It seems it could be time to re-read Philip Roth’s prescient novel ‘The Plot Against America’ (2004), which imagines a fascistic US government suspending civil liberties and persecuting minorities deemed to be a threat to security. It’s a book that had a predecessor in American literature, Sinclair Lewis’s ‘It Can’t Happen Here?’ (1935) about the takeover of the American government by an unstable mix of far-right and populist forces. Imaginative literature might be the most useful resource we have right now to help us deal with feelings of helplessness, anger, or fear about our shared future on this planet.
I am reminded of Salman Rushdie’s words in 1989 when he went into hiding after he became the victim of the fatwa against him - and the populist violence it unleashed - following publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’: “Literature is where I go to explore the highest and lowest places in human society and in the human spirit, where I hope not to find absolute truth but the truth of the tale, of the imagination and of the heart.”
The rabbis of old also took this stance. They called their imaginative literature ‘midrash’. In this spirit I’d like to offer, in relation to this week’s Torah portion, Lech l’cha (Genesis 12 onwards), a creative midrash on the early life of Abraham. It re-works a text I've composed and offered before, but I hear the injunction lech l'cha (12:1) - 'go for your own sake, go into yourself, go towards yourself' - as giving permission, and encouragement, to keep on working at the things that matter, on the journey towards that impossible destination: a place of truth, a space that offers another perspective and antidote to a demagogue's lies, insults and threats.
It’s when they attack my father for what he believed in, that I grow really angry. He was a good man, Terach, a true believer in the old gods. Without his wise counsel and strength of character I would not here today, here to tell my story - even though my story, my beliefs, differ so markedly from his.
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 settled in Haran, on his way to Canaan, where we were always meant to go. Canaan was his Promised Land, before it became mine. But he died there, in Haran, and was buried with his gods around him: gods that 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 and his family, in this world and the world to come.
And when the lazy, the vicious or the ignorant attack his beliefs - when they disparage him, as people do, with the immense condescension of posterity - that’s when I feel aggrieved.
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 - if it is rooted in something other than one's ego: 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 I learnt from this courage he possessed– so that when I was called to move on, I was able to listen, to follow where I was led (Genesis 12:1-4). 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 believed, when the gods were near at hand and seemed to help him every day.
For I was called – as is every youngster, 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 and the old gods. I was called into something new – but it took me a long time to understand what it was all about. 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’ (12:2) and being the bearer of an ‘everlasting covenant’ (17:7). What does it really mean?
I am not sure I ever understood who or what was calling me away from the old ways, calling me on into the unknown – it always came out of the blue, unexpectedly, randomly, the relentless unforeseen, like a message written into the sand beneath my feet: ‘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: that we would be strangers in a strange land, yidden, not just once, but over and again through the generations, carrying that blessed/cursed covenant seared to our souls.
People forget how painful this process was for me, how hard it was to let go of our old ways of thinking. But gradually 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 – that all those old gods, different gods for different parts of life, separate gods for separate parts of reality (El and Baal, mot and Shaddai ), 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 Echad, One - and that meant it embraced me as well.
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 in essence all is One, Ethad. Who could live with this? It demands too much. And yet I found myself bound into a relationship with the One, the Eternal One, bound into a covenant with a new way of seeing, a new way of believing, a new way of being alive 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, Avram the ‘one who crossed over’ – for I did cross a border, not just a geographical one but a border of belief. I crossed over 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 ‘Avram 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 if you attack my faith, or my faithful ones (who may not even believe that I ever existed) - if you attack them, then you attack me.
I am Avram, son of Terach. Proud child of a father in whom I still have pride. As it should be.