I feel old. I’m not talking about my actual age, which is not inconsiderable; in fact I have no idea what 75 is supposed to feel like – I’ve only been here for few months. No, the old I’m talking about is a feeling that can attack at any age – fear, enervation, bitterness, self-absorption, indifference, and battle fatigue. I feel the cycles of history grinding me down. Part of me just wants to give up, go inside and private, leave the problem to those others, those young ones, those poor slobs who still care. But today I’m wrestling with it. I’m not quite giving in. Today I want to look in our parsha for some wisdom and maybe even some hope.
The parsha is Lech Lekha. In it we meet and then follow the story of Abram and Sarai who become Abraham and Sarah. Up to now Torah has been the story of the universe and the world. Now our story, the Jewish story, begins. Some say this is the true beginning of Torah itself, that all before was mere preamble. Some preamble.
Anyway, God tells Abram ‘Lech Lekha, usually translated something like, ‘go forth.’ But as Ellen is fond of pointing out, lech lekha can also conjure a whole raft of other prepositions -- go from, go to, go in, go inside, into, down, up, through, over. Go to some other place, other state, other way of knowing, being, believing, seeing, hearing, relating, feeling, even dreaming. Get going! Go, just Go!
Aviva Zornberg brilliantly points out that in the genealogy leading up to Abram, the one break in the whole chain of ‘begats’ is Genesis 11:30: ‘Now Sarai was barren, she had no child.’ So our whole story begins with ein la vlad, ‘she had no child.’ We begin in lacking, emptiness, a vacuum, a tsim tsum. And where there is a lack, an ein, a without, there is hunger. So our story, the Jewish story, in many ways the Western story, begins in discontent, unsettlement, desire, in need for change.
In Torah study we have been looking at who God is in each parsha. Torah presents a God with many names and faces, many aspects, metaphors and moods. In Lech Lekha, as Jack Miles points out in his fascinating book, God: A Biography, we meet a God who for thirty years dangles a huge unfilled promise in front of the ein la, the lack, the hunger, the childlessness that haunts Sarai and Abram.
From the first, in line 2, God promises Abraham that his and Sarai’s ein, their lack, will be filled, “I will make you a great nation.” But many years and much wandering go by, including the sojourn in Egypt, and no child comes. Then, when Lot, Abrams nephew, splits off and heads for Sodom, God reappears to assure Abram that even if the family is breaking up, still ‘I will make your seed like the dust in the ground.’ And then … nothing. And, after Abram wins a great victory in battle, God returns and Abram pleads, for a child. God says ‘count the stars, … so shall your seed be.’ But again … nothing. So Sarai gives her slave Hagar to Abram; God makes the same promise to Hagar – “I will make your seed too many to count.” And Ishmael is born.
Maybe the ein la is resolved, even if the child is not Sarai’s. But no, thirteen years later, El Shaddai, the most atavistic and pure power form of God, appears, and Abram prostrates himself. El Shaddai delivers the promise a fourth time – “I will make you exceedingly many.” ‘And I’m changing your names to Abraham and Sarah, and, by the way, you have to circumcise yourself, Ishmael, and all of your male followers. And in a year Sarah and you will have a child.’ ‘But wait,’ says Abram, ‘I have a son, nice boy, what’s the problem?’ ‘Nope,’ says El Shaddai, ‘he’s not the one.’
At which point Abraham again falls flat on his face, but this time he laughs. I have this image from a cartoon of my childhood of this old farmer guy (might be Yosemite Sam) flat on the floor arms and legs waving and kicking, howling with laughter, tears, snot, spit flying in every direction. That’s Abraham. And I hear him: ‘You have got to be kidding me! After thirty years, after all these empty promises, you expect me to believe that at age 99 and her decades beyond menopause, it’s finally going to happen? And what’s more, before my sad withered penis goes into her, I have to slice off a piece it? And then do the same to my son, and then some how talk about 300 battle-hardened men into doing the same? You have got to putting me on!’
And that’s kind of where I am right now. Like Abraham, I’m on the floor, kicking and laughing, hysterical. ‘You, whoever you are, God or history, you want me to pick up the pieces and rejoin the struggle? Seriously? You who have promised so much and delivered so little? I have lived a long time already: I was born into the existential dread of WWII. My first real memory is the day the war ended – my first experience of pure joy. Suddenly there was peace and hope for future -- the UN and the four freedoms. And what did we get? The Cold War, McCarthy and nuclear terror. Then Civil Rights, and JFK, the Peace Corps and what did we get? Assassinations, riots, Vietnam and Nixon. And then the women’s movement and gay liberation and ethnic pride and we got Reagan and AIDS. Oh there’s been progress, yes, just as Abram grows in wealth and followers and wisdom during his wanderings. But so little, and at such great cost. And now after Obama and healthcare and the Iran agreement, we get Trump? You want me, us, to take on this heavy heavy load after all this? You have got to be putting me on! I’m too old, too tired, too bitter, too used up. I can’t, I won’t, please don’t make me.
But you know what? Abraham gets up off the ground, stops laughing, and he goes and circumcises himself, Ishmael and those 300 hardened followers – why didn’t Torah include the speeches he had to make to convince them? Respect, man, respect!
And I guess I too will get up and Lech Lekha yet again. I too will keep on keeping on. But for the time being at least I am putting aside the news. I am unsubscribing! Out Kos, out Vox and Slate and Salon and Dissent and the Times, Washington Post, Politico, 538, even NPR. Out! I have always wanted to talk politics. I don’t want to any more. Instead I’m going to read Torah and Tony Kushner, Neruda and Nazim Hikmet and look at Paleolithic cave paintings and Rothkos and Mike Cockrill’s sexy murderous girls, and listen as often as possible to Pablo Casals playing the Bach Cello Suites -- did you know that he played them all the way through every morning well into his eighties? And Dylan and Cohen, now of blessed blessed memory, and Joanie and Paul Bley and Paul Desmond and Billy and Bill Evans, and Duke and Nina and Miles and ‘Trane. There is so much glory in our universe to nourish us! I am so grateful.
And yes, if there’s an action to weaken Project Trump, and I think it can make a difference, drive a wedge, I’ll be there. If I have a perspective I think worth sharing, you know good and well that I will! But for now, otherwise, I’m out. I do not suggest this as a plan for anyone else, and I don’t know how long I’ll stick to it. Lisa doesn’t believe it for a minute. But as I say, I feel old today.
And I have learned over and over how adversity creates opportunity. For the past year or so, I have been writing stories about the McCarthy period. I kept wondering if anyone would connect to them, want to read them – it didn’t stop me, but I couldn’t help wondering. And then Trump got elected and one of his close henchmen, Newt Gingrich, wants to revive HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee that haunted my childhood, and my stories are suddenly, reluctantly thrown into the zeitgeist, given new urgency. I feel an ein lo. God or history, whomever, is dangling a need in front of me; I must respond.
The other night when we gathered in our despair to warm one another with songs and words and hugs, I read a poem by Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet and fighter for justice. In 1948 he was in hiding from a savage junta who wanted to kill him, and still he could write, “We have brought joy over to our side. And there is nothing they can do but rent a room across the street and tail us so they can learn to laugh and cry like us.”
And I look at the hungry ghosts who have taken over our dear country, and I look at us here in Kolot and our friends across the country and around the world, and I know that yes, we too have brought joy over to our side, and yes we must nourish it together, so that we, like Neruda, can “show them the world that is ours.”
Lech Lekha! Get up! Go. Go wherever you are called, in or out. Just get up and go.