So any connections between those events and what follows, prompted by this week's Torah portion Lech L'cha (Genesis 12-17), are - as they say - purely coincidental.
His gods, my father’s gods, were gods that failed: they were the gods he’d come to know during his long life, learned to trust from early on, the gods of nature and of death, of the harvests and the seas, of fertility and the seasons; in Ur of the Chaldees where he was born he was ruled by the sun and the moon, and his gods were close to him, he found them living in the earth and he saw them daily in the heavens and in the patterns of the night sky, and he trusted in them, for they gave him life and they gave a meaning to death, they structured the rhythms he lived by, they were all he needed; and he took them with him on his great migration - it is described in the books (Genesis 11:31) - he took us all - myself, Abram; my wife Sarai; my cousin Lot – he took us away from what he’d known, and planted us in Haran, on his way to Canaan, where we were always meant to go, Canaan – his Promised Land. And there he died, and there he was buried, with his gods around him, gods that we the next generation (or at least me, in the next generation) could see the limitations of, even though he believed they would always sustain a man, a family, in this world and the world to come.
And when the lazy, and the vicious, and the ignorant, attack his beliefs – which they do because they fear that I am like him, still clinging to the hopes of the past, when the gods were near at hand and helped us everyday – when they condemn him with the immense condescension of posterity, it gets my goat, it really does. For although I don’t believe in his gods, and their powers to determine life, he taught me the values of faith, the importance of belief, of holding on to what one feels is true in the face of scorn and derision, of cynicism and fear. He taught me that to have a vision was important, to live one’s vision was life-affirming - and would give life to others. Without that vision of his he would not have left his homeland and planted himself in alien soil. And this courage of his I learnt – so that when I was called to move on, I was able to listen, to follow where I was led. I learnt that gift from him, my father Terach. So when they attack him for his beliefs, they attack me. Even though what I believe is different from what he professed.
For I was called – as is every child, in every generation – to build on the past, to forge a new vision, informed by new situations, new realities, and not to rely, not to put my faith in, the old ways of the old gods. I was called into something new – and, amazing to say, you read about it still. But it took me a long time to understand what it was all about – though I’m not sure I ever really understood, I’m not sure it’s understandable – all that talk of blessing and sacrifice, of being a blessing and being willing to sacrifice what is most precious to our hearts. I am not sure I ever understood who or what was calling me on, calling me out – it always came out of the blue, like a message in an invisible bottle, ‘open your eyes, see what is there, look into yourself, and look up from yourself, look at the stars, they are your family written into the future, your descendents, constellations of faith...’
And every step of the way, there was fear, fear and trembling, the fear of the unknown, the dread of what would be demanded next, and the deep dark vision of future suffering, the shadows haunting the blessing: strangers in a strange land, 'yiddos', not just once, but over and again through the generations, carrying that blessed/cursed covenant, seared to our souls. And all those old gods, separate gods for separate parts of reality – el and baal, mot and shaddai – different gods for different parts of life: somehow it dawned on me - or it was forced on me, sometimes it came like a revelation, a sudden vision, a clarity of seeing, of insight – I realised that they just couldn’t all be split up, the gods – the elohim - they couldn’t all have an independent life of their own, but they had to be connected, they had to belong together, they had to One, Echad. The divine couldn’t exist sometimes here and sometimes there, but the divine was in everything, it really was One, and me with it.
This is why I lived in fear, trembling before the mystery of Being, the mystery that past and present and future is just our way of seeing, our way of being, but it is in essence all One, Echad. Who could live with this? It demands too much. And yet I found myself bound into a covenant with it, a covenant with a new way of seeing, a new way of believing, a new way of being where my being resonated with the Being of the universe. Who wouldn’t be frightened of seeing the world this way?
And it changed me, this new way of seeing. I started off as Avram, ben Terach: Avram, son of Terach; and I became Avram ha-Ivri, Abram the ‘one who crossed over’ – for I did cross a border, not just a geographical one but in terms of belief, from the old gods of my father to a new intuition about divinity, that everything was connected, everything was One. I became Avram ha-Ivri, whom you know as ‘Abram the Hebrew’. And from there to Avraham, the founder of faith, the founder of faiths – who could have imagined?
It was a long journey for a boy born in Haran to a father who’d put his faith in the old elohim in all their dazzling multiplicity, a long journey to a new way of thinking about Elohim (same name, different way of seeing what it meant), a long journey to a new kind of faith, a faith not just rooted in nature but rooted in story, in history, filled with surprises, challenges, obligations, duties, a faith austere and joyful, fraught with uncertainty, shadowed by doubts, a faith my descendents began to think of as belonging to me, though it isn’t mine, it belongs to all of us. And this journey continues, the journey of faith of Avraham Avinu – ‘our father Abraham’ . So attack my faith, or my faithful ones (who may not even believe in me), attack them (subtly or not so subtly) and you attack me.
I am Avram, son of Terach. Proud child of a father in whom I still have pride. As it should be.
[Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, October 12th, 2013]