Taking on a new identity
Fifteen years ago, give or take a week, I first met Kathy Byers, a social work professor in town. Was she interested in adding a new instructor to her roster? For those of you who don’t already know the story, I fell (hard) in love with a math professor from Bloomington a few months earlier and was considering the total upending of my life to be with him. I just needed some (minimally) gainful employment to give me a sense of security in the midst of this otherwise totally wild decision. Long story short: she did, and I moved: taught diversity and other courses to college students on and off for over a decade, along with transforming into a partner, step-parent, savta/grandmother, and solid citizen of a southern Indiana city.
All of which brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’cha. You know, the one that begins:
Go away from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.
You connect with a total stranger. You get a phone call. The adoption is approved or the scholarship comes through or your boss — the total creep — gets canned. God has a little chat with you out of the blue and your life takes a turn.
Imagine you’re Avraham (or Avram, as he’s called at the beginning of the story). Your name has seemingly been picked out of a hat for great things by the Great Unknown. But first, in late middle age, you gotta leave home and everything you know with your spouse Sarai on your arm and your uncle Lot as chaperone. You gotta trust the Voice (or maybe it’s just a Feeling) to set you straight. And you can’t look back. At every step along the journey (a century or so between this initial command and your last breath) you can only keep moving forward. How else can you tell if everything you’ve been told will come to pass?
What Avraham is told about the future is pretty straightforward: 1) the land of Canaan will be assigned to his heirs; 2) his offspring will be as (uncountable as) the dust of the Earth and as innumerable as the stars; 3) God will maintain an everlasting covenant with all his generations to come; and 4) next year, Sarai will bear a son and he will be the inheritor of this covenant.
All Abraham has to do is circumcise his children (Ishmael, already born, and Isaac, not yet conceived) and all his slaves for the roller coaster ride to really begin.
Here’s a coincidence for you: my Hebrew name is Sarah (yes, like the Matriarch) and my parents almost named me Sarai, but we’re talking 1950s America with its plethora of Debbies, Judiths, Lauries, and Susans. (Oh well.) I’ve often felt close to my Biblical namesake over the last 15 years, wondering what might happen next, where my husband will schlep me, only without the limited comfort of guarantees afforded by all-seeing, all-knowing Voice — unless you count my beloved saying It will be fine.
I can tell you one thing with certainty: I would not be sitting here wrestling with Torah week after week if it wasn’t for the upheaval caused by leaving the East Coast and coming to a land I had to look up on a map because it was, after all, in the middle of the country. I can also tell you this: I would not have know what I was truly capable of if I had not taking on the role of step-parent to 3 girls (now grown women) or leader in the synagogue or organizer for Middle East peace. I found my writer’s voice here, and certain parts of my heart. That was worth the schlep.
If you’re interested in a poem based on this week’s reading, see How It Works.