“Go forth,” God says.
And you shall be a nation, and a blessing, and Mine.
And even before all of that, though this goes unsaid, you will be storyteller’s light beam, Avram. For you will pass, seen and storied, through the mass of people and events that none of us would otherwise have seen, or could recall.
It is Avram we watch — he of the wandering “to a land that I will show you,” he of the open tent, he of the barren wife, he who was a sojourner, forever abandoning native lands, abandoning norms, abandoning conventions, and — dare I say it? — abandoning sons. “Go forth,” said God, and he went – and went onwards. And we watch him, and we learn: Don’t get stuck. Don’t mistake the temporary for the eternal. Don’t confuse the IS with what SHOULD BE.
But as we watch this not-so-normal wanderer, bits and pieces of what was normal in his time get caught, for just a moment, in his story’s headlight. He will pass, and those ancient stories, people, lands will be plunged once more into the darkness of invisibility. But for a moment, we can see them. We can see what it was that he was set to abandon, to replace, or to transcend.
“Pharaoh’s courtiers saw her and praised her to Pharaoh, and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace,” we hear. And we know: God will intervene. Sarai will be saved.
But: how many women weren’t? If this was normal, how many other women were thus taken? How many others never left Pharaoh’s household?
One day, Avram and Sarai’s descendants will go back to Egypt, and learn the Pharaoh’s version of might-makes-right at greater length, through deeper sorrows. But for now, it is but a glimpse, a short insight into the power of a king, an empire. A taste of the status quo that Avram was meant to abandon and upend.
“Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself,” requests the king of Sodom, after Avram saved all of the people and possessions of his kingdom, who were previously defeated and taken by an alliance of four other kings.
And: here it is, the default of that ancient time — the conqueror takes all, and if he’s kind, if he is exceptional, he’ll take the possessions and set the humans free.
It is to this world, to these expectations, that Avram answers “I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours.” He is speaking to the king of Sodom, but he could as well be speaking to the entire way of life this king so clearly takes for granted. “You shall not say,” says Avram, “It is I who made Avram rich.”
But what was the fate of all the others who were conquered and captured in that era, all those who did not have an Avram to save them, who were taken by men who shared the expectations of Sodom’s king?
Avram travels, and our focus with him, leaving those countless nameless others to their fate. But for a moment, I think of them — of their dependence on the whims of those in power. I thank God and our forbearers for the gifts of liberalism and democracy, for our ability to protest misuse of power, for the expectation of fairness we carry in our very flesh, our very gait.
For many generations, we were wanderers, sojourners. At best, we could protect ourselves against the world’s injustice. Rarely could we change it, upend it, heal the world. But now, we stand upon the land that God told Avram He will assign to his offspring. We are the fulfilment of God’s promise. We are the future Avram sought.
This promise? It was never unconditional. The Promised Land depends on carrying on Abraham’s legacy, on avoiding the forgetfulness that comes with being settled, privileged, and safe. Avoid the practices of your neighbors, warns Moses in Deuteronomy. Do what is right and just and yashar — straight — in God’s eyes, or you will lose the land, promised or not.
Perhaps this is why God made our settlement in Israel dependent on Abraham’s perpetual un-settlement. “Up, walk about the land, through its length and its breadth, for I give it to you,” says God, and Avram wanders, wanders, wanders. The sages explain that wherever he walked, his very presence bought for us our future place, our future right to live here. But maybe it’s not his travels but rather our memories of them — our memory of his constant un-settlement, his constant rejection of his time’s status quo — that buys, and goes on buying, our right and our ability to stay upon this land. For if we remember how Avram traveled — in body, yes, but also in spirit, forever outgrowing the world as it was — we might better remember to look at our own realities, our own imperfect present, what IS, and strive to outgrow it, to do better, to be more.
Avram travels, and sheds light into an ancient world as he travels through it and rejects its values. It’s up to us to shed light into the darker corners of our own place, our own time. Dare we shine it at the poverty that hampers some of us, for generations? Dare we shine it on bastions of elitism we like and cherish because they align with our own values, at conventions that cripple some among us while giving us a leg up, at our relations with those we disagree with — and with our Arab neighbors, our generation’s Ishmaels?
Avram was an individual — there was a limit to what he could achieve as a lonely reformer. We? We have a state, an army, a society. As Avram’s children, it behooves us to use them to bring about more blessings for more people. We must not be tempted to merely rest on them, as on laurels.