Lech Lecha: We Journey Towards our Selves

Abram’s journey, the expedition which is also the start of the journey of the Jewish people to the land of Canaan, begins with the words “ Lech Lecha” , a strangely poetic and formulaic compound meaning something like ‘go for yourself’ or ‘go into yourself’, or even the rather enigmatic ‘go towards yourself’. Without any introduction God tells Abram to leave his parental home behind, to take his entire family and go to a foreign land he does not, and cannot, know.   Doing this will incur God’s blessing for Abram and his descendants.

   לֵךְ לךָ

The bible tells us tantalisingly little about what is being left behind. There is a little written about Abram’s father Terach, but nothing about his wife, or about Sarah’s parents. But even so, the wrench through which they are torn from their past is almost palpable. We can imagine the feelings of the travellers who may never again see their home and their families, and we can imagine too the desolate feelings of those loved ones who are left behind.

The blessing/promise that God gave to Abram and Sarai comes in four parts: Firstly God promised to make them a great nation. Then there was the offer of divine blessing. This is followed by the promise to make their name great, and finally the exhortation ‘Be a blessing’.

This four fold pledge to Abram and Sarai has been interpreted again and again, and the many and various commentators have each offered vastly differing ideas about what it all means – the only consistent factor is that each commentator expounds within his own particular historical reality so that midrashic commentators who lived in days of peace and prosperity for the Jews as much as for their neighbours could really believe that a great nation would mean they would have many children, that God’s blessing could only mean material prosperity, and a great name imply straightforward fame.

A commentator in medieval Russia or Poland though would not see the text in the same way, “A great nation must mean greatness of quality, not quantity” laments one rabbi who sees the toll that centuries of pogroms have taken on the Jewish population. Another bemoans the fact that for Jews the blessing of wealth is a temporary phenomenon, lasting at the most a generation or two.

The truth is, as we know, that every generation makes its own journey, and every generation has to contend with the situation it finds itself in. In every generation we act out the leaving, we find ourselves at the beginning of something new again, we relive the pain of the parting, the fear of the unknown, the response to a call of blessing or else the need to leave behind something that is no longer a tenable way of life for us. We did it, our parents did it, our grand parents did it – and theirs. And our children too will at some point undertake the journey – the Lech Lecha that is in our essential being.

The creature of popular imagination – the wandering Jew – begins with Abraham, who describes himself as an IVRI – one who has crossed over. Haran, the place where Abram and Sarai lived at the time we met them (they had, after all, travelled with Terach already from Ur of the Chaldees) means ‘crossroads’ – they are par excellence the people who move from one area to another, across boundaries, through the margins. Although promised the land of Canaan they remain essentially rootless for most of the stories, and by the time of Sarah’s death we still don’t have a clear picture of whether they had pitched their tent together and settled down. Only by the time of Abraham’s burial at the cave of Machpelah alongside his wife, do we get a sense that they have finally stopped all their restless travelling.

This continual movement, the habitual crossing of limits and of confines, is probably our greatest – although certainly our most uncomfortable – blessing.   Because we never get too settled we are able to retain a particularity, the clarity of perspective of the outsider, we are able to retain a sense of the ‘otherness’ of the ‘other. We are able to bring many strands and streams of culture and philosophy into how we view the world, how we operate in it., and we move between different worlds with great ease. It seems that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ has become almost a code word for ‘Jew’ in some quarters.

But there is a price to be paid for our being Ivri’im, and it can be a high one. Measured out in suspicion and mistrust, in persecution and even murder, we have many times paid a terrible cost. We know this, but it has never stopped us following the imperatives God gave to Abram – “Lech Lecha” – “Go to and for yourself”; “Hayei Bracha” – Be a blessing.

There is pain in leaving and there is pain in being left behind – and the pain is all the greater when the travelling doesn’t come from active and willing choice, but from the forces around us. In the last few years there have been published a plethora of books of personal stories from the years of the holocaust, an outpouring of memories that have been held and contained quietly within so many people, suppressed while they lived their active lives, attaining qualifications, working hard, marrying and bringing up children. Now is the time to tell the real stories of those Lech Lecha’s, and emerging from these stories is an echo of the pain and confusion of leaving the parental home with its security and its warmth and love. I never fail to be moved to tears when I read of the separation for ever of children and their parents, of partners and friends. This is part of our historical reality, but it is hard to find any sense of God within it.

But there is another part to the Lech Lecha of setting out on the journey, and that is that while bonds are inevitably broken and families ruptured beyond repair, the journey itself brings new experiences, often a broadening of horizons, and most importantly it seems to me that we recreate family and community alongside those with whom we journey.

