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Torah Commentary
Lech L'cha (November 1, 2014)

Leaving the Past Behind

Bettijane Eisenpreis

LECH L’CHA, WHICH IS TRANSLATED “Get thee out” in the old Jewish Publication Society Bible, is one of my favorite parashiyot. Two of the best sermons I ever have heard — one by a distinguished rabbi and scholar, one by a bar mitzvah boy — were based on its theme. Both sermons stressed the enormous trust in God that Abraham (or Abram as he was called at that time) displayed by agreeing to leave his home and family and travel to an unknown land.

But wait a minute! Let’s take a closer look at the story: Abram’s father, Terah, had just taken the family (Abram, his nephew Lot and assorted wives, concubines, children, sheep and cattle) from Ur of the Chaldees to Haran. They were aiming for the land of Canaan, but they got to Haran and decided to stop and put down roots. And then Terah died at the age of 205. So Abraham was a grown man, and he had nothing to keep him in Haran. God came and ordered him to go to “a land that I will show thee.” He probably said, “Why not?”

As a parent, I wonder what would have happened if Terah had lived. And what about Mrs. Terah? The Bible has a habit of forgetting women.

I remember learning in Sunday School the midrash about Abram breaking the idols in his father’s idol shop. The story is pure fiction, but it seeks to show that Abram doubted his father’s beliefs from the very beginning. When my son attended Sunday School here at Emanu-El, I believe they still were telling the story. Yet, nowhere in the Bible does Abraham repudiate his father. Remember, Terah actually was heading for Canaan. He just got sidetracked. Maybe he was too old and tired to take such a long journey.

Let’s imagine what would have happened if God had appeared to Abram when Terah was still alive. Abram comes back to the family tent and the following conversation ensues:

Abram: Uh, Dad, I had an unusual conversation today.
Terah: Really. Who did you talk to? That candle-maker in the next tent? Or was it that nosy Shifrah down the road? She’s such a gossip!
Abram: Actually, a voice came from Heaven saying he was the Lord Our God.
Terah: What did you have for lunch? Don’t eat so much in the middle of the day. I asked you to watch the business for an hour, and you nodded off instead.
Abram: No, Dad. I was awake. It was the Lord. He told me to leave your house and this country and go on the road. He said he would make of me a great nation.
Terah: And how does he propose to do that? You don’t have a single child yet, and you and Sarah are no spring chickens. Where are all the people going to come from? Next time I leave you to mind the store, mind your business. Wait till I tell your mother about this nonsense!

Okay, so it didn’t happen. But we don’t know that Abram broke those idols either. The serious point of the story is that children do leave home — many of them while their parents still are alive. The Bible deals with real-life problems, eternal problems. That’s why we still find it relevant. As a parent, I can vouch for the mixed feelings you have when your son moves to his own apartment. It’s the same feeling you get when you realize you are not positive if he voted for the same candidate as you did in the last election. (“We have secret ballots in this country, Mom,” he says.)

I know that letting go is at least as difficult for the parent as going is for the child. And, you never go as far away as you think. One day, when you are fully grown and independent and your parent is long dead, you look in a mirror. And looking out at you are your father’s eyes or your mother’s smile. You are part of a family, like it or not.

Yes, Abram became Abraham. He went to a new land, Canaan, and founded a new people. But he was the son of Terah, and of Mrs. Terah. They must have had some role in making him the upright, courageous man whom God chose for His purposes. Instead of the midrash about Abraham breaking his father’s idols, I propose a new story: one that honors the father while realizing that the son was his own person, that he had grown up and moved on, building on a strong foundation. He was chosen to give birth to the Chosen People. His parents must have done something right!

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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