Today, we have lots of phrases that serve the same function as “once upon a time”: “a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” or “it was a dark and stormy night.”
These kinds of tales, we can agree, are decidedly fiction. Even our own Jewish folktales. But let’s be clear: while they may not be rooted in historical fact, they can most certainly be true in moral accuracy.
This week, the Torah gives us another opening line that not only starts a story, it blows the lid off of the Torah’s legends up to this point. The story this week sets into motion the mission of the Jewish people. Truth or not, it sheds light on our own personal sense of spiritual self-actualization, and it even sets the stage for the struggles and triumph of the modern state of Israel!
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
God said to Abram: lech lecha - go forth from your native land, from the home of your father, to the land which I will show you.
That land, we know, will be Canaan, and one day the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, and then, one day, the modern state of Israel. It will also have many names in between.
But Abram doesn’t know that.
The notable detail of this opening line - lech lecha - is that God tells Abram to get up and go FIRST. Only after the command, God offers the reward for doing so - descendents as numerous as the stars in the sky, the sand in the desert. A great name and blessing. Protection, and eventually, a land to call our own. Good enough, but no other indicators of where except for “follow me.” It’s only after Abram gets to the land of Canaan, that God says, “oh yeah, this is the place.”
Which means that before we think about property, and ownership and boundaries and all that, God wants something first - from Abram and from his descendents. That thing is not a burnt sacrifice, it’s not even a formal declaration of faith. No, all God wants is for Abram to get up and get going, to move one foot in front of the other and simply believe that promise and prosperity lies before him. Seems to me that we are supposed to follow that example.
But first, what kind of man was Abram before this moment? We don’t really know. Before this point in the Torah, we have only some quick data: Abram’s father’s name was Terah and Abram had two brothers: Nahor and Haran. Haran had a son named Lot. He’s Abram’s nephew. Abram also has a wife named Sarai and we get a specific detail about her: she is unable to have children.
That’s it. That’s the whole picture we get before God approaches Abram, and says “lech lecha.” This isn’t like the hero Enoch, who “walked with God.” This isn’t Noah, who was “righteous in his generation.” He’s just Abram, son of Terah, uncle to Lot, husband to Sarah.
Perhaps these relationships, though, are what make him so exceptional.
The rabbis imagine that Abram’s father Terah was an idol maker. Abram, at an early age, exposed the irony in his father’s pagan practices, making it possible for him to conceive of a one, true, formless God. His distancing from his father’s practice is what sets his destiny into motion.
And Sarai - the wife with whom he is unable to have children. They set out together, “adopting” people along the way - helping them to come into relationship with God as well. This why, even to today, when someone chooses to become a Jew, they have the option of having their Hebrew name draw upon this connection. They become “So and So, child of Abraham and Sarah.”
This tale of Abram and Sarai, specifically, is the official start of the Jewish people. Perhaps we can imagine that as this community formed, with Abram and Sarai at the helm, a network of like-minded and spiritually connected individuals became a people committed to struggling and prospering together.
Only after the relationship within the community and with God deepens, do Abram and Sarai are able to self-actualize spiritually - taking on a highly symbolic name change. Each of them takes in a piece of God’s name, the letter hey, into their own and becoming Abraham and Sarah.
But if the relationship between humans and humans to God was so strong, why did there ultimately need to be a place for them to settle? Why was the land of Canaan so essential to the plan?
I could give all kinds of historical reasons - the fertility of Mesopotamia and the strategic location of Canaan as a crossroads of trade and civilization. That’s all true. But what’s more true is that place matters to us humans. We place markers where we bury loved ones so that we have somewhere to go to feel connected to them.
They say “home is where the heart is,” and yet we have certain locations that help us to feel safe, where we feel most authentically ourselves. That can be where you sleep at night, or a home of another sort.
When we have no place to root us, or when our “homes” are not safe, that is when desperation sinks in. If this is true for us as individuals, it is true for us as a people as well.
I’ve always said that Israel is where our history comes alive. It is where the Jewish past can most potently inform our mission as a people today. Abraham showed it then, and the modern state of Israel shows it now: we Jews, like other peoples of this world, deserve a corner of the earth in which we can feel safe. A place where we can live the seasons of our lives in harmony with the seasons of our spiritual calendar and be authentically ourselves.
But how do we acquire that land and how do we manage it? Turns out that’s an age-old conundrum as well. According to Torah, Abram and Sarai traverse the land many times, navigating political alliances and carefully constructing relationships with the other people who live in the land of Canaan with them. They seek the delicate balance of staking a claim while also sharing the space. Seems like modern day Israel’s struggles with its neighbors and diverse populations has a blueprint in the Bible.
Which also means that our tale this week, of Abraham and Sarah, of God and the Jewish people, of the land of Israel and its importance, exposes what must lie at the heart of our journey as Jews and Israel as a nation-state: Oneness. The oneness of God, the oneness of the Jewish people, the oneness of humanity - most especially the people committed to living together peacefully in the land of their ancestors. Through all the tumult and controversy, we must be like Abraham and Sarah...pursuing our path peacefully; welcoming strangers into our tent eagerly; believing it is no fantasy to act with kindness and faith.