Thoughts on Torah portion Lekh Lekha 2023
(I am writing this on October 25, 2023. My heart is still in shreds.)
There is something missing in the story of Abraham, as we usually tell it. Avram (Abraham’s original name), was not told by God to leave Ur Kasdim (Mesopotamia) for Canaan. We are told at the end of Genesis chapter 11 that Terach, Avram’s father, had already left Mesopotamia to journey to Canaan. Terach, however, interrupted the journey and settled north of Mesopotamia in Harran (roughly Syria-Turkey area). After Terach died, Avram continued the journey to Canaan begun by his father.
In brief, God told Avram to leave Harran, not Mesopotamia. There is a wealth of interpretation on why Avram left (wherever he left from), and God’s reasons for choosing Avram.
For the moment, I am interested in Terach, not Avram. Why did Terach leave Ur Kasdim for Canaan? Perhaps, God originally spoke to Terach to leave Mesopotamia for Canaan, but for reasons unknown, Terach stopped. I can’t find anything in our tradition as to why Terach left for Canaan and why Terach stopped the journey and settled in Harran instead.
We are left to our own thoughts on this, a modern Midrash, if you will.
As a human being on the uneven journey to a life of goodness and wholeness, and as someone who has witnessed many others on this journey, I think I know a little about why people stop the journey.
The journey can be tough, miserable and lonely. You get stranded and you get tired. Sometimes people suffer terrible wounds and grieve. Sometimes the journey is simply too difficult, and people make up reasons and decide to settle, consciously or not. Sometimes people have never discovered a map or have been using the wrong map.
At some point, many people avoid the journey. Something in them says, “Stop this journey; go no farther.” Something in them resists the journey. Psychologies of transformation tell us that whenever some thought arises in us and tells to stop our work at doing what we know we are supposed to do, we ought not be so quick to obey. Perhaps our will is crumbling and resistance is giving us excuses. Resistance to our duty and whatever excuse resistance comes up with might be hiding a thought: this is the very moment that we have to double down and recommit. Put differently, resistance appears when it detects that we might actually change our lives. Resistance says, “Take the Harran exit! Don’t continue the journey!” Resistance wants us to avoid our work.
People avoid understanding those with whom they disagree. People avoid empathy. People avoid making rational judgments. People avoid looking at themselves. People avoid seeing the truth of the matter - because they might have to change their life. For some people, it is far easier to settle into judgmentalism, or victim status, or anger, or resentment, or shame, or guilt, or confusion, or some other bad habit.
Some voice in your soul might be pushing you forward on the journey to truth. The resistance in your ego self is pushing back, pushing you to take the Harran exit from the highway. It wants you to settle in Harran. Harran is where the soul withers.
I don’t have an answer for you, or for myself. Perhaps I am avoiding something because it is actually not the true path. Or, perhaps I am working on distinguishing between a slogan and the truth. There is much reflection to do on our journey. Harran is where we stop reflecting.
This was one of my goals during the High Holy Days. People say “forgive” or “be accountable” but don’t seem to know what those words mean. They can be nice sounding slogans that help us avoid looking into the void of the unconscious ego self. Looking into the void until you see the shapes is difficult. It is easier to exit at the Harran rest stop, and maybe then, just exist there.
If we had to arrest the main slogan that makes us take the Harran exit of not staying on our journey, the one we might drag into the police station when the chief says, “Bring in the usual suspects,” is the slogan “I’ve been wronged!”
(There are several other turnoffs to Harran. “I’ve been wronged” is only one. I’ll talk about the others later.)
I’ll unpack the analogy. The police station is where the “police report” is worked out. All the relevant facts, all of them, in order, as non-biased as possible, bullet point style, dis-attached from the “I’ve been wronged” narrative.
The “I’ve been wronged narrative,” on the political level, can fuel wars, atrocities, and genocide. Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, Islamic state, and others, and now Hamas, all have their grievances, their narratives that licensed, or license, war and atrocities. We have a war of ideas ahead of us. We cannot let up. More on that for the rest of my life.
Most of my professional life has been devoted to helping people resolve interpersonal wars rooted in grievances. Or clear the debris of those interpersonal wars scattered in the inner life. Or help resolve those grievances that constitute the war within.
Here’s a bit of the path to truth: Wall of Virtue. Police Report. Rationality and reasoning. Insight into the bad habits of the unconscious ego self. Sometimes into the depths of the soul. Rinse and repeat until the day of your death.
All interpersonal wars, by the way, are results of unexamined and unresolved inner wars. Private, inner wars projected into interpersonal space. If you didn’t have an inner war, you would resolve issues with others with some modicum of wisdom, dignity and virtue. I have found that the best way to resolve a problem with another person is to work on resolving your inner wars first.
If you didn’t have an inner war that manifested in interpersonal conflict, you could sum things up and get to the truth of the matter, and then to the real truth of the matter. I like to put it this way: “We’ve been caught up in the tragedy of the human condition – or the Divine condition, as the case may be. Let’s at least not make it worse.”
(I am not discussing the war against evil. Evil people have lost their inner war and spend their lives taking out their inner defeat on others. History has shown us that evil regimes on the warpath can only be stopped by war).
The sign “I’ve been wronged” is posted at the first turnoff to Harran, the place where the soul withers, the will collapses, we stop reflecting and we live by slogans. Terach got stuck there and died. In our Torah portion, Avram picks up the journey. God said, “Get out of Harran.”
Avram’s journey was tough, monumentally tough. But Avram was tough, too. He ended his life, we are told, in something of a state of grace. Except for his memories that he was working through for the rest of his life. “No victim narrative,” I imagine him saying to himself over and over again.
“I got caught up in the tragedy of the human condition – or the Divine condition, as the case may be.”
In this Midrash, Isaac and Ishma’el write that for his epitaph.