“Lech L’cha: Heartbreak and Hopefulness as Children Go Off and Move On"
Spoken-Word Poetry by Rabbi Paul Kipnes
“Lech l’cha! Get moving.
Your future is ahead.
Become your destiny.
(“Leave us behind,” it seems,
Torah teaches that Abram’s father Terah died before
His son went forth from Haran,
The father’s new home (Gen. 11:31).
Abram’s mother (named Amatlai, says the Talmud)
Just disappeared too.
But we wonder:
Might they actually have lived on,
Watching the journey from afar
But dying metaphorically
As their boychick took off for God?
Maybe the call
Came from Terah and Amatlai,
A pair of self-actualized parents,
Who urged their child on.
So Abram abandoned them,
For pastures greener than theirs,
Seeking opportunities without compare,
Rejecting stifling parental fear
For space to discover
The whens and wheres
Of his life’s new work,
His newest existential cares.
How Abram’s parents felt
We never explore
Although their kid walked out the door
On a journey the parents might even abhor.
On a journey God commanded.
Were they quiet?
Did they cry?
Were they angry?
Did they sigh?
Two parents left behind.
Did they think:
We bore him
And we fed him
We protected him
And we led him
To make choices on his own.
Maybe they tried to kvell
About his future in Canaan and Beit El,
Although their child now rebelled
At the way he was raised.
Or did they just wipe away a tear,
Smiling bravely, no despair,
Even send him off with great fanfare
On the journey of left behind.
Every lech l’cha ... el...
Go forth ... to ....
Is also a journey mei ...
From your birthplace,
From your parents’ home,
From their values,
From their dreams ...
Toward your own.
So celebrate Abram and Sarai,
And their nephew Lot,
And lots of others who joined the journey,
And don’t forget to praise
Their new monotheistic faith.
But never forget Terah and Amatlai,
Who birthed a journeyman,
Who ripped out their hearts
To still smile bravely
As their child went forth for God.
They too went
On a little journey
As they died
A little inside.
Commentary on Spoken-Word Poetry
(Author’s Note: Try reading aloud the spoken-word poetry to better taste its rhythm and rhyme.)
Anyone who has been a child, and most of us who have been parents, are acutely aware when someone is called to depart from their parents’ home on a journey toward the future. Often bittersweet, sometimes quite painful, the journey away causes hearts simultaneously to sink and soar as we—or a beloved child—venture(s) off for a fresh start.
It might be traveling to a new location—out of state for a new job or out of the country on a new adventure. It might be a journey of self-discovery or a move toward emotional freedom, leaving the confines of the Gan Eden (garden paradise) of youth to blossom in lands of promise yet to be discovered. It might be an escape from a parent’s ideology or political outlook, a seeking of something more in line with heartfelt (or budding) values. Whether physical, emotional, or intellectual, our journeys call us to leave the comfort of home behind to venture forth into the unknown.
For parents, this journey by offspring is particularly poignant. Our hearts burst when offspring grow sufficiently to begin the next phase of life’s journey, creating a life for themselves that is separate from us. From the moment they began to talk and toilet themselves, walk and wonder about the world, we hope and pray that our children will strive and thrive.
And yet, simultaneously, parents cry a little inside as the journey we dreamt for our children necessarily leads to a tearing apart of the home and family we intentionally built up for them. Every Lech l’cha el ... (Go forth to...) is also a journey me... (from...).
Who might parents emulate as we seek to allow our children to venture forth?
Be like God on the sixth day, who gave humanity the keys to the world, making us a little lower than angels and allowing us to venture off to eat some fruit (Gen. 1:26-31, 2:16).
Be like God, in the Garden of Eden, who planted knowledge in the tree right there before us, so humanity could take hold of it, eating and fleeing from our home in Eden (Gen. 2:17).
Be like God who learned from Noach and Naamah and that ark adventure that for the world to be recreated, God couldn’t control and God shouldn’t destroy. Instead God placed a rainbow in the sky to remember to let humanity struggle, err, and rebuild (Gen. 9:12-17).
Parents are regularly commanded lech l’cha, “go forth,” on the next phase of the journey of parenting:
Sending them off,
Sending them smiles,
Still kvelling for our kids.
It’s not easy, this parenting. Although heartbreak comes easily.
Remember how Sarah’s heart was broken, when Isaac wandered off alone after the Akeidah to escape his father’s overbearing passions (Midrash Tanchuma, Vayeira 23:4-5; B’reishit Rabbah 58:5).
Remember how Jacob was confounded, watching his children make dangerous choices that astounded him (Gen. 37:11).
Remember how Rachel died in childbirth, never having to fully face the misfortune that her children would endure (Gen. 35:18).
Remember how Aaron suffered in silence after his boys Nadab and Abihu went off on their own—and suffered tragic consequences (Lev. 10:3).
