Change is hard, even change for the better. The saga of Abraham and Sarah is one of metamorphosis. One of the most metamorphic events in my life was the one that made me “mommy”. That was hard: oy! labor and delivery! God was in the room that day as I looked into my newborn’s surprisingly big eyes, and was moved to a pact of love. I did not know what lay in store for us, and I knew the road ahead was fraught with danger, she was so vulnerable, and I so inadequate. But ahead we went to the life that would unfold. Ironically it is barrenness that besets Abram and Sarai, (for those are their tadpole names) and perhaps catalyzes the start of their journey to change. Abram and Sarai leave wealth, comfort, familiarity to the call Lech L’chah, and L’chi Lach to become the mavericks they must be. To leave: father’s home, birthplace and homeland. But if God is everywhere, why a new place?…
A story of the seer of Lublin, who would one day become a great teacher. As a boy he was in the habit of going to the woods for hours at a time. So one day his father asked him why he went. “I am going to find God” replied the boy. Said the father: “My son, that’s beautiful, but don’t you know God is the same everywhere?” “Yes,” said the boy, “but I’m not.” So Abram and Sarai must go to a place they can find God.
A folktale from our tradition, adapted from Penninah Schram’s Stories One Generation Tells Another, is an fascinating parallel to this Torah tale. Once in a small town in Eastern Europe lived a couple who had almost everything. Abram and Sarah were wealthy, generous and wise. Everywhere they gave tzedakah, assisting the poor in their town, generous to a fault. And yet they could not conceive children. Sarah went to the Rabbi to ask what could be done. Listen and do just as I say. You shall host a feast for all the hungry of the town, and set the least of your guests at the head of the table. So, as the Rabbi had instructed they prepared a fabulous feast for the poor of the town. While serving, a ragged man approached Abram and asked to be seated at the head of the table. Disgusted at the beggars filth Abram rebuffed him, and showed him to a crowded table with others like him. The beggar insisted Take me to your wife, I have an important message. When he was brought to Sarah he informed her You did not follow the Rabbi’s directions! Because you have offered food, you shall conceive, but the child you bear will be in the form of a snake! Sarah realized then that the beggar was none other than Elijah, and wept at her fate. Abram comforted her saying Do not worry, this will be our child, and we will take care of him. And Sarah was comforted. Indeed when her time to give birth arrived, a snake was born to Sarah. The midwife cried in fear and ran. But the snake/child was always kind and they cared for him, taught him and brought him up as their own. When the snake/child reached the age of 13 years, he asked for a tallit and kippah, and for his turn to teach at the synagogue. After consulting with the Rabbi, the couple relented, though some fled from the synagogue. After this day, the snake would often disappear into the woods for hours at a time, and the couple trembled in fear for his safety, for they loved their child, but he always returned. One day the snake/child approached his father saying Father, I am of age, and it is time to arrange a shiddach so I may enter into marriage. Abram was beside himself! But he went to the Rabbi, who said: Listen and do exactly as I say: travel to the neighboring town, and there find the house of the poorest hermit who lives in the wood. Ask to be his guest for Shabbat. Though strange things may pass, ask no questions. So, the couple traveled, and when they asked, townspeople directed them to a poor hovel outside of the town. A poor, bedraggled hermit answered the knock on the door. Please, sir, may we spend Shabbat with you? When the hermit replied that he had no food to share, and no beds for guests the couple responded Do not worry, we will sleep on the floor, and we will buy enough food for us all to share. And so the hermit agreed, and prepared a Sabbath meal. The couple noticed that the hermit prepared eight meals for the evening, set three on the table and brought five into a back room. But, heeding the instruction of the Rabbi, they asked no questions. The same odd pattern repeated during the morning and afternoon meals, with five meals brought to the back room. Unable to control their curiosity any more Abram exclaimed: Tell us, to whom are you bringing these meals? They insisted in spite of the hermits hesitation, until he admitted: I have five daughters but all are in rags, for I cannot afford clothes for them. Abram and Sarah were delighted: Bring them out, we will buy clothes for them all! And as the daughters came out, each beautiful maiden was asked if they would agree to marry the couple’s son. The four oldest declined, but the youngest agreed, so desperate was she to escape her poverty. Nervously, they brought the maiden home, afraid she’d change her mind upon seeing their son. While she waited in the couple’s home, a snake slithered into her room, and before she had a chance to be surprised, he shed his skin and transformed into a handsome young man, saying Do not be afraid, and tell no one of my words, but know that everything will work out fine if you agree to be my bride. The young woman agreed, and so the wedding date was set. Nervously the couple arranged for the ceremony and celebration, and were delighted to see not a snake but a human son wearing the talit they had given him under the wedding canopy. Hugging their son, he explained: After you gave me the talit, I would go each day into the woods to study with Elijah the prophet, I have learned so much! And the couple lived happily for the rest of their days.
The saga of Abram and Sarai in Torah is one of enslavement to old ways, and of change: they first leave their home, to travel to the place that God will show them. Though they physically move, still they are in old patterns, lacking faith that God is with them and that their future will be secure. Slavery is foretold in Abram’s vision, and echoed in Sarai’s slave Hagar, and in Sarai’s capture by Pharoah. But the brit, covenant, of circumcision accompanies a new name, a metamorphosis of spirit perhaps of Abraham and Sarah, and finally a son, named for laughter, Yitschak, is born – and yet another metamorphosis. But we, and are children are born all instinct and animal, like the snake/son. Though birth is a transformation, we must journey more to find our true selves, to reveal the mentsch (good human) behind the animal. Lech L’chah literally means go for yourself, Lechi Lach , the feminine form, means go TO yourself. Could it be that the real purpose of the journeys and the metamorphosis is to uncover our authentic self – so the snake can shed its skin to reveal the person hiding within?!
We all need a catalyst for even the most favorable change is hard, getting started is the hardest thing. Routine breeds routine, and we become enslaved in old ways. In the excerpt of Leah Goldberg’s poem below, set to melody by Benji Ellen Schiller, and recorded by Beged Kefet in One Little Dot, a prayer for openness to learning. Perhaps this openness, and learning is what’s needed for change But why does the poet pray for renewal of God’s days, not our human days? That must be our job: to learn and be open to change.
Teach me oh God a blessing, a prayer, on the mystery of a withered leaf, On ripened fruit so fair, on the freedom to see, to sense, to breathe, to know,… to hope, ….to despair…Teach my lips a blessing, a hymn of praise, as each morning and night You renew Your days, lest my day be as the one before, lest routine set my ways Leah Goldberg