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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lech L'cha: Time to Move On?

Like many synagogues, ours faced a time not too long ago when our rabbi made the difficult decision to leave. Sometimes rabbis retire, sometimes they relocate, and sometimes they decide to accept an offer from another institution. But whatever the reason, congregations sometimes have just a few short months to adapt to the loss of an individual who has been a teacher, a comforter, an adviser, and -- for congregations that are lucky -- a leader who makes us all better people. 

And while congregants may regret the loss, most nonetheless also understand that time marches on and change is inevitable, and the right thing to do is embrace the rabbi's decision with love and support.

While the loss of a rabbi typically happens infrequently in most synagogues, the resulting feeling of ambivalence is something that middle schoolers know very well.

When we read Lech L'cha during the year when our rabbi left, I asked my sixth graders to tell me how they they thought he might be feeling. Proud? Excited? Happy?

Actually, the first words that come out of their mouths were far different. Scared, they told me. Nervous. Anxious. Uncertain.

And maybe that's not so surprising. After all, eleven- and twelve-year-olds are on the brink of independence. They are eager to assert their individuality and make their own decisions -- and yet they know it's so much safer to stay back and fade into the crowd. It's tempting to "go forth" -- the common translation of Lech L'cha -- but it is also dangerous. 

Each year when I teach Lech L'cha, I find many sixth graders who are wrestling with the inevitability of change. Some are facing sad family situations -- a sick grandparent, or an upcoming unveiling or yartzeit for a relative who died too young. These children talk about wanting to go back to a happier time, before illness struck their families.

Other students are adjusting to more benign but nevertheless significant changes. Many have recently begun middle school, and are missing their old, familiar elementary schools. Some have moved or are moving to a new house, and they have mixed feelings about leaving their friends and familiar settings. They, too, aren't so sure that "going forth" is all it's cracked up to be.

And yet...who says that "going forth" automatically entails unmitigated pleasure? 

In this week's portion, God tells Abram (whose name will soon be changed to Abraham) to leave his native land and his father's house. Two short verses later, we learn that Abram does indeed do what God has commanded. To be sure, the outcome of Abram's obedience is spectacular: Abram learns that he will be the progenitor of an entire people, his name will be made great, and he will be blessed, as will his descendants. 

How does Abram feel about all this? Funny enough, the Torah doesn't tell us. It just says that he was commanded to go...and he went.

I ask my students to describe their favorite, personal "Lech L'cha" moment, and they often relay moments of challenge and achievement -- whether it's mastering a new kind of dive in the swimming pool, reaching a new skill level in skiing or another sport, or feeling comfortable at a new summer camp. Sixth graders want to confront change successfully, and they're proud when they do. And yet, the prospect of change feels scary, no matter who is in the driver's seat. 

So I think that this Torah portion is particularly revealing for what it leaves out. Abram's feelings are simply beside the point.

As one of my students said this year, "It really doesn't matter what Abraham felt about leaving his home; what matters is that he did it."

My students and I came to realize that the Torah’s key lesson in this portion is simply this: Time marches on. And it’s by accepting this fact -- rather than reacting to it – that we can begin to develop a larger and richer understanding of life, and of ourselves. Whether you're a character from the Torah, a beloved rabbi, or a sixth-grade student, sometimes, it's simply time to move on.

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