Thursday, 26 Oct 2017

Written by David-Yehuda Stern

Parashat Lech L’cha: Leave Your Native Land and Go Forward!

 

As the turn of the nineteenth century approached, the great American writer Mark Twain pondered, “all things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret to his immortality?” It is an interesting question; what are the unique characteristics or qualities of Judaism that have guaranteed both its endurance, and indeed relevance, against a backdrop of ever changing cultures and world views?
Over the years many theories have been put forward regarding the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. One explanation refers to a collective memory, created through the repeated and continued commemoration of pivotal moments within the Jewish narrative. The Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh Re’galim) each ask us to recall such a moment: the Passover Seder recalls the Israelites liberation from Egypt, Sukkot recalls the Israelites wandering in the desert, and Shavuot recalls the moment the Jewish people received the Torah. Though dispersed around the world, Jews continue to recall key moments from a shared narrative and in doing so sustain a notion of peoplehood.

 

Another reason is well summarised in the widely known statement of Asher Ginsberg (AKA: Ahad Ha’am), “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews”. Like the Shalosh Re’galim, Shabbat asks us to take a moment to stop and think, but rather than have us consider a specific moment that happened in time, here we are asked to consider the concept of time itself. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best when he said, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time”. Perhaps it is this weekly pause, where Jews step back into their communities and regroup that has ensured Judaism’s survival.

 

Of course, the above two explanations are valid but, if viewed as the exclusive reason for Judaism’s survival, they present a problematic, isolationist view of the Jewish people. I venture another reason that I feel is worthy of consideration;

 

“Go forward from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. Genesis 12:1

 

This radical statement opens this week’s Torah portion, acting as a powerful catalyst that drives forward, not only Abram’s life, but also the Jewish narrative up until the present day. What does this verse tell us? We can break down God’s instructions to Abram into two actions; He is to leave his native land (of Haran) and make a journey towards a new land (Canaan). Interestingly, the focus here is on the leaving and journeying without any mention of the arriving or settling. In fact, in the verse that follows, God does not elaborate on Abram’s final destination, but promises to make Abram and his descendants into a great nation.

 

If we look at the overall narrative of the Torah we again see this focus on journeying. Through its five books we watch as Abram’s offspring develop into the formidable  Nation of Israel and then we follow them as they continue to make a long and challenging journey across the ancient Near East. We might expect the last pages of Deuteronomy (D’varim) to end with the Israelites finally reaching the Promised Land. This is not how the story ends. The Israelites stand outside the Land of Israel and we are left with an image of Moses, the great leader, alone atop Mount Nebo distantly gazing at a land he never will reach.

 

Being Jewish is to always be journeying. However, this journey must be understood as more than simply a physical one. Throughout their journey, the Israelites are never able to shake off the status of foreigners. Time and time again their new hosts treat them unfairly or cruelly and so the Torah reminds us that we too must, “not oppress the stranger”. Perhaps this is the secret to Jewish survival; that we flourish because we are often able to simultaneously hold the notion of being both native and stranger. This is indeed powerful and as Mark Twain explained, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness”. We might take from this that, in order for a society to flourish, we must be prepared to continually travel outside that which is so familiar to us and to become the stranger, even in our native spaces. When we forget to do this, when we are only resident, we hinder our chances of survival and ultimately both native and stranger suffer. In our diverse and multicultural society the people who impact our lives are likely to include a steady stream of “strangers”. Our encounters with them enrich us. For their own sake as well as ours, we must each consider if and how we are prepared to leave our native land and go forward!

 

LBC Rabbinic student

Parashat Lech L’cha: Leave Your Native Land and Go Forward!

 

As the turn of the nineteenth century approached, the great American writer Mark Twain pondered, “all things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret to his immortality?” It is an interesting question; what are the unique characteristics or qualities of Judaism that have guaranteed both its endurance, and indeed relevance, against a backdrop of ever changing cultures and world views?
Over the years many theories have been put forward regarding the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. One explanation refers to a collective memory, created through the repeated and continued commemoration of pivotal moments within the Jewish narrative. The Three Pilgrimage Festivals (Shalosh Re’galim) each ask us to recall such a moment: the Passover Seder recalls the Israelites liberation from Egypt, Sukkot recalls the Israelites wandering in the desert, and Shavuot recalls the moment the Jewish people received the Torah. Though dispersed around the world, Jews continue to recall key moments from a shared narrative and in doing so sustain a notion of peoplehood.

 

Another reason is well summarised in the widely known statement of Asher Ginsberg (AKA: Ahad Ha’am), “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews”. Like the Shalosh Re’galim, Shabbat asks us to take a moment to stop and think, but rather than have us consider a specific moment that happened in time, here we are asked to consider the concept of time itself. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it best when he said, “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time”. Perhaps it is this weekly pause, where Jews step back into their communities and regroup that has ensured Judaism’s survival.

 

Of course, the above two explanations are valid but, if viewed as the exclusive reason for Judaism’s survival, they present a problematic, isolationist view of the Jewish people. I venture another reason that I feel is worthy of consideration;

 

“Go forward from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. Genesis 12:1

 

This radical statement opens this week’s Torah portion, acting as a powerful catalyst that drives forward, not only Abram’s life, but also the Jewish narrative up until the present day. What does this verse tell us? We can break down God’s instructions to Abram into two actions; He is to leave his native land (of Haran) and make a journey towards a new land (Canaan). Interestingly, the focus here is on the leaving and journeying without any mention of the arriving or settling. In fact, in the verse that follows, God does not elaborate on Abram’s final destination, but promises to make Abram and his descendants into a great nation.

 

If we look at the overall narrative of the Torah we again see this focus on journeying. Through its five books we watch as Abram’s offspring develop into the formidable  Nation of Israel and then we follow them as they continue to make a long and challenging journey across the ancient Near East. We might expect the last pages of Deuteronomy (D’varim) to end with the Israelites finally reaching the Promised Land. This is not how the story ends. The Israelites stand outside the Land of Israel and we are left with an image of Moses, the great leader, alone atop Mount Nebo distantly gazing at a land he never will reach.

 

Being Jewish is to always be journeying. However, this journey must be understood as more than simply a physical one. Throughout their journey, the Israelites are never able to shake off the status of foreigners. Time and time again their new hosts treat them unfairly or cruelly and so the Torah reminds us that we too must, “not oppress the stranger”. Perhaps this is the secret to Jewish survival; that we flourish because we are often able to simultaneously hold the notion of being both native and stranger. This is indeed powerful and as Mark Twain explained, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness”. We might take from this that, in order for a society to flourish, we must be prepared to continually travel outside that which is so familiar to us and to become the stranger, even in our native spaces. When we forget to do this, when we are only resident, we hinder our chances of survival and ultimately both native and stranger suffer. In our diverse and multicultural society the people who impact our lives are likely to include a steady stream of “strangers”. Our encounters with them enrich us. For their own sake as well as ours, we must each consider if and how we are prepared to leave our native land and go forward!

 

LBC Rabbinic student David-Yehuda Stern