Lech Lecha: Walking Each Other Halfway

This week’s sermon on parashat Lech Lecha. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Go forth from your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you…”

Imagine you are hearing these words for the first time, and that they are directed at you. Imagine they come from a voice that you’ve never heard before: a voice claiming to be the one true God. What is your next move?

I posed this question to our seventh graders, whose first response was, “New phone, who dis?”

But immediately afterwards—with only a brief interlude into “What do I wear?” and “What do I pack?”—came what is possibly the most important question: “Who do I get to take with me?”

Abram doesn’t ask any of these questions. In fact, he says nothing at all. He just listens, and starts walking. It is the text that provides our answers: “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5).

If we truly want to answer the question of “Who do I get to take with me?” we also have to address the question, “Who am I leaving behind?” To answer that inquiry, we have to flip back a few pages to last week’s Torah portion.

At the end of parshat Noach, we find out that, although God has not yet called Abram to “go forth,” his entire family has already started the journey. We read: “Terach took his son, Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. And the days of Terach were two hundred and five years; and Terach died in Haran” (Gen. 11:31-32).

Why is it that they started on this journey in the first place, prior to God’s call? And, having done so, why did they stop in Haran?

This was no quick jaunt across town. Ur to Haran was essentially the Southeastern most corner of Iraq; Haran was located at the Northernmost tip of Syria. It is quite possible that Terach and his family were simply exhausted. As modern readers, we might read a bit into the word “settled”: he was comfortable, so he stayed where he was. Or Terach might have fallen ill, and died before he could continue on to his original destination.

But the rabbis point out that there are 65 years between when Abram left for Canaan and when Terach died at the ripe old age of 205. Why then, does Abram’s departure appear AFTER Terach’s death in the Torah? Rabbi Isaac says that, “the wicked, even during their lifetime, are called dead.” This hints at the rabbinic tradition that paints Terach as an idol-maker, who clashed with his son, the monotheist, at every turn. Terach couldn’t go forward. He was stuck in his old ways.

But Rabbi Isaac isn’t finished. “For Abram was afraid,” he says, “saying, ‘Shall I go out and bring dishonor upon the Divine Name, as people will say, ‘He left his father in his old age and departed’?’ Therefore the Holy One, blessed be God, reassured him: ‘I exempt you from the duty of honoring your parents, though I exempt no one for this duty. Moreover, I will record his death before your departure” so that no one will think that you left him alone to die (Gen. R. 39: 7).

Whether Terach was physically dead, or spiritually dead, when Abram left for Canaan, most rabbis agree that there was no way Terach could have completed the journey with Abram. My teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen, suggested that it was psychologically and spiritually necessary for Abram to lose his father before answering God’s call. Many rabbis translate lech-lecha as “go to yourself,” become your own person, pursue your own destiny. Abram, Rabbi Cohen supposed, could only begin this journey of self-discovery after his father’s death.

The rabbis have many reasons for why Terach couldn’t complete the journey. But I wasn’t able to find any answers regarding why he started it. How did he know that he needed to move in this direction? Why did he undertake such an arduous journey, knowing he couldn’t complete it?

I hadn’t paid much attention to Terach before: he’s kind of an afterthought at the end of parshat Noach. But this week, I found myself thinking that, rather than deride Terach for not being strong enough to reach Canaan, we might instead give him some credit for walking his son halfway.

As some of you know, my great-uncle Billy passed away last week, and I went up to Albany for his funeral. Billy lived a long, full life: he was 92 years old, and was married for 69 years to my great-aunt Muriel. He danced at a few of his grandchildren’s weddings and met a great-grandchild. It was a good life, and a reasonably good death. But it was still hard on his family, and ours.

Though I hadn’t seen him in awhile, Billy was a fixture of my childhood from our annual pilgrimage to Albany. His snoring was audible throughout their ranch house. He made us Mickey-Mouse and Star Wars themed pancakes like we were his own grandchildren.

The loss was particularly difficult for my mother. She grew up spending family holidays going from house to house on the one street where her aunts, uncles, and grandmother lived. On Passover, she would eat three breakfasts so she could have matzah brie in every kitchen. The cousins all slept on rollaway cots in one basement. She attended college in Troy in part to be near them, and even changed her wedding date so that all of them could attend. When her own mother died young, her aunts and uncles took care of her as if she were their own child.

Their love was expansive. There was always room for one more.

The morning after Billy died, my mom told me a story she had never shared before. She was traveling by bus from New York City to Utica, so that she could visit her dying father. The bus made an hour-long stopover in Albany, and all of her aunts and uncles drove downtown, just to sit with her in the bus station, and then wave goodbye to her as the bus pulled away.

That is a special kind of love. It is a rare person who is with us on our life’s journey from beginning to end. Sometimes, all we can do is walk them part of the way. And sometimes, all we can do is sit in one place with them for a stretch of time.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether I could attend the funeral, given my own full schedule of meetings about other families’ life-cycle events (one great irony of the rabbinate). But when my mom told me this story, I decided to make it work, and I’m grateful that the community was so supportive. I hadn’t been able to spend much time with my Albany family over the years. I don’t even see my immediate family as often as I’d like. But for these few hours, I was given the opportunity to be with my mother while she was grieving. I couldn’t do anything to make it better. But I could sit with her, just for that hour.

Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

We might say that Terach got too comfortable, or stuck, or was too weak to go the distance. We might posit that Abram could only achieve his full potential when he left his father behind. But we might also see Terach’s journey, incomplete as it was, as an act of love.

The text doesn’t say that Terach and his family set out for Haran. It says that they set out for Canaan. Even though God had not yet called to Abram to tell him where to go, his father knew to start moving the family in that direction, even if they wouldn’t make it all the way there.

Maybe he was there to wave goodbye to Abram as the caravan pulled away, and maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Terach started a journey with Abram that he knew he might not be able to finish. Perhaps he loved his son so much that he decided to walk him halfway, and then sat with him, as long as he could, so that Abram could prepare himself to move forward on his own.

The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said that, in life, “We are all just walking one another home.” And sometimes, we only make it halfway. Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.