I love to travel. Plane, train, car, ferry, it doesn’t matter; I just love going places. But. I like to know where I’m going. I want the destination, even if only in general terms. Rarely do I just head off without a goal in mind. I like maps, and I like following maps. I don’t necessarily need a reason to go, but I do like a plan.
Nothing like Abram. He got a call, and he got up and left (“Go. Leave your land, where you were born, from your father’s house” Gen 12:1 ) on nothing but a lick and a promise. Granted, it was a pretty big promise, making Abram the father of a great nation and all, but it still wasn’t a lot to go on. But this wasn’t the only journey Abram and Sarai embarked upon in this parasha.
In 12:10, we are told that there was a famine in the land, so Abram had to go off to Egypt, after having walked the length and breadth of Canaan, building altars along the way, the ancient method of marking one’s territory. Off to Egypt, and after the famine there ended, Abram left Egypt after having increased his wealth because Pharaoh liked Sarai, though he got a little annoyed that Abram had passed his wife off as his sister which complicated Pharoah’s relationship with her….I’m getting off topic. Back to the traveling.
When Abram left for Egypt, he had a very specific and obvious motivation: there was famine in the land, and he had to find food for his entire entourage. Famine is a really good reason for leaving where you are, and it happens over and over in the Biblical stories. Famine – devastating lack of food. Desperate for nourishment, desperate to sustain life. What about the first Lech l’cha, when Abram left for parts unknown? Was there a different sort of famine in evidence when Abram first heard God tell him to leave? What was Abram lacking that made him willing to head out into the wilderness?
I was recently a guest teacher in a group of 7th graders who were studying this parasha, and they were trying to list the characteristics Abram and Sarai had that would enable them to go off into an unfamiliar territory, as they did. Bravery, curiosity, flexibility, adventuresome sprit, unwavering faith – all good answers. But perhaps there was also something missing that enabled these two old people to venture off into the wilderness. Maybe they were experiencing a famine of spirit, a lack of nourishment to their souls, so that when God’s voice came through to Abram, it was a promise of more than a great nation. It promised a more immediate sustenance of their souls. Perhaps Abram and Sarai were being starved of something they needed to continue their lives in the way they’d been doing so. It wasn’t a physical deprivation – we read about how wealthy they were. Their bellies and food-tents were full. Perhaps it was a more spiritual, soul-filling nourishment they didn’t even know they were missing, until God pointed it out to Abram.
People have all sorts of reasons for leaving a place. It takes an enormous amount of courage to take on a new direction, to leave what you know for what you don’t. Remember that old Jewish (!) saying, “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.” It’s certainly a maxim I’ve lived by, being one who doesn’t seek out change. But I think the courage also comes from the desperate need to leave where one is being starved of something – emotional or spiritual support, a sense of belonging, a sense of future in that place, a sense that one needs to be filled with more than a full refrigerator and wallet, a sense that, as Charity and her friends sing in “Sweet Charity”, “There’s gotta be something better than this. There’s gotta be something better to do. And when I find that something better to do, I’m gonna get up. I’m gonna get out. I’m gonna get up, get out and do it.”
Food famine is easier to recognize and no one would question leaving. But a famine of the soul is no less devastating. Moving on from that, seeking sustenance that goes beyond our bodies’ needs takes extraordinary courage.