I am the daughter of a German Jew who came to England as a young teenager alone, leaving parents and extended family behind. I grew up in a synagogue community made up predominantly of survivors, and I remember not only the pain in their eyes, but also the dedicated devotion to create a vibrant and warm synagogue community. I remember the Jews who gave up their time to teach me and the other children of the community bible and siddur, albeit with strongly German accented Hebrew and English. I remember the Jews who gave up their evenings to plan for Jewish festivals to be both educational and fun, the Jews who gave free rein on the bimah to the young teenagers on the community because they knew that everyone should be able to take a service – you never knew when you might find yourself in a place where there was no one able to lead it for you. Few of them had roots more than a few years old in the community, yet they made roots for themselves and for their families. They settled in the main, though their children have generally moved on again to larger cities. But they did indeed make, if not a great nation, then a wonderful Jewish community and a link in the chain of tradition. They may not have noticeably received a divine blessing, but they did make for themselves a good name, and they lived out the imperative to be a blessing. When I look back at the journeys of the generations immediately before mine, the perilous journeys from what seemed to be simply called “Russia” at the beginning of the last century, or the terrified fleeing of Europe in the early middle part of it, and I see the fruits of those journeys, I see that we continually travel towards ourselves, as well as for ourselves. This strangely poetic formula is the only one to do justice to the journey.riga old synagogue memorial (Picture of Synagogue Ruins Memorial in Riga )

Parashat Noach: a sorry tale where God the Creator becomes God the Destroyer – never again

Ten generations after the creation of the world, it is so appallingly corrupt and violent that God can think of only one response – to wash it all away and begin again with the remnant of humanity that was the best of its generation. It is a terrible story to read – how, after such a short time, is the world so corrupt? How is God the Creator, able to become such a profligate Destroyer? What we have learned in the two weeks since we began to read the new cycle of Torah, is that human beings, created in the image of God, are able to both create and destroy, and also able to repent their behaviour.


It is clear that the flood was not the answer God wanted or needed to the problem of world violence. Noah, who had not ever protested God’s edict, nor had warned his fellow people of the impending doom, is not exactly the most promising raw material. Added to his passivity in simply following God’s command to build the ark and stock it, once the flood had receded, Noah’s immediate response was to build an altar and sacrifice a number of the ritually pure rescued animals. God, on smelling the smoke finally seems to be defeated, saying “I will not again curse the ground any more for the sake of humankind; for the imagination of the human heart is evil from its youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done this time, but the regular seasons and rhythms will never cease.

The whole sorry tale was one that need never have happened. The earth is once again going to become corrupt and violent – albeit within cities such as Sodom and Gomorrah rather than everywhere and all at once – but it is a necessary story in the process of God learning about people and people learning about God. God has already learned about the exercising of free-will by the inhabitants of the Garden of Eden, and people have learned about the cost of freedom of choice. Adam and Eve have already shown the difficulties that marital relationships can encapsulate, and Cain and Abel have demonstrated not only the problems of sibling rivalry but also the problems of the lack of fairness in the world. The early stories of Genesis can be seen as ways to deal with the problems we all encounter – unrequited love as well as loving too much; the need for independence balanced with the need for relationship; the power of nature that we cannot ever control; the fragility of our existence in the world.

Bereishit: two questions to two generations – where are we now?

The Torah begins with two separate stories of creation. The first one is a very structured and ordered story, with each stage (or day) developing order out of the tohu vavohu, the chaos of the beginning. God creates by speaking words which then bring forth the thing – light and dark, and day and night. The heavens and the earth, each surrounded by their own watery boundaries. Sea and dry land.  Grass, herb yielding seed and fruit trees. Sun moon and stars. Water living creatures and those that fly in the air. Cattle and land walking creatures. Human beings. And Finally – Shabbat. God declares the goodness of each category in this physical world being created, and with the creation of humankind God sees that everything created is very good. And God blesses the Sabbath day.    The second story is a different narrative, and can be read as either complementary to the first adding details, or else as an entirely different tradition. In this story, human beings are created first rather than last, and man is created before woman, instead of them being created together. We are told the story of the Garden of Eden, with its trees of knowledge of good and evil, and of eternal life. The human beings eat from the first tree and are expelled from the garden lest they eat of the second. Their relationship is clearly not ideal, yet they produce children. Cain and Abel each offer a sacrifice to God, but while the sacrifice of Abel is accepted, the sacrifice of Cain is not. Cain, rejected by God, kills Abel his brother.                                                                                                                                The generations continue. Agriculture and technology become part of their worlds. But by the time of Noah ten generations after Adam, the world is a terrible place and God  has had enough of this creation. God is ready to destroy it…

