Today, it may feel good not to know where you will travel until the very last minute; it allows you to discover some new, exotic destination at a great rate. In the ancient Near Eastern mind, however, that same sense of journeying without knowing the destination borders on the absurd. To journey in search of an undisclosed place, as later rabbinic commentators emphasize ad absurdum, positions such a seeker as a madman. After all, if you do not where you are going, the route is filled with endless obstacles and surprises. But in stressing just how outlandish a decision Abram makes, the rabbis are drawing our attention back to the remarkable text in Torah: God commands Abram to relocate and take leave — “Go forth form your land, your birthplace, and from your patrimony and go to the land which I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
With a Promised Land in the offing, along with the promise that Abram and his life partner, Sarai, will become a great nation, they depart. Leaving everything behind, they journey to the land of Canaan along with their nephew Lot. As the narrative continues, take note of how the accepted Near Eastern context of polytheism (multiple divinities ruling the world) shifts toward henotheism (many divinities in a pantheon ruled by a supernal deity) and eventually embraces a full-fledged monotheism (a singular divinity ruling the world).
Facing a famine, Abram and Sarai detour to Egypt, where she is taken captive in Pharaoh’s palace. Her escape is only possible through deception; Abram and Sarai disguise themselves as brother and sister, which eventually leads to release and compensation. Once back in Canaan, Lot separates from Abram to settle in Sodom. He is captured by the armies of King Chedorlamomer, which forces Abram to set out to rescue his nephew. In defeating the four opposing regional rulers, Abram is eventually blessed by the King of Salem, Malki Zedek, in the powerful language of henotheism: “Blessed be Abram in the name of the most Supernal God [El Elyon], maker of heaven and earth.” (Genesis 14:19) As one of many exemplary non-Jewish figures in the Hebrew Bible (including Jethro and Rahav), it is Malki Zedek who blesses this emerging Jewish leader and his mission of bringing divine awareness into daily life.
Upon completing the “covenant between the pieces” that envisions exile and redemption to the Holy Land, further transformations take place. Sometimes these transformations begin with taking that first step into the unknown.
– Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Artwork note: This week’s illustration is connected to Abram’s moment of calling. “Go forth!” “Leave Chaldea!” James Kugel (Harvard and Bar Ilan Universities) describes Philo of Alexandria‘s interpretation of this episode: “Philo says something happens: ‘opening [its] eye from the depth of sleep,’ the soul suddenly becomes aware of God’s presence. At that point God will say to the soul, as He Said to Abraham, ‘Leave Chaldea!’ – that is, leave your old way of thinking, in which the human senses are considered to be the only form of perception, and proceed on to a new way of thinking and, ultimately, to the Promised Land of knowing God.” Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.