To Places Unknown – Shabbat Lech Lecha, Friday, October 30, 2020

Last weekend, as I was driving north from South Carolina to attend my mother’s funeral in northern Virginia, I passed a landmark from my childhood. I don’t travel on Interstate 95 very much anymore, and I knew it was coming up, but, all of a sudden, there it was – South of the Border. Tacky as ever. Stereotyped as ever. A steel monument in the shape of Pedro’s sombrero. The fireworks shop. The huge gift shop with the tackiest souvenirs ever. It was all still there, on the south side of the North Carolina-South Carolina border, looming large as a reminder of life in the Korotkin household.

South of the Border was always an important stop in the pilgrimage the nine of us made in the Ford Country Squire station wagon from our home in Maryland to vacation in Florida. It was, of course, a necessary rest stop. And for the four of us squeezed into the back-back of the wagon, which had two flip-up seats facing each other, with three more siblings in the middle seat, it was a sign that we had traveled too far for Dad to fulfill his threat that “if you can’t settle down back there, I’ll turn this car around and go home. I mean it!”

On those trips to Florida, we knew, more or less, where we were going. The journey there and back was the unknown factor and part of the fun.

Mom would slam her foot on the imaginary brake on her side every time Dad got distracted by us. It was less Brady Bunch and more National Lampoon’ Vacation, with Dad as Clark Griswold, the dreamer who always thought he knew a great shortcut – and Mom as Ellen, the realist reminding him there were seven kids in the car and where would they find the next rest stop?

The vacation trips to Florida were part of the raucous life of a family forged by life’s big changes and little surprises. Carol became my mom when I was a teenager. She and Dad- – who had both had difficult first marriages – were introduced by friends and fell in love. All of us kids agreed they should get married. And even though the prospect was insane, when you think about it, they took on the responsibility of each other’s happiness, but also of raising each other’s children as their own.

One plus one plus three plus four. All in the Ford Country Squire station wagon chugging our way to South of the Border and beyond. It’s a perfect metaphor for our family – as we embarked on a life together that would take us to places unknown.

The story of this journey to places unknown is not just the story of my family, or your family. It’s the story of the Jewish family. And it all starts with the two characters at the heart of this week’s Torah portion.

Abraham and Sarah – or, as they were still known here, Avram and Sarai – appear pretty much out of nowhere. They’re bit players in the genealogy of an ordinary Chaldean by the name of Terah, who intends to move his extended household to the land of Canaan but stops short, in a place called Haran. We don’t know what Terah thought was so attractive about Canaan. We know he never got there. Maybe it was his health. Maybe it was the needs of his large family. Maybe, in the end, he was just too nervous about moving into unknown territory.

 We do know that that journey into the unknown became the responsibility of Terah’s son Avram and his wife Sarai. He himself doesn’t know that until:

Vayomer Adonai el Avram: God said to Avram: Lech l’cha! Take yourself from your native land, from the land of your birth, and from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)

Whoever this “Adonai” is, God promises Avram that he will be a great nation, with a great name, and all of the families of the earth will be blessed by him. And without a word of question or protest, Avram – already 75 years old – heads to Canaan with his family and his nephew Lot, not knowing anything that lies ahead.

The first words that God utters to Avram – Lech l’cha – have always been a puzzlement. God could have just said Lech! – Go! – a straightforward command. But no, God said Lech l’cha – literally “go for yourself.” Because of the promise of blessing and riches? Because of the benefits that will accrue to him?

No, says Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter, a 19th century Polish rabbi commonly known by the title of his greatest writing, the Sefat Emet.

“When Abraham went,” writes Alter, “he did so ‘as God had spoken to him’ (Gen. 12:4). In other words, he went purely because he had been told to do so by God, without any intention of deriving any benefit from his actions.”[1]

And God made the test harder, I think, because of the way Abraham was told to leave: me’artzeha, u-mi-molad-techa, u-mi-beit avicha. “From your land – that’s one thing. But “from the land of your birth” is more personal; it’s a place that holds more attachment to you. And “mi beit avicha” – from your father’s house? It means leaving not just a place but your family. The people you have grown up with, the people who have molded you, and the way of life you have always known.

God made it as difficult, as emotionally crushing, as possible for Avram to follow that command.

The prospect was insane, when you think about it. But Avram and Sarai took on the responsibility, not only of each other’s happiness and welfare, but that of their own household, as they embarked on a life together that would take them to places unknown.

Lech lecha. Go, take yourself. Go for yourself as God has told you?

Lech lecha. Go by yourself – because this is a journey you must make alone?

Or maybe, as a Chasidic tradition teaches: Lech l’cha: Go to yourself. Go forward into the unknown because that is the only way to truly find your potential.

I think I like the last understanding the best. None of us knows what we are truly capable of doing until we are faced with circumstances we never saw coming. When, when you think about it, the prospects are truly insane.

We had no idea what one plus one plus three plus four would really add up to. The reality was energizing and exhausting, difficult and precious, joyous and maddening – all at the same time. Each of us responded to the challenge of the unknown in a different way, for better or for worse. But each of us became who we are because Mom and Dad were willing to say yes.

According to Rabbinic tradition, Abraham will be faced with a total of ten challenges from God during his lifetime. But none of the others – and none of what Abraham and Sarah accomplished – would have been possible without tackling this first one. Without saying “yes.” Without being willing to take that journey into the unknown, to find out what they were truly made of.

Their courage is why we exist today. And that is the story of every single one of our families – and of the Jewish family that binds us together.

Ken yehi ratson. Let us approach the unknown future of our lives with courage and faith. Even when the prospects seem insane. And let us say together: Amen.

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©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] Torah Gems, Vol I, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 97.

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