Friday, November 11, 2016

The Interrupted Journey

This week’s Torah portion begins our narrative, not the narrative of creation, not the narrative of humanity, but the narrative of our extended family. In Lekh-Lekha, we first meet Abraham, back when he was called Abram. What we first learn about Abram is that he was one of three sons of a man named Terach. His family was from Ur. Abram was married to Sarai. And Sarai had conceived no children. She was barren.

Terach begins to move his whole clan with the intention of going from Ur to Canaan, but, along the way, the family stopped in Haran and built a life there, acquiring more servants, animals, and other wealth. Then Terach died and the family simply remained there.

It was a journey interrupted and largely forgotten by the tradition. It was Terach, not Abram, who began the journey. Terach, not Abram, got up and left and took everyone with him from Ur. In fact, it is potentially the case that Abram, as head of the family, decided to remain settled where he was because, unlike his father, Abram was uncertain as to which direction the family should be led. That is the context in which Abram hears “Lekh Lekha.”

The unspoken questions to which God responded were perhaps ones in Abram’s mind.

“Which way should we go? What should we do now?”

And God responded:

“Get up and go.”

“From where?” Abram might have thought, “From my tent?”

“From your land, from the place of your birth.”

I am already no longer there. Shall we live here? In Haran, where my father died?

“From the house of your father.”

“Ok. To where then?”

“To the land that I will show you!”

“What will I find there? What will become of us, if we go there?”

“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you.
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse.
And all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.

“This change will bring blessing. Of course, we will go!”

Nothing like having the Torah portion, this week of all weeks, talk about God making our nation great.

Not everyone among Abram’s number must have felt that, at the end of their journey, in an unknown distant place, there would be blessings and not curses waiting for them. To suggest that not everyone in America is confident that the direction of our national journey today is toward increased blessing is an understatement. There is much fear, anxiety, and, among no few, even despair.

On this Veteran’s Day, I thought of the founding of our nation. I considered how its founders would feel about the events of our day. On July 15, 1777, President George Washington wrote a letter to General Philip Schuyler regarding the fall of Fort Ticonderoga and the difficult circumstances the nation faced during the ongoing war for independence. Washington wrote:

We should never despair, our Situation before has been unpromising and has changed for the better, so I trust, it will again.
If new difficulties arise, we must only put forth new Exertions and proportion our Efforts to the exigency of the times.

In my own words:

When we face difficulties and challenges in our lives, we need to work harder to overcome them. If the difficulty is great, so must our efforts. We do not have the ability to live in different times. We live today, where we are. Our sole choice is how we respond to what is required of us here and now.

To quote the most appropriate Jewish maxim for times when we are faced with daunting challenges that we cannot fully resolve on our own; in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither may you avoid doing it.” And in the words of the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum’s motto, “What you do matters.”

I know that many here and around our nation are anxious, even fearful, about the future tonight. There is much uncertainty and discontent, so much anger and hate, far, far too much. And we are focused on the hatred.

Many of us, forget the fact that the vast majority of people in this country and the overwhelming majority of those who voted for each candidate, each candidate, are good people. For some of us, the election did not go our way. We have made political opponents into hated enemies. But good people can disagree with one another and still care for one another. We live in this country together, in our communities together, and we are stronger when we can act together. That isn’t a goal. It is a truth. For no few of us, achieving the goals that we would like our nation to achieve will be more difficult today than they might have been. The journey toward those goals—especially toward the day when we will at last be able to hear, “Madam President” while not watching a TV show—is now one delayed.

The journey toward our longed for Promised Land was interrupted. The one whom was thought to lead us there was unable to do so. The movement paused with us remaining in Haran instead reaching Canaan.

Perhaps, alternatively, we’re in Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee on April 3rd, 1968 listening to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last address, given the day before his death:
If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.
I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon. And I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would go on, even to the great heyday of the Roman Empire. And I would see developments around there, through various emperors and leaders. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would even come up to the day of the Renaissance, and get a quick picture of all that the Renaissance did for the cultural and aesthetic life of man. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would even go by the way that the man for whom I am named had his habitat. And I would watch Martin Luther as he tacked his ninety-five theses on the door at the church of Wittenberg. But I wouldn't stop there.
I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But I wouldn't stop there.

I would even come up to the early thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation. And come with an eloquent cry that we have nothing to fear but "fear itself." But I wouldn't stop there.
Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy."
Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding…
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.
And I don't mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
Friends, we live in a great nation, but it is not as great as it can be today. One candidate, the one who won the election, pledged to make it great again. Yet, my friends, making our nation great is our job, not his. And that greatness is not just as great as it has been at some point in the past, even if we agree with what that means, but as great as it can become.
Our job is to be there standing up for all of those who are persecuted, to end bigotry and discrimination, to bring comfort to all those who are suffering, to the hungry, to the homeless, to the fallen and to the hopeless. It is to stand alongside those of every race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation and bring light and hope into their lives, not just to live up to Isaiah’s vision that we Jews may be a light unto the nations, but to join with others in making our nation a light unto the nations, a beacon light of freedom and hope for all peoples.
And that light must not only shine into the alleyways of our cities, but into the impoverished homes in our countryside and one shuttered factory small towns.
This would be true no matter who won the election this week. The task of making our nation and our world the best they can be is ours, not someone else’s, not the job of someone who won an election or even of every one who won elections. It is our job and we cannot keep from doing it, no matter how daunting it appears.

Lekh lekha! Lekhi Lakh! It’s time to get up and move. Move from a place of despair, hopelessness, anger, sorrow and hatred. To a place of caring, a place of tolerance and understanding of different points of view, to hope and to love. Let us bring light, and not shade, into our world.

If we can do that, we will bring blessings into our lives and into the lives of those who encounter us, and along the way help those blessings spread across our nation.

And we shall be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.