Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem
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Abraham and other migrating souls

Loving economic migrants, political refugees, even wandering mystics, and learning from their tension-filled travels
Abraham smashes the idols
Abraham smashes the idols

Think of an activity that’s relatively low-risk (compared with crossing a road, say), not associated with bad news (compared with a medical check-up), and not inherently high-stakes (compared with a job interview), but during which you feel stressed, anxious, and even fearful. I can’t be the only person for whom international travel comes quickly to mind.

Since I’ve divided my life between the UK, the US and Israel, most of my own international travel has involved airports. Inexplicably, I was about 30-years-old before I realized that an airport is an international border. When the elderly bearded man wrapping up the kiddush cup we’d just bought at Grand Street Sterling on the Lower East Side asked if we wanted a “certificate for the border,” I was confused. The border? In my mind’s eye, I saw a train pulling into a remote Eastern European station at midnight. Uniformed guards with snarling dogs shone flashlights into the faces of drowsy passengers, demanding to see their documents. But then the penny dropped: Heathrow Airport is also a border.

At airports, even seasoned travelers with impeccable credentials and business class tickets are forced to stand in long queues with no option of coming back later; uniformed officials, often armed, treat them with suspicion, as if they’re not who they say they are; strangers rifle through their personal possessions in front of other strangers; they’re expected to remember that a 100 ml bottle of water can kill and cream cheese is a liquid; they may be required to declare that they aren’t carrying disease agents, cell cultures or snails; they’re grilled about other countries they’ve visited; and they could be confronted with the distressing spectacle of overweight Yiddish-speakers stripping down to their tzitzit and being told to put their hands in the air.

Tension at national borders is nothing new, of course. To judge from a Genesis Rabbah midrash on Lekh Lekha, our father Abraham (still Abram in this parshah) experienced similar anxiety when he entered Egypt.

And it happened that when Abram was entering Egypt (Gen 12.14). And where was Sarah?  He had put her in a box and locked her in. When he came to the customs house, the customs official demanded, ‘Pay the customs tax’. ‘I will pay,’ Abram replied. ‘You’re carrying garments in that box,’ he said. ‘I will pay the tax on garments.’ ‘You are carrying silks,’ he claimed. ‘I will pay the tax on silks,’ ‘You are carrying pearls,’ he asserted. ‘I will pay the tax on pearls.’ ‘You must open it up so that we can see what it contains,’ he insisted. As soon as Abram opened it, the land of Egypt was lit up with her beauty.” (Genesis Rabbah 40.5)

Abraham tried to smuggle his wife into Egypt because he was afraid the locals might kill him to get her. There’s reason to think his fears were grounded; Pharaoh’s officers did indeed take note of Sarah’s beauty and escorted her to the palace (v.15). But there’s also reason to think that nothing would have happened if Abraham had admitted to Pharaoh in the first place that they were man and wife (v.19). We’ll never know. But we do know that Genesis Rabbah relocates Abraham’s tense cross-cultural encounter with the Egyptians to the Canaanite-Egyptian border.

This wasn’t Abraham’s first, nor perhaps his most anxiety-provoking border crossing. He had already entered Canaan from Ur, with Sarah his wife, Lot his nephew, and Terah his father (Gen 11:31). Genesis tells us nothing about that border crossing, but another midrash raises a possible cause for anxiety:

And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah (Gen 11:28). Rabbi Hiyya said, Terah was a maker of idols. One day Terah went away somewhere and left Abram to sell them in his place. A man came and wanted to buy an idol. Abram asked him ‘How old are you?’ And the man responded ‘Fifty or sixty years old.’ Abram said, ‘Pitiful is the man who is sixty and worships idols that are one day old.’ The man became ashamed and left. Then a woman with an offering of fine flour. She said to Abram ‘Here, take it and bring it before the idols’. Abram stood up, took a stick, broke all the idols, and put the stick in the hands of the biggest idol among them. When his father returned he asked ‘Who did this to them’? Abram answered ‘I cannot conceal it from you. A woman came with an offering of fine flour and asked me to bring it before them. So I brought it before them and each said ‘I’ll eat first’. Then the biggest one among them stood up, took a stick in his hand and broke them all.’ Terah said to Abram, ‘Why do you mock me? Do these idols know how to speak and move’? And Abram replied ‘Let your ears hear what your mouth speaks’.

From the perspective of this midrash, Abraham and his family could have entered Canaan as economic migrants. Since making and selling idols was the family business, Abraham’s attempts to convince his father’s customers that they were wasting their money on blocks of wood carved yesterday had serious financial implications. It made perfect sense for the family to flee to another country and start over.

Passover Haggadah, Moravia, 1737, based on the 1712 Amsterdam Haggadah

The continuation of the midrash hints at a worse fate; the family could have come to Canaan as political refugees:

Then Terah seized Abram and handed him over to Nimrod. ‘Let us worship the fire’, Nimrod proposed. ‘Let us rather worship the water which extinguishes the fire’, replied Abram. Nimrod said to him: ‘Let us worship the water’!  ‘Then should I also worship the cloud, which bears the water?’ answered Abram.  Nimrod said, ‘Let us worship the clouds!’  Abram answered, ‘Then should I also worship the wind, which disperses clouds?’  Nimrod said, ‘Worship the wind!’  Abram answered, ‘Shall I then worship man, who endures the wind?’  Nimrod said, ‘You talk too much; I worship only fire. I am going to throw you into it; let the God whom you worship come and save you from it!’ Haran was standing there. He said, ‘Either way [I shall be safe] – if Abram wins, I shall say, “I am with Abram.” If Nimrod wins, I shall say, “I am with Nimrod.” When Abram entered the fiery furnace and was saved, they said to Haran: ‘On whose side are you?’ Haran told them, ‘I am with Abram!’ They took him and cast him into the fire, and so he was burned and his loins were scorched, and he came out and died before Terah his father.

Having publicly ridiculed the state religion, Abraham is handed over by his father to their tyrannical king, Nimrod. Abraham and Nimrod engage in something between a medieval disputation and Had Gadya that culminates in the death of Abraham’s brother Haran in Nimrod’s fiery furnace. Plausibly, the surviving family members had no choice but to flee the country.

Yet another Genesis Rabbah midrash emphasizes that Abraham was a traveler:

And the LORD said to Abram, ‘Take yourself from your land etc…’. Rabbi Isaac opened (Psalm 45:11), Listen, daughter, and look, and incline your ear, and forget your mother and your father’s house. Rabbi Isaac said, ‘This is like someone who travels from place to place, and sees a certain fortress burning.’ He said, ‘Would you say that this fortress has no overseer?’ Above him, the overseer of the fortress peeked out. He said to him, ‘I am he, the overseer of the fortress.’ Thus it was when our father Abraham said, ‘Would you say that this world has no overseer?’ The Holy One Blessed be He peeked out over him and said, I am He, the Master of the World. So shall the King desire your beauty, for he is your Lord. So shall the King desire your beauty. To beautify you in the world. And to bow down to him. Hence, ‘And the LORD spoke to Abram’ (Genesis Rabbah 39.1).

As I read it, the traveler entered into a mutually awakening relationship with the overseer of the burning fortress; just so, was the relationship between Abraham and God. Abraham was a wandering “mystic” who affected those he encountered along the way, including his Creator. Wandering was not a means to an end for him, but an essential component in his capacity to arouse love.

A few months ago, at a concert in Tel Aviv with my friend Toby, I fell in love with a song called “Nature Boy.” It was written in 1948 by Eden Ahbez, a proto-hippie who camped out under the first L in the Hollywood sign, but spent part of his childhood, with a different name, in the Brooklyn Hebrew Orphan Asylum. It’s performed here by the incomparable Israeli singer and cellist, Maya Belsitzman:

There was a boy

A very strange enchanted boy

They say he wandered very far, very far

Over land and sea

A little shy and sad of eye

But very wise was he

And then one day

A magic day he passed my way

And while we spoke of many things

Fools and kings

This he said to me

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn

Is just to love and be loved in return

As my son Jonah pointed out when we listened to it together on my iPhone last weekend in Amsterdam, “Nature Boy” is reminiscent of a late Beatles song — psychedelic before its time. There’s even a conceptual parallel: “The End,” the last song recorded by all four Beatles together, ends with a philosophical couplet: “And in the end, the love you take Is equal to the love you make.” Not so different, Jonah said, from ‘the greatest thing you’ll ever learn Is just to love and be loved in return’.

I’d suggested to Jonah that “Nature Boy” would be a good song for the choir he leads at Akwaaba, the migrant drop-in center in London, founded by his friend Mike. It’s a song that offers a valuable perspective on people, like migrants, who’ve “wandered far, very far over land and sea” — not what they need from us, but what they can teach us. After all, the ancestor that many of us share was himself a migrant: “Abraham, my beloved, whom I drew from the ends of the earth and called from its far corners” (Isaiah 41:8,9). And if there was ever a time to be reminded that we can love and learn from people who’ve traveled far, this is it.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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