D’var Torah on Lekh Lekha
By Jeneba Charkey
Imagine a butterfly flapping its colorful translucent wings in the sun somewhere in in a verdant valley of Tuscany.... consider how the almost imperceptible displacement of air by its tiny wings amplifies over time and over space, over miles of earth and miles of sea.... Now, envision how the very same waves of air that were set into motion by an insect’s gossamer wings have become so forceful and violent on the other side of the planet, that a churning tornado forms on the staid grey plains of Kansas and the churning winds knock down every tree and building in their path!!! : O
This is the so-called “butterfly effect” of “Chaos Theory” which was developed in the 1970’s by mathematician & meteorologist, Edward Lorenz, to try to explain how minimal variations in inputs to a system can have gigantic unforseeable consequences on an ultimate outcome.
I have been looking at parasha Lech-Lecha in the light of this Chaos Theory - as an example of what dramatic and unpredictable changes can occur as the result of one apparently small decision by one apparently small individual. A man in a middle bronze-age place called Haran hears a voice urging him to uproot himself and take a journey ..... Thousands of years later, a woman sits in her living room and types out a story about butterflies on a laptop computer.... How could Avram ever have predicted this as he set out toward Canaan????
At first glance, the Lech-Lecha episode seems to come up very abruptly - all of a sudden, G!d starts talking & issuing orders to someone we don’t really feel we’ve been properly introduced to. But if we look at the previous parasha, we can see how the story is actually a continuation of the events at the end of parashat Noach - decisions undertaken by one generation lead to other decisions being made by the next generation.
Parasha Noach recounts a fairly glib account of some tragic and disruptive events in the life of one particular family. It tells the story of Terah, who lived in Ur in Babylonia, and who had 3 sons, Avram, Nahor, & Haran. Haran had a son, Lot. But Haran died - the text says IN FRONT OF his father, Terah.
After the death of their brother, the surviving siblings, both Avram & Nahor, got married - almost as if to defy the bitterness of Haran’s untimely death. As “Someone” would say later, they “chose Life!”....
Nahor & his wife, Milcah, were blessed with 2 daughters, but Avram’s wife Sarai was barren. We don’t know his mortivation, but suddenly Terah decided to leave Ur to go to Canaan. He took with him the childless couple, Avram & Sarai, and his recently bereaved grandson, Lot.
They all got as far as a place with the uncanny name of “Haran” and for some reason, they could go no further. Perhaps the weight of the family tragedy pinned them down. Terah died in Haran at the age of 205 years old. We can only wonder if those “golden years” were filled with gratitude or regret.
It is against this backdrop of loss, mourning and inertia - and his father’s thwarted plans to take “the geographic cure” - that Avram hears the voice of The Eternal, commanding him -
“go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. “
Go forth from the weightiness of all you know, leave behind your sadness and leave behind your connectedness, and leave behind all that has become familiar to you! Never mind your fear - no one can be courageous in the absense of fear. Accept discomfort and displacement upon yourself - but don’t worry - in the long run, you may once again find yourself in a place where you will “fit.”
What complex nuances are presented by this sentence! The imperative of the command to go forth is unassailable - go. and. just. do. it! But the second half of the sentence in its original language introduces a countervailing uncertainty into the equation - for in Biblical Hebrew, there is no true future tense in the manner that would occur in English, there is no definite “WILL” happen. Instead, there is an “imperfect tense” which connotes an action or a process that has begun but has not yet finished. It indicates that all is indeterminate and possibly even random. It encompasses the conditional tense: (“something WOULD happen, given certain conditions”) - and it also encompasses the subjunctive voice- the wishful thinking voice - that says - “WOULD that it would happen!”
"Go to the land that I might/ maybe /could/ most likely/ perhaps show you" - hardly sounds like a firm mandate. There is a subtle sense of chance, of ambiguity about G!d’s promise to show Avram “the land.” There is no mapquest, no googlemap, no hopstop.com - how exactly will Avram find “the land?” Moreover, WHAT is this land? Which land?
Ramban says that it is possible that Avram implicitly understood that he was destined to complete the journey to Canaan that had been originally undertaken by his father. But Ramban also thinks it is equally plausible that the events recounted in this parasha took place over a long stretch of time - that when Avram first set out on his journey, he had no clear idea of his intended destination, that at first, Avram wandered like a lost lamb from place to place until G!d spoke a second time and said
"To your seed I will/ would give this particular land."
So in making the decision to accept G!d’s challenge or “test,” Avram may be engaging is some pretty reckless, irresponsible behavior - BUT it is undertaken with the dream that future generations will benefit vastly from the risks and the sacrifice: RISK vs. RETURN! Avram - and G!d, Avram's Partner - both look with hope that this one small action will blossom over time into something much greater. It is almost as if Avram is a figure of speech known as a “synecdoche” - where the part stands for the whole, (such as “20 sails came into the harbor.”) The Lech Lecha story is an account of a conversation between G!d and one specific individual. And yet - how wonderfully the text conveys the paradoxical idea that in speaking with this one individual, G!d, whose sense of time and place unfolds quite differently than our own - G!d - is actually engaging an entire people, an entire family, every convert, and and all future generations of many nations. In direct conversation with G!d, Avram, the part, stands for all of us, The Whole.
Our slightest actions are virally contagious, insists the parasha. Every step we take in this world is as deceptively insignificant as the impact of a monarch butterfly flapping its wings. We are all interconnected, and every decision that we undertake for ourselves has far-reaching consequences. We are not a people whose tradition venerates isolationism, “rugged individualism,” or ethnocentrism.
A story is told by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai in Leviticus Rabah:
“A man in a boat began to bore a hole under his seat. His fellow passengers protested. ‘What concern is it of yours?’ he responded. ‘I am making a hole under my seat, not yours.’ They replied, ‘That is so, but when the water enters and the boat sinks, we too will drown.”
Our interdependence upon the good intentions of each other makes us responsible - and it also makes us vulnerable. Our actions amount to more than we could ever hope to understand.
We may, indeed, float like a butterfly, but we must take special care lest we inadvertently sting like a bee....
Shabbat Shalom v’Hag Halloween Sameach!