Lech L’cha and the Living Tradition

Andy Oram
November 6, 2006

American tradition is anti-traditional. It mythologizes the pioneer and celebrates those who seek after the new. So it is natural for Reform Jews in America to interpret the Lech L’cha story in the context of a rejection of tradition. But it also can distort a key aspect of that story.

Commentator after commentator, in modern times, has talked up the courage demonstrated by Abraham (Abram at that time) in abandoning old ways. It’s certainly hard to interpret the famous words "go…from your land, and from your ancestors, and from your father’s house" (Genesis 12:1) as anything but a total break from the past.

But this interpretation of the founding moment of our religion is dangerously fraught with contradiction. If it is praise-worthy to abandon everything old and established, what of Judaism itself? How can we tell young Jews to respect what we have to offer them: the awkward old prayers, the frayed scrolls, and their antiquated contents?

The ancient rabbinic midrash (which always loved extremes) exacerbates the problem by portraying Abraham’s father as an idol-maker and a child-murdering fanatic, accusations totally unsupported by the biblical text. (His son and grandchildren, it is true, had idols—we know that from the story of Lavan and Rebecca in Genesis 31.)

But the commentators on Genesis 12:1 omit a key part of the story—a tiny detail that totally changes one’s view of Abraham.

How deceiving chapter divisions (a medieval addition to the Bible) can be! Because Lech L’cha begins a new chapter, readers don’t go back two verses—yes, just two verses—to find what I consider the real start of the Lech L’cha myth.

Do it now. Leave aside this article, get out your Bible, and read Genesis 11:31. What it tells us is that Abraham’s father was the one to decide to go to Canaan. Abraham was not turning away from his father’s path—he was fulfilling a goal that his father did not live to fulfill.

Why is this key point never brought into discussions of the Lech L’cha story?

Now we can tell our young people that finding the true way may mean finding the path of one’s forebears—often a path that they avowed but failed to take, or that (like Abraham’s father) they pursued only part of the distance.

Sometimes it calls for the greatest of courage and imagination to take up the journey of one’s ancestors, or of significant men and women who preceded us in our fields of endeavor. That is a Lech L’cha.

An Arab female academic, Fatema Mernissi, writing of the wrenching changes in Arab life that threaten the ethics and life choices of youth, uses themes and references one could easily find in the Jewish sages: "…solutions must help young people navigate not only in space but in time. In a globalized planet where meeting strangers daily is the only way to make a living, mastering time is the secret of graceful navigation. To travel in the past, that is, to navigate in time, is the best way to teach oneself tolerance and respect for diversity." ("Digital Scheherzades in the Arab World," Current History, March 2006)

Jewish tradition—and any tradition that can withstand the ravages of history—is an evolving, ever-changing process, like the life of Abraham’s father. It is by looking at the goals, the trajectories, the unrealized dreams of one’s predecessors that one finds one’s reference points in life. This is what we can teach as Jews to our children. How lucky we are to have a story in Genesis that brings to life such a subtle insight!

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