Dvar Torah

Vayikra Adonai Elohim el ha’adam vayomer lo “ayekah?”  And the Eternal God called to the human beings (hiding in the garden) “where are you?” And the human said: ‘I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ (3:9-10)

Vayomer Adonai el Kayin, Ei Hevel achicha? Vayomer ‘lo yadati. Hashomer achi Anochi?’ And God said to Cain, where is Abel your brother? And he said “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9)

Two questions that God puts to two generations in the beginning narratives of Genesis.  In the first the people respond in fear, having understood just how vulnerable they are. In the second Cain tries to brazen out the fact he has murdered his brother, hoping somehow to get away with it. The first is a sin against God, the second a sin against another human being. We are learning in these stories the limits of behaviour. But we learn something else that is quite startling. What becomes clear in God’s response to Adam and Eve is that while they have disappointed God by taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, worse is that they do not take responsibility for their actions – the man blames the woman and the woman blames the serpent. They want, they desire, and they will lie in order to try to fulfil that craving. When they are sent from the garden the woman is told (3:16) that her desire will rule over her (yimshol). Humankind will always be trying to master their own selfishness and wants, it will be an ongoing struggle. But Cain, he seems to struggle rather more than his parents, he responds out of disappointment and rejection when God does not accept his offering, but does accept that of his brother Abel – God says to him ‘Why are you angry? and why is your countenance fallen? If you do well, shall it not be lifted up? and if you do not well, sin couches at the door; and to you is its desire, but you may rule over it.’ Ve’ata timshol bo (4:7). Cain is given the possibility of triumphing over his selfishness – albeit he only takes it up after the awful event, when he repents and says that his punishment is more than he can bear.

The rabbis notice the difference in the taking on of responsibility. According to the midrash (Genesis Rabbah 22:13) Cain later meets Adam who asks him about the punishment he received, and Cain tells him “I repented and am reconciled”. At that point Adam began to weep and to keen, saying “so great is the power of repentance, and I did not know”.

The power of God’s words to Cain is proved – while we will always struggle with behaving well, while the willingness to behave selfishly and thoughtlessly is always close by and ready to come to the fore, we can indeed take responsibility for our behaviour and choose NOT to behave in a damaging and egotistical way. We can think of others, we can choose to forgo what we want for the benefit of our community or wider society, we can decide not to take, not to hurt, not to ignore.

So soon after the yamim noraim the lesson is driven home in torah. Repentance is always the path back to God, who waits for us patiently, hoping to be found. And Torah reminds us of our human frailty – that we might rather lie than take responsibility for our actions, that we may prefer to brazen out what we know to be unacceptable behaviour, or deny our accountability or liability – human beings will always try to find a way to get what we want or what we think we deserve. But it is the taking of responsibility, the true acceptance of what we do and the genuine desire to become better people that will help us to win the struggle so that we too will be able to overrule our baser natures and become a little more like the divine.

After the Days of Awe, the echoes of teshuvah continue to be heard

We have spent the last month in a frenzy of Jewish Festivals, from Rosh HaShanah on through the Ten Days of Teshuvah through to Yom Kippur, the full week of Sukkot and finally ended with the revelry of relief that is Simchat Torah.

In a sense we barely draw breath as we navigate our way through what one colleague terms “the autumn manoeuvres”, and while we reel from one festival to the next the tropes of repentance and return, the familiar tunes in minor keys, the moments of introspection, the food and the fasting, the sensation overload that is Sukkot, and finally the celebratory extravaganza as we complete the cycle of Torah readings and begin again.

So here we are at the new beginning, the post yamim noraim moments when we face living in the new year and the challenge of putting our resolutions into practise. And suddenly there is no obvious structure leading us through the process of Teshuvah – we are on our own, left to find a way to live our lives aspiring to be better people, hoping to become the best people we can

The first time a driving instructor suggested I signal, look in my mirror, remove the handbrake and move into the flow of traffic, I remember the surge of adrenalin fuelled panic as I realised I was in charge of more than a ton of moving metal. There seemed to be a huge stretch between learning about it in theory and actually driving a real car among real people. I am sure that each of us can remember a moment of realisation that life was expecting something from us, and there could be no going back. Be it the first moment in a new job when someone mistook us for a seasoned professional, or the first time we understood that a new baby was totally reliant on us, or even the first time we read Torah or agreed to sit on a synagogue committee – suddenly the world is different, and we rise to the expectation rather than admit that we don’t really know.

Well Teshuvah is rather like that – God expects something from us, we expect something from ourselves, we have thought and reflected and vowed to change our behaviour in the quiet of a synagogue service or in a moment of honest self awareness and now we have to step up and live our lives according to that aspiration.