Parenthood is a going toward and a leaving behind. We draw close as we raise children, nurture, and dream, worry and wonder, hope and pray, until the day comes when they necessarily go off on their own, leaving us behind. It is the way of the world. It is the burden of parents. So we kvell. And maybe we die a little inside.
No one knows what happened to Abram’s mother Amatlai after Abram left. No one knows what Abram’s father Terah thought about this whole monotheistic enterprise before he died.
But we do know this:
We are all—parents and children—called to a higher purpose. Lech l’cha (L'chi lach, f.) means “journey onward.” To hold on even as we let go. To engage our families still, and support each other where possible, and love each other always. For Judaism deeply values mishpachah, “family,” the ties that bind, the strings that connect. Even when loving and letting go causes us each to die a little inside.
“Toil on, son, and do not lose heart or hope. Let nothing you dismay. You are not utterly forsaken. I, too, am here—here in the darkness waiting, here attentive, here approving of your labor and your dream.” (Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again [NY: Harper & Row, 1940], p.436)
The above quotation comes from Thomas Wolfe’s posthumously published 1940 novel, You Can’t Go Home Again. The story traces the journey of a young author named George Webber, who, much to the chagrin of his neighbors, writes a book depicting his hometown in an unflattering, unsympathetic light. Ostracized from his community of origin, he sets off on a path toward self-discovery, from New York to Paris, onto Berlin and finally back home to his mother country, the United States. But the sum of his experiences as a wanderer, as a seeker of meaning, colors his return home. What was once familial and familiar terrain is no longer a place of sanctuary. Because he is changed, his concept of ‘home’ has forever changed too.
It seems to me that the same quote would be just as fitting in the opening verses of Lech L’cha, as Abram embarks on his own road to self-actualization. His journey toward truth, toward a burgeoning faith, requires him to step out of his father’s shadow, step away from the psychological, cultural, and physical boundaries of his birthplace, and blaze a new trail ahead.
And it is not the voice of his father, the idolater Terah, whispering gently, “I, too, am here…here attentive, here approving of your labor and your dream.” It is not his own flesh-and-blood encouraging him from behind, like a parent proudly letting go of the two-wheeler for the first time, or tearfully unpacking the last suitcase in the dorm room as a child begins their first semester at college. It is God’s voice.
Where Terah places his faith and livelihood in wood and stone (B’reishit Rabbah 38:13), Abram gravitates to the voice telling him that something greater, something far more expansive, is out there. Where Terah can only take his family as far as Haran (Gen.11:31), Abram dares to take up the remainder of the journey to Canaan.
Is this a failure of Terah’s parenting, to have his son so steadfastly reject his upbringing? Or, as my colleague Rabbi Kipnes beautifully conveys in his poetry, did his very childhood “[lead] him to make choices on his own?”
The classic midrash of young Abram destroying his father’s idols seems to suggest that this apple does fall quite far from the tree. But perhaps young Abram’s refusal to fetishize false gods is a mere inversion of his father’s quest for truth and meaning. Perhaps the son wishes to attain as much religious clarity, as unblemished a sense of piety, as his father has. He just can’t find it in a graven image or convenience store tchotchke.
In his commentary, Rabbi Robert Barr reimagines Abram’s departure from the “scene of the crime,” his first true lech lecha moment of breaking with his past, as a mature clarification of his moral principles that would be enough to make any parent beam with pride:
As Abraham stormed out of the shop [a] man confronted him, challenging Abraham for what he had done. The man asked Abraham, “How can you turn your back on the past? How can you reject that which was so important to your ancestors? By rejecting their idols you are rejecting your ancestors!”
“No!” declared Abraham, “not finding value or meaning in that which brought my ancestors comfort is not something for which I must apologize. My ancestors found meaning for themselves and so must I, and so must each person and every generation. We do not dishonor our ancestors when we acknowledge that we find meaning from new sources. We dishonor our ancestors when we feel that the only way to satisfy them is for us to deny who we are and what we believe. Know that we, like they, are on the same quest: seeking truth, gaining wisdom, finding meaning.” (Rabbi Robert Barr, ourjewishcommunity.org)
So it is with Abram, and with each of us. You can’t fully go home again. (And that’s not a bad thing!)
We may never be able to pinpoint the fine line between parenting our children toward independence or compliance. We may continually strive to kindle their curiosity and autonomy, their ability to think freely and critically at the world around them, while never relinquishing our desire to instill within them our deeply held values, behaviors, and ideology. But their lech lecha moment is not ours to prescribe or map out. Just as we had to become the conceptual architect of our adult ‘home’, so must they.
In the final passage of the aforementioned novel, George Webber reflects on the adventures and encounters that have marked his journey, the decisions made and the opportunities squandered:
"You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time …" (Wolfe, ibid., p. 505)
Lech lecha. Go forward, go find yourself. It’s the only home you ever really had.
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1−17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91–117; Revised Edition, pp. 88–117
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 59–84
Haftarah, Isaiah 40:27–41:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 330−333; Revised Edition, pp. 118−120