jewish story, that our diasporic Jewish story is also, so much, a European story: that we are part of Europe in deep and knotted ways and that shared peace, shared trade, shared security, shared scientific and cultural and educational projects, shared values, should not be sacrificed on the altar of some ideological illusion that insularity is somehow better than solidarity.
And as our Jewish community in the UK goes through its current paroxysm of fury, and tears itself apart over what to think about the Labour party and antisemitism, who to vote for, who not to vote for, our Torah text reminds us that we have known from the very beginning of our story, our history, that some will curse us, but that that should not deflect us from our mission, our purpose, which is vehyeh bracha – “be a blessing” (12:2). Nothing more than that is required – but also, nothing less. “Be a blessing”.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, November 9th, 2019]
For those interested in the current debate in Anglo-Jewry about how Jews 'should' vote in the forthcoming election I have written a short piece in response to a somewhat provocative suggestion from a colleague: