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Lech Lecha and Liminality

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to our forefather Abram, in light of what is happening now in our country with all of our internal migrations: We have a whole country on the move: first of all, the soldiers who are “called up” are on the move, from North to South as they are needed. A soldier gets what in Hebrew is called an “after”, which means he goes from his base in the South to his home in the North for a lightening visit (shower, home-cooked meal, lots of hugs) and then returns to his base that same evening; or vice versa, from North to South. Then there are the mefunei otef azzah, the evacuees from the border of Gaza whose destroyed homes and communities are unlivable and for whom there is continuing danger if they stay. And besides them an entire city (Sderot) has been evacuated with very few people holding the fort there. And let’s not forget up North, the people living in kibbutzim, moshavim and yet another city (Kiryat Shmona) that have been uprooted and moved out of harm’s way, being put into hotels for an indefinite period.  Israel’s defining moment now is one of uncertainty. We are all on standby, waiting for the worst. We are living with what I call liminality. Which leads me to thinking about Abram.

ABRAM AND HIS UPHEAVALS

Abram is on the cusp of a big change in his life. He is in Charan when he gets his call up by God, in this week’s parshat lech lecha. Last week we read about his father, Terach with his three sons, Abram the oldest, Nachor and Haran, who died in Ur-Casdim. Nachor and Abram both got married; the former to Milchah. But it turned out that Abram’s wife Sarai could not have children, for she was barren. Their father Terach decided to try his luck elsewhere. He left Ur Casdim, planning to go to the land of Canaan. He took Abram, his grandson Lot, the son of the deceased Haran (Abram’s nephew), and Sarai, his barren daughter in law. They got as far as Charan, when Terach died.

Thus there were four major upheavals in Abram’s life before our parsha: the death of his brother, the discovery that he is not to have children, the leaving of friends and family behind (in particular, his brother Nachor) and the death of his father, Terach the patriarch. While in this state of mourning, he gets the call from God:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

“Go forth (lech lecha) from your land (me-artzecha), your place of birth (mi-moladetcha), from your father’s house (mi-beit avicha) to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

From the language He uses, it is clear that God recognizes what a major upheaval this will be for Abram. Abram is totally on his own, mourning his lost homeland, his father, his brother and now has the new responsibility for his nephew and to top it all, no hope of a future, since his wife is barren. Psychologists tell us not to make major changes in our life for at least a year after a traumatic event, like the death of a sibling, spouse or parent. Don’t sell your house, leave your job, make a major purchase. Let things settle down. But God doesn’t give Abram a chance to mourn, to even question whether he wants to continue his father’s journey to Canaan. The logical thing would be to stay put—where there is security. Yet this is not what God wants, so He adds inducements:

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

I’ll make you a great nation; and I will bless you and your name will represent greatness and you will be a blessing.

God adds that not only will he be blessed, but also his enemies will be cursed. Why God feels the need to add this, is not clear to me, but perhaps to anyone who has lost so much and is traumatized, part of his self-definition will be not only the good fortune that will await him in the future, but also the bad fortune of those whom are his enemies.

We usually think that Abram had no choice, that he was commanded. Abram went as (or when) God spoke דִּבֶּ֤ר to him. At age 75, he left Charan with his nephew Lot. The text uses the word daber and not command צוה.

וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אַבְרָ֗ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ אִתּ֖וֹ ל֑וֹט וְאַבְרָ֗ם בֶּן־חָמֵ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ וְשִׁבְעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה בְּצֵאת֖וֹ מֵחָרָֽן׃

But God’s “words” can be pretty persuasive and thus Abram did not follow the advice of today’s psychologists, something which will have ramifications for the present and the future. Major moves when you are not ready for them have ramifications.

‘WE ARE REFUGEES IN OUR OWN COUNTRY’

Although Abram does not have to  move, his case is not one of “forced migration”. What does it mean when you are displaced, relocated? First of all you are discombobulated! Today in Israel, we are seeing a major upheaval in people being evacuated from their homes from the North and the South. Our entire country is on the march. For those of us who are fortunate enough to be in our own homes, we are sharing, giving, volunteering time, money, food, furniture, bedding, clothing. Our armies are waiting on our two borders, one preparing to invade Gaza and another waiting to defend from the Hezbollah in the North, just in case.

LIMINALITY

We are a country in waiting. We are waiting for those who were kidnapped by Hamas to be returned; we are waiting in our shelters for the mandatory 10 minutes after we hear the sirens; we are waiting for bodies that were brutally burnt and hacked to pieces to be identified, so that we can officially mourn them. We are glued to the media, trying to make sense of it all—only to realize that there is no way to understand the core evil (chamas) in a group of people who have no decency, shame or even humanity. We sigh a lot. We keep busy, each in our way. We are in a liminal state, betwixt and between, on the threshold, one foot in life, the other in the grave. Funerals and visiting people who are sitting shivah (for seven days). We move between hope and despair. There is no way out—no endgame. One day at peace, the next day at war. One day celebrating the beginning of the Torah, and the next, the end of a life we thought we knew.

On Rosh Hashana we said, hayom harat olam. The world was pregnant with possibilities and potential, new beginnings. Little did we know that the year would breed monsters coming out of tunnels bent on mayhem. The forces of evil have been let loose. They have crossed the threshold into our lives–into our land! It will take years, if ever to defeat them. We did not get to finish the Torah reading on Simchat Torah or start at the beginning all over again. There are those who want to call this war the “Genesis War”. It makes sense, for when God created the world, evil was also released. Evil was set in motion when God created a world from a confused void.

וְהָאָ֗רֶץ הָיְתָ֥ה תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ וְחֹ֖שֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י תְה֑וֹם וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם׃

with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water—

And now we are back in this primeval world, when light is receding from the world and darkness is taking over. God created both good and evil; I would like to believe that the forces of good will prevail. But now when we are in this liminal state, it is too soon to predict which way the wind will blow. God’s wind is hovering over the water, making decisions. All is obscure; there will be no winners. It is not only our enemies who will be cursed. The forces of evil have gone too far; they have to be stopped, but the getting there will be an arduous and a long trip awaits. There will be unendurable suffering when we leap from this liminal state into the unknown. God has not provided us with road maps. Our leaders too are not functioning very well, which of course is an understatement.

And if I have not depressed you (and myself enough), I came across a headline in the Telegraph which quoted the Washington Post, a newspaper which supposedly has insider information. “US prepares to evacuate 600,000 Americans from Israel”– Officials draw up plans to help citizens in the region in the event of a full-scale ground invasion in Gaza

“The United States is preparing evacuation plans for up to 600,000 Americans in Israel in the event of a full-scale ground war in the region. US officials have created contingency plans involving a major exodus of American citizens from the area…. The Biden administration believes it “would be irresponsible not to have a plan for everything,” although a full-scale airlift is still thought to be a worst-case scenario, according to the Washington Post. The State Department believes there are around 600,000 American citizens in Israel, although many are dual nationals (here).

I am one of these 600,000 Americans this article is writing about. We came to Israel in 1967 after the Six Day War. Our children; our grandchildren were born here. Our family and friends are here. We do not contemplate leaving. To read a worst-case scenario like this is too frightening to contemplate. We are in an existential battle and it is one we absolutely must win. In the words of the song, eyn li eretz acheret, I have no other land.

So, I will continue to sit in front of the TV with its constant barrages of fear and terror. At the same time, I know I have to hope for the safe return of those who have been kidnapped by Hamas. I pray too, for the health of those who are wounded and for the safety of our soldiers and security forces. For the time being our entire country is united, for we know that we don’t have another country. Ehud Manor wrote a song in 1986 which has become our new anthem. The link to the song is here.

“I have no other country Even if my land is on fire….Here is my home, I will not be silent, because my country has changed her face. I will not give up on her; I will remind her….Until she opens her eyes….Aching in the body, hungry in the heart, Here is my home!”

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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