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November 6, 2008

To let go and to pray

Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)

http://www.jewishjournal.com/torah_portion/article/to_let_go_and_to_pray_20081106

Lech Lecha begins with God telling Abraham, "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from the house of your father to the land that I will show you."

But why does God say it in this particular order?

If you've left your country of origin, haven't you already left your hometown, let alone your father's house? You leave your house first, and then arrive at the edge of town and finally the country's border.

So why is the order reversed?

Nachmanides believes that it is in ascending order of difficulty. It is hard to leave your country -- the language, the culture, the currency. Harder still the place you were born -- your friends and familiar places. Hardest of all is to leave one's parents. Why? Nachmanides does not say. Might it be because parents won't let go?

My eldest son flew by himself for the first time this summer. He dreamed for weeks about his trip from Los Angeles to Florida to spend a month visiting his grandparents.

Still 8 years old, he was proud of this approaching independence. He filled his MP3 player with music, and he uploaded pictures of his ema and abba and brothers to look at when he missed us. When the day arrived, he packed his carry-on bag with his favorite book, "The Dangerous Book for Boys," and looked forward to being able to order Sprite after Sprite, for free.

He left while I was at work. I called to wish him a good trip as he sat at the departure gate with my wife, Jen. Over the noise of the airport terminal and the commotion of camp, I asked him to listen to me read tefillat haderech, the traveler's prayer, over the phone.

"May it be Your will Adonai our God and God of our ancestors that You lead us in peace, guide our steps to peace, and guide us in peace...."

And as I read, "May You rescue us from adversaries and ambush and robbers and animals along the way," I thought to myself, "Am I crazy?" I finished the prayer but my mind wandered to thoughts of abusers lurking on planes and robbers who would steal from a defenseless child. I prayed God would shine His sheltering presence upon him, would appoint the flight attendants as His angels to watch over him.

"Give him all the Sprites he wants!" I pleaded. "See in him the image of God that I see in him. See the precious, holy, special, beloved child who I love so much it aches to think of him alone out there in the world, without me."

I do not know if he heard my voice crack or if he could tell that tears were streaming down my face. I felt him slipping through my grasp as he proudly set forth into the world without me for the first time.

Why must parents let go?

Nachmanides explains, "It is difficult for a person to leave the country where he has friends and companions. This is true all the more so of his native land, and all the more so if his whole family is there. Hence it became necessary to say to Abraham that he leave all for the sake of his love of the Holy Blessing One."

Family is important, but God tells Abraham to leave his parents' home because he needed to become himself, not only his parents' child. Abraham needed to leave his idolatrous father to become the "father of many peoples" (Genesis 17:5), the father of monotheism and the Jewish people. The legacy of the Righteous Gentiles teaches that a good person must be willing to reject the world around him or her. But one need not always reject the teachings of one's country or community or family, just take responsibility for them.

For our children to find God, they must take responsibility for themselves, their own beliefs and, ultimately, their own relationship with God. We love our children so much it hurts, but we risk making of ourselves an idol if we fail to teach them to love God and encourage them to find their own path to the Holy One.

The modern Greek philosopher Nikos Kazantzakis said, "True teachers use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own." I did not collapse joyfully when I hung up the phone and thought of my son as he boarded the plane. But I am grateful for the glimpse I was given of the task that awaits me: not to make of myself an idol. To point him along the way, to let go and let him grow, and let him find God for himself. And to pray God will protect him along the way.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is executive director of Camp Ramah in California, the Jewish summer camp for the Conservative movement serving the Western United States, and the Max and Pauline Zimmer Conference Center of American Jewish University.

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