Dvar Torah Lech Lecha 5780 by Justin Wise
Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 11 November 2019
How should we approach the unknown? How should we orient ourselves to the inevitable unpredictability of the world – life’s way of going life’s way whether we like it or not? Should we despair at our lack of control? Be terrified of all the bad things that will happen? Should we retreat into a small, cosy space where we can spin the illusion of safety? Give up on doing anything because we are so small and the world is so big?
I think it would be true to say that both this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, and our haftara from Rabbinic literature are about this, in that they ask us the question ‘What can we trust?’.
Let’s talk about Abraham – a man whose capacity to trust in life, to trust in the divine presence he encounters, allows him to set off into the unknown and, later, to challenge the creator of everything.
Abraham is really the first person in Torah to set out on a life-changing journey with a wildly indeterminate destination. ‘Lech L’cha’, he is told, ‘Go!’. But not where, nor why, just go… and trust that things will turn out, as they will, how they turn out. He is, in Torah, the protypical example of something we all have to face – that we are, as Nachman of Bratzlav so beautifully points out to us, inescapably walking a ‘Gesher Tzar Me’od’ – a very narrow bridge which comes from somewhere we do not understand and leads to somewhere we cannot know.
And what strikes me so much about Abraham is that he does go. The Torah records no argument on his part, not about this, and he does not seem to hesitate. Abraham does not at all appear as model of despair, or of cynicism, or of terror. He may indeed be very afraid, but he’s willing to take a step into his life – and then another step and another step, trusting that each step will take him, who knows where, but somewhere.
And it is, I think, his willingness to trust – to hope – in this way, that allows him to set out on such an audacious journey, a journey in which he leaves everything behind – his former life, his family, everything that has supported him thus far and, most profoundly, the identity – the sense of himself – that he has known. Lech L’cha, not just ‘go’ but ‘go, yourself’ or maybe even ‘go into yourself’ or perhaps ‘go to a new self’ – a recognition that learning to trust in life is, for many of us, a call to a kind of self-transformation, of loosening the boundaries of who we’ve take ourselves to be, of knowing ourselves and our lives in a far wider horizon than we’ve seen so far.
I can’t help but think that it’s Abraham’s willingness to trust in this way that gives him the courage for what I think is his most audacious and inspiring move, to try to argue God out of the destruction of Sodom and Gommorrah. How could he have possibly found the capacity to do this if he had been locked in despair at changing anything, and how could he have possibly known how it would work out? That, this time, it did not work out as he hoped… but that he brought himself as fully as he could in the face of apparently impossible odds – these are the qualities of hope that I think we, too, need as we face the magnitude of climate change, or the rise of political populism, or the great gaps in access to resources in our society, or the persistent destructive habits of our own lives.
So is Abraham’s kind of trust and hope just something we have, or don’t have? Is it a matter of genetic temperament, or simple luck of the draw? I don’t think so, and neither I think does our midrash. In these verses from Midrash Tehillim, we hear the rabbis claim that Abraham was purified in ten trials. Ten trials that show him how vulnerable he is, how much is at stake, and that there are choices about how to bring himself. Ten trials that force him to open to the possibility that he might yet learn how to trust that existence itself, however true his vulnerability to it, can hold him.
The philosopher Robert Solomon says, that trust – between people, between us and the world – is not a given but something we make every time our trust is broken, shattered, compromised and then we take actions to repair and to restore. Trust and hope, in other words, aren’t made by attempts to keep ourselves safe and away from the world’s unpredictability and uncontrollability. They are made by our full-on engagement with life – by how we bring ourselves not only to life’s joys but to its troubles and dangers – by our learning that life won’t simply go our way but, nevertheless, here we are. And it is this quality that the Rabbis celebrate in Abraham – his choice to come at what he cannot control with reverence and love and what strength he can muster, no matter how things go for him.
In 1986, when he was a prisoner playwrite in communist Czechoslovakia, the future Czech President Vaclav Havel wrote ‘Hope is not prediction of the future. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”
In other words, hope – even when we can be far from sure about how things will turn out – is a kind of trust. But it’s not the naive trust of optimism, which promises that everything will be fine or that we will be saved, and nor is it the naive mistrust of pessimism, which promises that everything will be ruined. It’s trust in something else – it is first trust in our own capacity to respond to the world with creativity and dignity, whatever happens, and second it is trust in a deeper kind of goodness in the order of things. When we face the most difficult of circumstances, or are most worried about the future, it’s the presence of both kinds of trust that supports the possibility to take action. The first, the trust in our own capacities, so that we have the energy and determination to move forward and the second, the trust in which we partner ourselves with a deeper kind of goodness, so that we can keep going even when it looks like things might not turn out well for us personally, or when something is going to take a generation or to change.
And so, of course, to the end of Nachman of Bratslav’s phrase, ‘Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Me’od’ – all the world is a very narrow bridge – ‘V’haikar lo lefached klal’ – and the most important thing is not to be afraid. Not ‘don’t feel fear’ but rather – we all walk a very narrow bridge between two ends that we cannot know, and we could – really – fall at any moment. But the most important thing, as long as we can, is to keep walking.