This week’s tale is Lech Lecha – the call to adventure. We meet Abram, a man leaping with faith into the unknown. On the road he will become a general, a millionaire – and a father, later known as founding father of two rivaling nations. It is an inspiring tale about birth, hope, and tribal heritage- the touchstone story of what it means to belong – but it also has something to say about what it may mean to be a stranger in a strange land, to not belong at all, to be alienated.
In Hebrew, Abraham means literally ‘Great Father’, but he, our ancestor, is unhappily known by this name long before he produces an heir. Abraham isn’t happy about this barrenness, and in chapter 15 in the book of Genesis, instructed by God, he creates a terrifying and elaborate ritual event where a mysterious prophecy, nine sacrificial carcasses and a divine covenant assure him of the illustrious and complicated future of his seed. ‘You want kids’? God asks Abraham, ‘OK. But then know this: your children will be aliens for 400 years, strangers in a strange land. Take it or leave it. ‘ Abe takes it, and here we are today, products of that promise, curious about one word that appears for the first time in our history as part of Abrahams’ vision. The word is GER – Hebrew for alien, stranger, guest – or convert. One word, different translations, big difference:
And God to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, ad they shall be enslaved ad oppressed four hundred years”.
The Contemporary Torah (a Gender Sensitive Adaptation of the JPS Translation)
And he said to Abram, Truly, your seed will be living in a land which is not theirs, as servants to a people who will be cruel to them for four hundred years;
(Bible in Basic English)
He said to Abram, “Know for sure that your seed will live as foreigners in a land that is not theirs, and will serve them. They will afflict them four
hundred years. (World English Bible)
Aliens? Strangers? Sojourners, Foreigners? Servants? The prophecy describes the future of the Hebrew exile and slavery in Egypt, but also continues to promise liberation via the Exodus. Life, Abraham is told, will give your children a sense of security but also a great memory of loss. This is perhaps an important reminder that brother and other are but a letter apart, and of equal origin.
Thus, the blessing to a father in the making, Lech Lecha – Go to find yourself, and fasten your seatbelt. It’s gonna be a bumpy ride…
What if you were Abraham, eager to father, and given this complex promise: Yes, you will have the children that will be your future – but they will also be slaves and despised foreign workers? Would you say YES?
Special Feature: See here for a letter to a father in the making:
A friend has invited me, as a father, to write to you as you cross the threshold into fatherhood. In particular he is curious to know how I understand the dread and foreboding that accompany this passage: the foretelling of exile, the meaning of becoming the stranger, the ger. What, he asks, is the link between paternity and estrangement?
Estrangement—the condition of the stranger— is the crucible for soul making. We no longer live in the Eden of symbiotic communion. We have all been uprooted from our native land and our ancestral homes, from the certainties of our parents, the securities of our childhoods. All of us must wander, must go to the world-school of alienation. We must experience the longing for be-longing and know how precious and how transient belonging is. (How quickly the experience of belonging turns into the having of belongings, and how quickly those things that belong to us become the idols we worship: even our children become “ours.”)
The rites of estrangement in this story contain dread, dreams, dissociation and descent. The “smoking oven” will reappear in Jewish history. Soul is made of darkness as well as light. In the belly of the whale as well as on the top of Mt. Sinai, in Egypt as well as in Canaan. And each day as our children will encounter their alienation, their estrangement, they may encounter the Strange itself, which is the only face of God any of us can ever know.
You, Father Abraham, are the protagonist of our estrangement. You tell us that all our children must know that they are others, even as you had to know it, wandering from your known past into your unknown future. Out of the experience of estrangement, we create, as you did, family, community, and nation. Out of estrangement—remembered and recurring—comes an appreciation for the transient gifts of love.