I am writing this in the week of parashat Lech Lecha. ‘Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house’, God tells Abram, ‘I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you.’ (Genesis 12: 1-2)
And so, Abram, 75 years old, goes forth, taking his wife Sarai with him, as well as his nephew Lot and his possessions and people.
Taking up our belongings and moving away from our parental home, our land and our language is a part of our history and of our identity. Last names often tell part of that story. The poet Marge Piercy puts it poignantly in her poem ‘Maggid’, when she honours those who left for their ‘courage to let go of the door, the handle…The courage to abandon the graves dug into the hill… The courage to walk out of the pain that is known, into the pain that cannot be imagined, mapless…We Jews are all born of wanderers, with shoes under our pillows’ (From ‘Maggid’. For the full poem, see https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57595/maggid)
Yet, our ancestors also left with the dream and the hope that they would be the last to leave their home and that their children could stay wherever they were. Some of them changed their name to express that aspiration. We may regret their decision but cannot but admire their dream.
In parashat Lech Lecha Abram’s journey is not the last one, not even in this parashah. Soon after his arrival, famine makes the family travel to Egypt and later on, Lot will leave for the rich land of the Jordan, with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Later again, Hagar runs away into the desert to escape Sarai’s ill-treatment. She is met by an angel, who tells her to return. Hagar, the slave woman is the only woman to be promised multiple descendants and the only woman to name a place. (Genesis 16: 7-15)
The last few weeks have been very dark for all of us. As individuals and as a community we may feel as if we have no longer a sense of safety. Some of us fear for the safety of loved ones and we are all overwhelmed by the stories of destruction in Israel and Palestine, day by day. Emotions run high. As I told those of you who came to light candles together on Friday, I find myself lost for words – even scared of words, as they so easily now antagonise.
At the same time, I am grateful for a tradition that commands me to light candles every week as an act that brings joy and peace. I am grateful for texts that do not provide easy answers, but instead asks me to hold ambiguities. The mighty patriarch and the lowly slave woman both receive the same promise. The coming weeks, months, perhaps years are going to be hard. We are not without resources and we are not in this alone. I hope that each and everyone of us will be blessed with the courage to look at the unknown and see a better future, sustained by one another and by our tradition.