November 8th: Lech Lecha
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
Recently, a friend and I were re-negotiating a lunch meeting. It had been on our schedules for quite a while, but, as we commiserated together, “Life sometimes gets in the way.” It was not an atypical conversation, but, afterwards, the philosopher in me wondered whether it was life that got in the way—or our original plans. We make our plans not knowing what interesting and challenging situations may arise and necessitate logistical adjustments.
Think about Moses, for instance. While we look at his encounter with God at the Burning Bush as the start of real significance, how does he regard it? He is eighty years old, set in his career as a shepherd in his wife’s family business. He is comfortable in his home and society and all the joys of tribal life among the Midianites. Though his immigration from Egypt and immersion into the Midianite culture takes only a single paragraph in the Torah, he has been there for more than forty years. He is at home in Midian—so much so that he thinks of Egypt as the strange land.
So, when God interrupts this comfortable life and sends him off on the hardest errand of his life—one that will literally consume his life, Moses has got to feel disrupted.
The same could be said for Abram, whose story begins in this week’s portion. He is seventy-five years old, an immigrant from Ur of the Chaldees (at the mouth of the Tigres and Euphrates River system), and has been settled with his family in Haran, Syria, for many, many years. All of a sudden and out of nowhere, God appears to him and interrupts his life: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.’” (Genesis 12.1-3)
To us, it sounds like an incredible opportunity—the beginning of true meaningfulness, but, to Abram and Sarai, it is totally unexpected and a disruption in their lives. We are not privy to their conversations about such a radically life-changing move, but move they do, and the rest is history.
My point here is that the unexpected call—this detour—turns out to reveal their lives’ true and elevating purposes. Is God’s call what gets in their way, or is it their other pre-existing plans? Is their true purpose what they have on their calendars, or is it the holiness and destiny which they have not hitherto expected?
Planning is important—for all sorts of reasons, but many are the opportunities that arise unexpectedly and which might give our lives much more meaning than what they interrupt.
Let me share with you one of my favorite stories, Stranger on a Bus, from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s book, Invisible Lines of Connection (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 1996). It is a true story, and it shows how a random encounter and an unplanned opportunity literally save a life.
“A light snow was falling and the streets were crowded with people. It was Munich in Nazi Germany. One of my rabbinic students, Shifra Penzias, told me that her great-aunt, Sussie, had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped the coach and began examining the identification papers of the passengers. Most were annoyed but a few were terrified. Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner.
My student’s great-aunt watched from her seat in the rear as the soldiers systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why.
‘I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’re going to take me.’
The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. ‘You stupid bitch,’ he roared. ‘I can’t stand being near you!’
The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.
‘Damn her,’ the man shouted angrily. ‘My wife has forgotten her papers again! I’m so fed up. She always does this!’
The soldiers laughed and moved on.
My student said that her great-aunt never saw the man again. She never even knew his name.
Rabbi Kushner continues:
”You are going about your business when you stumble onto something that has your name on it. Or, to be more accurate, a task with your name on it finds you. Its execution requires inconvenience, self-sacrifice, even risk. You step forward and encounter your destiny. This does not mean you must do everything that lands on your doorstep, or that you should assume every risk or make every self-sacrifice. But it does mean that you must tell yourself the truth about where you have been placed and why.
You do not exercise your freedom by doing what you want. Self-indulgence is not an exercise of freedom. But when you accept the task that destiny seems to have set before you, you become free. Perhaps the only exercise of real freedom comes from doing what you were meant to do all along.
If everything is connected to everything else, then everyone is ultimately responsible for everything. We can blame nothing on anyone else. The more we comprehend our mutual interdependence, the more we fathom the implications of our most trivial acts. We find ourselves within a luminous organism of sacred responsibility.
Even on a bus in Munich.”
Now back to my friend postponing our lunch meeting. Who knows what sacred errand called her at the time we had set? Was it an interruption, or was it an opening between heaven and earth? I’m glad she was available.