The period of festivals just past take the title of Yamim Noraim – Days of Awe; and Awe is an emotion we tend not to be so comfortable with these days. A mixture of reverence and fear, of overwhelming amazement and intense connection, the whole idea of awe is one we tend to edge away from. Yet according to the neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall, Awe should be recognised as the eleventh emotion, added to the list of ten that researchers already use to describe states of being.

In his book “Awe” he describes the emotion as “The valuable, irresistible fascination, the highest elation and sometimes most profound sadness that leaves us in a state of puzzled apprehension, perplexing dread, yet appreciative wonder and hope regarding the vast mysteries of life”.   Later on he talks about Awe being the emotion that “causes us to feel more completely alive than we ever thought possible”.

This is the feeling we need to take with us into the new year ahead. Not as intensely as maybe we experienced it throughout the Days of Awe, but as an awareness, the resonance of an echo, as we continue in our lives. When God speaks to Job after the thunder and whirlwind, what he hears is “a voice of slender silence” (often translated poetically but less truly as “a still, small voice”. When the voice of God comes to prophets and even to some rabbis in the Talmud they hear a “bat kol” – the daughter of a voice, again a poetic reference to the echo of a sound when it has already passed. This is the closest we can get to God in our ordinary and everyday worlds, the closest we can experience beyond our own world, and as the prophets and others found, it was enough to enable them to keep going.

So as we leave the intense, profound, formal and ceremonial Days of Awe, let’s try to hold on to the echo of the awe, the appreciative wonder, the mystery, the understanding that there is more in the world than we will ever comprehend, and that this does not need to make us feel fear or that we are hostages to some random universe. The lessons of the past month tell us that while we may reel from one event to another, journey in an instant from profound sadness to great joy (and back), sometimes feel out of control or else out of energy, we move onwards in our live, we have opportunities to change in so many ways, possibilities to grow and learn, and this is good.

Shanah Tovah – may your year be new and filled with possibilities

A prayer for the new year and for every day: “Teach us to assess and to appreciate every day of our lives”

In Psalm 90 there is a verse “Limnot yameinu, ken hoda, v’navi l’vav chochmah” – “teach us to assess our days so that we may bring to the heart some wisdom” As the High Holy Days draw to a close and the ideas for change we had then may begin to lose some impetus, this verse is a powerful reminder of what we can do in order to make more of our lives.

The psalmist is reminding us to assess each day, to really appreciate and to treasure every one of them, and make them count.

Many of us are so busy just getting through each day, so many different events and activities to juggle, that we forget just how much of a gift each new day really is. Others of us try to fill the acres of time that stretch ahead of us as we get up, wondering how best to get through the day. Almost all of us rarely find the time to treasure our days, or to make them count. Looking back at the end of a week that has been frantic with activity we can rarely feel satisfied that we used the time well.

The morning prayer that traditional Jews say upon waking, before even getting out of bed, is a prayer of thankfulness. “Modeh Ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she’he’chezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, Rabbah Emunatecha.­­­­­

“I Gratefully Thank You, living and eternal Sovereign, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion –great is your faith”

While Jewish prayer does not on the whole expect us to explicitly state any belief in God, it does have a dominant mode of gratitude and of thanksgiving. The traditional prayer gives us the words to appreciate our lives, to be grateful for what we already have rather than to always be the petitioner for what we do not have but would like. That is not to say that our prayer does not include us appealing to God for things, but that this pleading is circumscribed and is far less frequent than the prayers of thanksgiving and gratitude. And on Shabbat the petitionary prayers disappear entirely, giving God (and ourselves) the day off from listening to our demands.

In the prayer Modeh Ani, we begin the day by being aware of our good fortune and appreciating it – we are alive, it is a time for fresh possibilities, anything can happen in this new day. And we end the prayer not by declaring our faith in God, but by asserting God’s faith in us. We make a statement of extraordinary power. Whether we believe in God is almost immaterial, for God believes in us.

Just as we rarely think about the air which we breathe, yet we breathe nevertheless; just as fish presumably are unaware of the water in which they swim, Jewish prayer assumes the faith of God in us is a given, the environment in which we operate. All we are reminded to do is to appreciate each day, to be grateful for what we do have, and to use our time wisely in order to become our best selves, to build our best world.

Psalm 90, a psalm about the eternity of God and the fragility and mortality of humankind, asks God to help us to do the one thing we can really do to make our lives meaningful – teach us to treasure each day, to make every day we live in this world count for something. As we go into the new year of 5775, with days that may be filled with activity or that may stretch emptily out ahead of us, let this be our motto – to think about and to treasure each day, and to do something each day to give that day meaning and to make it count.