Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Abraham, Journeys and Conversion

A couple of weeks ago, one of our members, Jerry Nepon-Sixt, went to the mikvah to complete his conversion to Judaism. As I do with all new converts, I encouraged him to come to services soon to receive a Mi Sheberach—a prayer which asks for God's blessing on this happy occasion, and which also serves as a way for us to “announce” his conversion to the community. Jerry, being Jerry, said that he be happy to, but only if he could give the d'var torah that evening, too.

Well, that all happened this past Shabbat, and I thought that his d'var torah was absolutely wonderful. And so, with his permission, here it is, for your enjoyment:

Sometimes it feels like my life is a series of disconnected stories. The stories are pretty good - funny, dangerous, engaging and with enough resolution that they give a gift to the listener. The stories have been honed by years of telling into finely crafted works, every word carefully selected, the dramatic pauses timed perfectly, and the twists revealed in a way that draw a gasp or a laugh from the listener. I've probably told each of you a few of those stories, and I apologize if I’ve told you the same stories over and over again. The person in the stories is often a distant me, rougher, younger, more adventurous, and a lot more stupid. People have a hard time reconciling my current image with the somewhat crazy man described by the tales I tell.

I travel a lot on business. If you travel at all you know that most of your time is actually spent in line. I spend a couple hours in line in some way every trip. Sometimes my time in line exceeds the flight time. And standing in line is a great place to talk with strangers. With all my travel I am equipped with a geographic reference for any occasion. If you’re from New Jersey I can tell about living on Gropp’s lake outside Trenton when I was a boy, and how my mom learned how to make pasta fazul from Claire Quatromanni. If you're from the San Francisco bay area I can tell about sailing on the bay with the police chief of Berkeley, who grew opium poppies and smoked dope outside what he termed territorial waters – which he defined as having left the dock! If you're from Louisiana I can tell you that my mother once owned Tippitina's, that historic New Orleans nightclub where the Neville Brothers got their start. If you're from Natchez I can ask you about Pilgrimage and the concurrent Indian Pow-Wow at the fairgrounds south of town. If you’re from Boston…You get the picture. I've done or seen something in every state but Alaska.

I hope these stories are interesting to people. I find it interesting when people learn I'm from Florida and they tell me about a fishing trip or a wild weekend on Key West. If they tell me how miserable their July trip to Disney was I give them low marks - Disney in the summer is miserable. Any children under 5 make it doubly so. It's pretty unoriginal to complain about the heat and humidity and sweaty, cranky kids at the Magic Kingdom. I’m sure some of my stories are like that.

But it's also true that some people seem never to have done a whole lot in their lives. I find it so amazing when people tell me they've never left their own state, much less their county or even town. They've stayed in one place, married, raised children, worked, and will probably die in the same place, often within a few miles of their entire sedentary families. In our mobile society it's very easy to forget that this was the norm not so long ago. Yet, even those people have some great stories.

But to me, the best stories are about traveling...not just traveling, but journeying. There is a difference. This week I flew to Nashville and Columbus, OH. That was traveling. In two days I'll ride my bicycle from Tampa to Orlando for a conference...I hope that's a journey. What's the difference? Traveling is a temporary condition. One travels as a means to an end - get home for the holidays, meet with clients, even take a short vacation. In the end, you return home. It is often the case with me that I really have to try to remember where I was and what I did, even a week later.

A journey implies a transformative experience. It is a process. You are left profoundly changed at the end of a journey, even if in the end you return physically to where you began. Sometimes you begin a journey with the promise, the intent, or at least the hope that the experiences along the way will be meaningful. And sometimes a mere trip unexpectedly becomes the journey of a lifetime.

Think about all the classic adventure stories that had journeys at their core - "The Odyssey," "The Call of the Wild," "Huck Finn," "Moby Dick," "The Hobbit," "On the Road,"... "Thelma and Louise." Through the experience of different lands, or just the experiences of meeting new people and living through the adventures of the journey, the characters and the readers are changed forever. What is required is to remove oneself from one's normal existence and to be open to the experiences and the changes that a journey can deliver.

Somewhere around 2300 BCE a man from Ur of the Chaldeans began a journey that would take him thousands of miles, and transform not only him, but the world. God called to him with the words that give the Parsha for this week its name. "Lech L'cha." "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."

This is the start of every great adventure story - a quest. In Abram 's case it was not a magic ring or a great whale, it was the promise God made to "make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing." And his name was great - Abram became Abraham of course. And we're his spiritual descendents - a great nation.

But why Abraham? There is no mention in Torah to this point of any particular qualities that Abraham possessed that would cause God to single him out as the founder of a people. At the end of Noach we read a lot of "begots" of the lineages of Noah’s sons - finally ending with Terah begetting Abram, Nahor, and Haran. And at the beginning of Lech L'cha the last of this lineage is repeated. In a single verse Abraham's journey with his family from Ur to Haran is recounted. Then suddenly, "The Lord said to Abram..."

