Breaking Away: D'rash on Lech L'cha | Congregation Beth Am

Breaking Away: D'rash on Lech L'cha

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
November 11, 2000

Peter Pitzele, who has become famous as the inventor of Jewish psychodrama, tells a story about a painful experience he had many years ago, when he was teaching at Brooklyn College. Pitzele had grown up the son of a self-made man who was also a self-hating Jew; an individualist who consciously sought to escape from his own origins. His father resisted "all forms of clannishness, tribalism and parochialism," distrusted "the panaceas of religion," disdained his fellow Jews as loud, pushy and vulgar. And so he raised a son, Peter Pitzele, who did his best to assimilate, who strove to be a member of "the elite intellectual culture of Harvard, Oxford and other such places," as he says, "always shoving the Jew in me into the shadows."

Then, in the 1970's, Peter got a job at Brooklyn College, and went through what was for him a nightmarish ordeal. He describes it like this: "At the end of the day my homeward path crossed the campus and required me inevitably to run a kind of gantlet between bobbing, black-coated Hasidim who asked me repeatedly, 'Are you Jewish? ...Are you Jewish?' Tight-lipped, unseeing (though not unmoved), I passed between [them], refusing to acknowledge them by any sign, until on the very last day of the semester..., I turned on the final interrogator in the line, and ...I veritably screamed into his scraggly beard a defiant and silencing three words: 'In a sense!'"

In the years that followed, Pitzele came to understand that the question the Hasidim had asked him - are you Jewish? -- was one which had haunted him all his life. And his answer, fraught with pain and ambivalence, was his legacy from his father - a legacy of Jewish distance and discomfort and shame, an identity he could neither eradicate nor fully embrace.

On most Shabbat mornings at Beth Am, we stand on this bima along with a 13 year old boy or girl and a cluster of proud parents and grandparents. As the Torah service begins, they line themselves up in front of the Ark; and then, in a ritual that has become central to the modern Bar or Bat Mitzvah, they pass the Torah down the line, ending in the arms of the new Jewish adult. It is a powerful visual symbol of the way it's supposed to be: the transmission of culture and tradition from generation to generation, each link in the chain receiving and then passing on, with love, the sacred legacy of our people.

The visual symbol is simple and beautiful - but what actually gets passed from parent to child is often far more complicated. Some of us were blessed to be born into Jewish families who truly taught us to know and to cherish our heritage. But some of us know what Peter Pitzele was talking about: we, too, had a father or mother who experienced Jewishness as a burden, or a form of deprivation -- an embarrassing, awkward encumbrance. Being Jewish, in such a family, meant a childhood full of negative messages: driving past houses lit up with Christmas lights and feeling fiercely jealous; or resenting your Jewish nose or your Jewish hair or your Jewish klutziness; or being forced to spend dreary hours in Hebrew school for no discernible reason.

Some of us were offered a Jewish identity centered on anti-Semitism; a constant preoccupation with the Holocaust, constant reminders that the rest of the world hates us and wants to destroy us. For some of us, the chain of knowledge and observance was broken long before we came along, so our parents gave us a Judaism that was pale and attenuated, hollow and superficial -- a Judaism by rote, nothing more than a label, really -- no real learning, no real understanding, no real commitment or love for the heritage they bequeathed us.

And for Jews by Choice, of course, the legacy has its own complications - a childhood without any Jewish sensations or stories or memories to form an adult identity.

This morning there is no Bar or Bat Mitzvah on the bima, no family's Torah-passing ritual to witness as a congregation. Instead it is a day for each of us to reflect on the Torah-passing in our own life - to ask what sort of teaching we received from those who came before us, and how it has shaped the person we are now.

"Vayomer Adonai el Avram: Lech l'cha...And the Lord said to Avram: Go forth, take yourself from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you..."

There are two theories in the midrash about the meaning of God's call to Avram: the call we heard again this morning, in all its primal power, the call that brings Jewish history into being. One midrash sees Genesis chapter 12 as a story about breaking away from the past, about Avram leaving his father's house and his father's ways to set out on a new and radical path. This school of thought portrays Avram as a rebel, an iconoclast from the very beginning, a religious pioneer who resists the idolatry of his father even as a young boy. Most of us know the story about how the young Avram smashed the idols in his father's shop; it is a foretaste of the more profound shattering of family bonds that happens when Avram grows up and flees the environment of his youth. The other theory, less well-known, perhaps, sees the story differently. If we look back at the verses just before our portion begins, we see the following surprising words:

"Terach took his son Avram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai...and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terach came to 205 years; and Terach died in Haran" (Gen.11:31-32).

Think about it: it was Terach, the father of Avram, who first set out from Ur, a city in Mesopotamia near the Euphrates River, and headed west for the land of Canaan. For reasons we aren't told, Terach interrupted his travels and stopped in Haran (a city in what is now Syria). So the call to Avram -- "lech l'cha -- go, take yourself," is not a radical breaking away but a resumption of the story begun in the previous chapter. Avram's departure is, in effect, a continuation of his father's journey.

Some of us in this sanctuary today are like Avram: we know what it is to be the first Jew -- not the first Jew in the world but the first active, involved and practicing Jew that our family has seen in several generations. We have turned our lives in a different direction, and some of our relatives can't quite figure us out. Our parents regard us with surprise and bewilderment, sometimes with pleasure and sometimes with dismay, wondering where they went wrong, mystified at having produced offspring who cling to customs their grandparents cast off, finding meaning in the rituals and traditions of the past. Like Avram we have heard the call to go forth, to take ourselves out of the religious milieu where we grew up, and to find our way to another place, another way of being that is deeper, richer, truer to our authentic selves. But we know, as Avram knew, that leaving the house of our parents is an act both boldly radical and profoundly conservative. It is not some private, idiosyncratic wandering we seek: we want to reclaim our ancestors' journey, to set ourselves back on the primal path, linking ourselves to its power and beauty, taking our place in a story begun long before we were born. Our rebellion is also a search for healing: we want to let go of Jewish pain and embarrassment and discomfort, to find our way to Jewish peace and joy and wholeness and love.

Lech l'cha - go forth, take yourself to a new place. Or as the Chasidim translate it: Go to yourself; go within; come home; find your source; reclaim your roots. Lech l'cha...on your journey I will bless you, and you shall be a blessing. Lech l'cha.

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