Parshat Lech Lecha

Torah Reading for Week of October 30-November 5, 2011

“Call him Ishmael”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD, ‘11

“As his name, so is he.” (1 Samuel 25:25)

In mathematics, transformation is the “mapping of one space onto another”; in linguistics, it is a rule that “systematically converts one form…into another.”  But, no matter how we define it, transformation is a profound and multi-layered process that it is accomplished neither instantaneously nor easily.

The divinely-uttered opening words of Parshat Lech Lecha that launch the radical transformations of Avram and Sarai can be understood in distinctly different ways, and they resonate with every person who has ever experienced the call to know oneself more deeply. The Izhbitzer Rebbe considers lech lecha the direction to Avram to learn who he is meant to be. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch understands the word lecha as a call for isolation—Avram is to go by himself.  And Avivah Zornberg believes that “the imperative of transformation” means that the leaving of one’s place is ultimately to “seek to become other.”

In the parsha preceding Lech Lecha, Parshat Noah, Avram and Sarai are brought by Avram’s father from Ur to settle in Haran.  But Avram, the ivri—the one who crosses over–is destined to continue as his own person the journey that he began as his father’s son. At age 75, Avram receives the divine command– “lech lecha.”  And in their response to this call, Avram and Sarai demonstrate that we are never too old to be moved by the prospect that our lives can have greater meaning and that the divine challenge to engage in the complex and painful process of self-transformation is not obviated by age.

Martin Buber proposes that “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”  Thus, in spite of the divine promise that immediately follows the divine command, the essence of Parshat Lech Lecha is not the story of how easily the rewards for heeding G-d’s call come. Instead, Lech Lecha is a chronicle of unimagined internal and external struggles: in accepting the unknown risk inherent in going to and for oneself, Avram and Sarai encounter famine, wanderings, losses, estrangements, dangers and desperation. Twenty four years after embarking on their sojourn, G-d establishes a covenant with Avram and, in re-naming Sarah and Avraham, establishes that they have changed, that they have reached a milestone in their transformative process. But this is not the signal that their struggles have come to an end. Rather, this spiritual brit milah, which precedes the physical brit milah with which Lech Lecha closes, establishes a new beginning and presages not only the next stage of their journey but the journeys of Avraham’s two sons—the one who is to be the Other, Ishmael, and the one who is to be the inheritor of the brit, Isaac—and all of us who enter this world as their heirs.

In perhaps the most famous first line of American literature, Herman Melville opens Moby Dick, his great novel of a transformative journey, with “Call me Ishmael.” In conceptualizing his narrator, Melville does not merely create a modern allusion to the archetypal outsider, the disinherited elder son. Like his Biblical namesake, Melville’s Ishmael powerfully embodies the human condition of aloneness, the uncomfortable reality of divinely-endowed difference, and the role of the Other in causing us to confront our deepest selves.

Ishmael is the necessary reminder that inescapable pain lies at the heart of our urge to transformation. Pain, however, is tempered with hope. Ishmael, the “wild ass of a man,” is nonetheless divinely created, named and blessed. He, too, “will hear G-d.”

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