What did we miss? I had to go back and read this a few times myself since I was sure I'd missed the something. Abraham has to be described as a righteous man, as having a special relationship to God already...but no. Of Noah it is said “Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations.” Of Abraham, "The days of Terah came to 205 years, and Terah died in Haran." Then, "The Lord said to Abram."

You may have heard some of the midrash that describe Abraham at this time. Abraham was hidden in a cave for three years to protect him from Nimrod the king. Abraham defied Nimrod and was thrown into a furnace from which he was released unharmed. There is the story of the young Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s idol shop and catching his father in a logical conundrum. There is the story of Abraham challenging an elderly buyer of idols on his beliefs. It is claimed in some commentaries that Abraham invented or received astronomy and other great advances. He was given access to secret books that contained God’s wisdom, and taught Hebrew so he could read them. Even Mohammed contributed to the explanations of this moment in Abraham's life in his writings. But the text of the Torah is silent at this critical moment on this critical question. Out of all the people, why Abraham? Why then? Why, "The Lord said to Abram…?"

One of the difficulties with Torah is that the motivations and qualities of the characters are often obscure. This is to be expected in a book that takes its influences from the oral traditions of many people in the region of the nascent Iron Age Hebrews. There is a lot in that tradition that was likely understood in the context of the times and the culture, and seemed unnecessary to include in the text. Torah is telegraphic in its style at the very times you wish it would tell you just a little bit more. Imagine the picture people would have of you knowing only a dozen or so stories from throughout your life.

And the ambiguity of the Hebrew itself can lead us down confusing paths in our understanding. Even the title of the Parsha this week, Lech L'cha, can have several readings. Two words, but the meaning of God's commandment to Abraham can change based on our interpretations of those words.

Commentators have looked at these words in different ways. Some have interpreted them as "Go by yourself." Abraham, Sarah, Lot and their households had to go on this mission alone, because only then could they start fresh. As in the adventure stories I mentioned earlier, the heroes were required to venture alone in new lands to affect great change in their lives.

Some have read Lech l'cha as “Go for yourself.” “Go for yourself" implies that God is going to improve Abraham 's lot through his obedience. Dude, I'm gonna give you a whole land, make you rich, and give you lots of children..." God lays out a fantastic career move for Abraham at the very least.

But it can also be interpreted as "Go TO yourself." "Go to YOURSELF." God is not just calling on Abraham to pick up and go. God is giving Abraham a clue as to the nature of the journey ahead. It will be personally transformative for Abraham himself, and Abraham better understand that his role in the enterprise would require self-understanding and inner strength. Abraham would have to know himself in order to fulfill the mission that God was giving him, and face the challenges ahead.

Now, we don't know if Abraham was that introspective. He doesn't argue with God about this or the other trials in his life. Instead he seemingly says, "OK, let's go!" Later in the Parsha God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the male members (no pun intended) of his household. We learn earlier in the Parsha [in the story of the War of the Four Kings against the Five Kings] that Abraham was able to muster 318 men to help him free Lot, so that must of been a particularly, er, vivid scene! But Abraham just does it.. No questions. Later when God commands him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham again just picks up and takes Isaac to the place of sacrifice.

Maybe the quality most required at that moment was someone who would simply do what he was told? It would be odd, given the number of times that leading characters in the Torah argue with, cajole, and bargain with God, but perhaps that was what was needed at that time.
The text is so sparse that we can't make a judgment about what Abraham felt at those moments when God presented him with his trials. But, "Lech L'cha..." whether it's go by yourself, go for yourself or go TO yourself, or just go! that moment Abraham could have no illusions that a great responsibility was falling to him if he was to follow this command. And he must have known there was a great adventure ahead.

About 30 years ago I began a journey in my life when Janice and I formed our family. It started suddenly at midnight on a New Year's eve and has taken me through many adventures that I've shared with my family, and some I've had to face alone. One of the most remarkable things about that journey is that it's led me to stand before the congregation today for the first time as a Jew. To a lot of people my motivations to convert now, after so many years, must be as opaque as those of Abraham are to us. That’s natural – we can only really understand each other so well. I can try to explain, but really, it's only telling more stories and stories, while powerful, can only explain so much. Besides, Abraham was 75, so I’m 21 years early!

You should know that I am taking this step on my journey in all the ways that lech L'cha can be interpreted. Lech L'cha - I am going by myself, of my own will and desire. Lech L'cha - I am going for myself. The pleasures and rewards have already been great. Lech L'cha - I am going to myself, with introspection, study, self-awareness and the knowledge that it is the right thing for me. I am fully cognizant of the responsibilities - and the privileges - of the choice I have made.

It doesn't stop didn't for Abraham. But today I really do feel that I am joined to his great nation, that I am truly Yirmiyahu.

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