Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Long and Winding Road: Reflections on Parashat Lech Lecha 5773

The Long & Winding Road was the last song the Beatles recorded together. It always struck me as a very fitting, profoundly moving farewell to the band that so shaped my musical sensibilities. But what do the Beatles have to do with Abraham & Sarah?

Let's start with a "Cliff's Notes" summary of Parashat Lech Lecha:

Gcd says to Abram: Leave everything you know and go to some super-secret mystery destination. Trust Me, it'll work out, and you will be blessed with children, money, land and fame.

OK, off they go. They arrive in mysteryland, Canaan, only to hit a brick wall…there's no actual food there, as they arrive during a famine.

OK, off they go…to Egypt to get food, only to hit a brick wall…Sarai is abducted for the Pharaoh's hareem. They escape with their lives and are unceremoniously escorted under armed guard to the border. (I don't think that's the fame Gcd had in mind…)

OK, off they go…back to Canaan, in fact, right back to the exact place they started, only to hit a brick wall…turns out their nephew Lot is a cattle rustler and is giving Abram a bad rep with the locals.  Furthermore, it's becoming clear that Lot is not the heir through which Gcd's promises to Abram will be fulfilled. So Lot's got to go.

OK, Lot exits stage right, eastward. Their efforts to settle in hit yet another brick wall…Lot is abducted and Abram is dragged into somebody else's war to jailbreak his wayward nephew.

OK, back to working the plan, but still no heir, a major brick wall there. So Sarai comes up with a plan to have her handmaiden be a surrogate mom, so Sarai could raise the baby as her own.

But…the plan hits a SERIOUS brick wall. The surrogate mom decides not to give the baby over and demands co-equal status with Sarai as Abram's wife. Rebellion, chaos, and violence ensue in their home. Niiiiice…and this hellion child Yishmael is self-evidently not going to be the heir they had hoped and prayed for.

Oh and by the way…you and your sons should forever cut off a piece of your delicate anatomy as a symbol of the eternal covenant between Gcd and (now renamed) Abraham. 

At this point, things look pretty grim for our hero. Unless something changes fast, Abraham, the first monotheist and progenitor of the Jewish people, will die without an heir and his life's work will be reduced to a yard sale some sunny Sunday morning on the Plains of Mamre.

Here is the Beatles tie-in: Abraham & Sarah traveled a very long and winding road; theirs is a story of a life that quite emphatically does not go according to plan. The road of Life keeps detouring on them.  Everything they try to build is knocked down. Theirs is a story of obstacles, crises and diversions. There is no discernible pattern to their experiences. It is a story of frustrated hopes, dreams and aspirations. Even the shapes of the Hebrew letters which comprise the words "Lech Lecha" betoken ups and downs, detours, sharp curves and bends.

From the song:

The wild and windy night that the rain washed away 
Has left a pool of tears crying for the day 
Why leave me standing here, let me know the way 
Many times I've been alone and many times I've cried 
Anyway you'll never know the many ways I've tried 
And still they lead me back to the long and winding road 

And punctuating every setback, the A-lmighty "doubles down" on His assurances to Abram & Sarai, making the eventual fulfillment of those promises even less likely and more miraculous. 

Can't we all relate to this experience on some level?. Haven't we all experienced blunted hopes, shattered dreams, and setbacks along the road to what really matters to us? Haven't we given it our all, and yet find progress elusive? Haven't we all watched our goals become more remote in spite of our hard work to achieve them? And how tempting it is to throw up our hands in frustration and give in to despair! But that is not the Jewish way. Abraham and Sarah show us a different path.

When we, mere mortals, resolve to go from Point "A" to Point "B", we draw a straight line between the two: efficient, simple, and pleasing to the eye. And then we expect life to conform to our pretty little line. But the A-lmighty doesn't work in straight lines. "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and My paths are not your paths, says Hashem." (Isaiah 55:8)  Gcd is called the "Zokef Kfufim" the One that straightens out those who who are crouched down. The human form is vertical. We stand straight up and down, but can you point to one bone in the human body which is truly straight? Somehow, straightness emerges from complex curves, bends and arches. That is Gcd's way - straightness emerging from the bent, simplicity from complexity, clarity from chaos. Detours are not really detours, and every curve has a purpose.

Gcd says later, "…For I have loved him (Abraham) because he commands his household after him that they keep the ways of Hashem, doing charity and justice, in order that Hashem might then bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him." (Genesis 18:19) We look to Abraham and Sarah as role models precisely because of the way they dealt with their adversities. They didn't despair; through all their travails, they never once doubted that Gcd's promises would be fulfilled - somehow. Nor were they ever bitter, angry or resentful. To the contrary, they are known as the paragons of kindness and open hearts to all who crossed their doorstep. The setbacks they endured make their faithfulness and kindliness even more exceptional. For that is the true Jewish path: to be loving, giving and thankful, even - or perhaps especially - in the midst of confusion, chaos and trouble. Because Lcrd knows we've had a bellyful of that in our history.

Abraham and Sarah whisper encouragements to us from four thousand years ago: keep moving forward, you're doing fine. Yes, it's a long and winding road, but trust Me, it'll all work out.

Shabbat Shalom.