November 8th, 1973, I was travelling with my parents on a train from Galati, my birthplace, to Bucharest. It was our last trip before leaving Rumania for Israel. The cease-fire following the Yom Kippur war had just been signed. Several weeks before that war, the Israeli Government had paid the Ceausescu regime as a result of the agreement of the latter “to release” all Jewish Romanian nationals wishing to do their Aliyah.
My father had been waiting for this moment for more than 15 years and yet the tears ran down his cheeks. When I asked him why he was sad, we were supposed to be joyful,
He replied that it was emotionally painful to leave the land where he was born and grew up.
It is very hard to uproot oneself from one’s birthplace and one’s house, even if life there has been made extremely hard, even if it has been one’s wish for a long time, and is eventually a liberation. As Pascal said: “The heart has reasons that reasoning does not know”…
With this in mind, we can probably better understand what was at stake for Abraham when he received the commandment from God in Genesis 12:1:
“Vayomer Adonaï leAvram : Lekh lekha miartzekha, oumimoladetekha oumibeit avikha”. And God said to Avram, go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father.
In this verse, what struck the commentators is the reversed order of places. It would have been more logical that God said to Abraham firstly to leave his father’s house, then his birth place and lastly his country. The commentary “Haketav vehakabbala” cited by Nehama Leibovitz, explains why the logical order is reversed: Abraham is experiencing a spiritual withdrawal, which goes from the “periphery” to the “centre”; from his country to his father’s house; from the less to the most sensitive. Abraham, then 75 years old – a mature adult since the biblical ages are not consistent- had already built a life for himself, with a wife, a successful “career” acknowledged here by his abundant flocks. All these parameters made it much more difficult for Abraham to uproot himself and start anew. The withdrawal had to be progressive.
There might also be a different perspective on this verse: in order to take such a path and make the decision “to go for yourself”, the motivation has to be rooted very deep inside.
Most of the time, when we are making difficult decisions towards a new stage in our lives, be it to change jobs, to leave a partner, or to migrate, there are ambivalent feelings. These feelings originate in a very authentic and intimate place, one should ask oneself: is it a flight or are we making a consciously positive choice? Are we acting as a subject, is the decision really ours? …
If we can’t answer those questions clearly, not surprisingly, we are experiencing emotional confusion.
Abraham’s story is a paradigm of what building one’s identity is about, both in its material and psychological meanings, as a journey towards becoming an autonomous, separate individual and a religious person in this case. Dealing with the question of identity is always moving, what makes a person what he/she is in the world, where he/she is heading to.
Abraham’s journey deals specifically with Jewish identity. God commands him to separate himself from his people and sends him on a mission. The reward for accomplishing the mission concerns all humans and as such is universal, as we read in Genesis 12:3: “in you shall be blessed all the families of the earth”. Our forefather sets the case for all future Jewish generations. The juggling between a particularistic and a universalistic mission.
This Shabbat we remember Rabbi Doctor Leo Baeck. His memory remains a blessing for the Jewish people both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Dr Baeck’s journey is emblematic of a Jew living the hopes and dramas of post modernity, of the chaotic twentieth century. He exemplifies for all Jews the ethical values that he stood for.
His support for his fellow Jewish soldiers during the dramatic years of the First World War, when he was a chaplain on the battlefield was outstanding. I would like to quote what he said in his sermon for Rosh Hashanah on the 9th September 1915 (5676) “it is the deepest demand of our religion that we do not pass by any question that touches our lives. Its introductory word is therefore “Hear! “God speaks to you” …”recent days have conveyed a new piety into our country, and this year has spoken to us more loudly and forcefully than all others before it: it has penetrated ears and souls of those who previously went on their way satisfied and undisturbed…what was self-evident has become extraordinary, and the extraordinary self-evident”.
On the battlefield, Rabbi Leo Baeck is at the forefront, contemplating the end of an era. The world, in which he and his fellow soldiers were used to live, collapsed. War transformed deeply their vision of the world and even their identity. They realized how vulnerable they were. In these dramatic moments, they desperately sought an invisible hand that could hold them back and prevent them from falling apart.
Leo Baeck’s words fit very well also with today: “what was self-evident has become extraordinary, and the extraordinary self-evident”.
Yesterday many of us were also looking for this invisible hand, here in the room of prayer and in the eyes of their teachers and colleagues, while experiencing a sort of a quake. As a new page opened up, and our world is filled with uncertainties, we realize that the unchallengeable values, universally recognized, were relative for others.
There is a new deal, how do we, as future community leaders respond? We could build high walls and separate ourselves from this world, or just continue business as usual. Indeed, we have to preserve the safe spaces represented by our communities.
Identity shares the same root with identical, it can be dangerous and lead to self-indulgence. We may be inclined to live among identical people… As Jews, we are used to deal with multifaceted identities: secular, religious, cultural, diasporic and established in the land.
We chose our vocation – to become rabbis, probably because we are able to hear weak signals the tiny voices. We also have to learn how to calm down the vociferous ones and to project our unique voice into the world.
More than ever, we have to speak up for our values, jump into the arena, take action in order to reverse the flow.
Going forth today necessitates even more courage and strength. We have to trust the voice inside each of us, which will continue faithfully to guide us all along our journey.
Ken Yhie ratzon.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.