This week's Torah portion begins with the Holy One's bold command to Abraham, "Lech Lecha..." Go, get going! Journey from the place you were born, leave everything and everyone you know, and brave the unknown. There is not much explanation as to why Abraham should or would do this. No real justification. Only a promise that it will be worthwhile.
Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, in his book about the High Holidays, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, writes, "But here is the $64,000 question: Why do biblical figures all have to leave home in order to find home in order to leave again? More to the point, why do we?" (20).
The Torah offers Abraham's journey as a paradigm for each of us. Spiritually and physically, Abraham embodies the courage we each need to live the life that is uniquely ours. And the promise that if we take leave, blessings await us.
Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l, continues, "The dream of the lost home must be one of the deepest of all human dreams. Certainly it is the most ancient dream of the Jewish people..." (23).
As you may have gathered over the years, I am a big fan of Rabbi Alan Lew, z"l. His book has made a big impression on me. I re-read it every year and have a tab on every other page. But what you may not know is that Rabbi Lew, z"l, was not only an insightful teacher of meditation and Torah, but he was also a big fan of baseball.
Just as he is musing about human nature and home, he unexpectedly writes, "And this dream is the basis of that most profound expression of the American psyche, the game of baseball, a game whose object is to leave home in order to return to it again, transformed by the time spent circling the bases." (23).
Given how many innings of baseball I have watched in the last few weeks, it is validating to connect to the spiritual dimension of my new-found fandom; to imagine that each time a player comes to the plate, it is their own mini lech lecha moment. I certainly have been feeling the intensity and pressure of each pitch and play. I am not entirely convinced that literally circling the bases is transformative for the players. But it certainly is thrilling and clearly requires an incredible amount of fortitude and resilience.
It redeems the many late nights I have spent watching the World Series to imagine that the real goal of baseball is a kind of embodied teshuva; a conscious return to the place we started, transformed.
Rabbi Lew continues, "And the truth is, every time we come home, home is different." This is perhaps one of the unspoken obstacles to leaving. Abraham was not just journeying into the unknown, he was leaving home as he knew it. Such that even if he wanted to return to the place, it wouldn't be the same and neither would he. I know it certainly is an emotional hurdle to overcome in every move and coming out moment in my own life.
I have never before imagined Abraham's leaving as a kind of teshuva. He is at the very beginning of his journey, and yet every step leads him closer to home. Rabbi Joseph Solevetchik explains that if you are moving along the circumference of a circle, it might seem at first as if the starting point is getting farther and farther away, but actually it is also getting closer and closer.
There is so much longing in leave-taking. In fact longing is both the thing that gets us to actually go and that propels us to try to return. Soloveitchik writes, "Longing develops only when one has lost something precious..." (25).
Losing is such a big part of playing a game, especially baseball. Even the best teams lose a third of the time. Even the best baseball players only hit the ball 3 out of every 10 plate appearances. Our longing to circle the bases may be the thing that gets us back up at the plate, willing to hear the call of Lech Lecha inning after inning, year after year.
This Shabbat may we feel inspired by the Phillies quest to win the World Series, and their love of the queer anthem "Dancing on My Own" (which we will for sure be singing on Saturday morning!).
May we have the courage to hear our own still small voice, encouraging us to let go and get going. And may our losses and our longings lead us home.
Shabbat Shalom and go Phillies!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.