Genesis is, ultimately, the story of a family. Of what gets created and passed down, what gets healed and what doesn’t, over generations.
It’s about the painful and brave legacies we inherit, and about what we must do with them.
In many ways, that family story begins with Abraham.
It begins with a wounded child who decided to leave, and it begins with the things from which, it turns out, he couldn’t walk away.
Sometimes when you set off in search of the Promised Land, you take the marketplace of idols with you, buried deep inside your heart.
And sometimes you don’t even know that’s what you’ve done until later—much later—after you’ve burned everything that matters most to you to the ground.
At first, it looks very promising.
We first meet Abraham in Genesis 11, as part of a long genealogy, situating him in the context of all who came before him. His father Terach, his grandfather Nahor, his great-grandfather Serug, all the way back ten generations.
We usually talk about Abraham’s starting point as the first verse of Chapter 12, when God calls to Abraham, seemingly out of the blue, to Lech lecha—
“Go, you, from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).
But, in fact, that moment of leave-taking—the instruction to walk away from all that is familiar, known, and rooted—begins with the genealogy in the chapter right before it to make sure we know just how embedded Abraham had been, and just how radical a departure this was meant to be.
Abraham was commanded to leave behind everything that was familiar, including his identity and the relationships he had held his entire life—and to strike out into the unknown.
It’s worth noting that God doesn’t tell Abraham exactly where he’s going from the outset. “I’ll show you”—later, not now. Not yet. Hold tight. Just start walking.
It must have been terrifying. It also must have been exhausting, and full of moments of doubt and anxiety.
What if there’s nothing there?
What if I’ve left safety and never find it again?
What if that was the best it’ll ever be?
There are a lot of reasons we never set out into the unknown.
Even if it might be the thing we most urgently need.
God made it clear that the first step is that Abraham had to be willing to leave—it’s only later, with God’s help, that he’ll figure out the destination. The medieval commentator Rashi tells us that this leave-taking is for Abraham’s “own good,” that his growth depends on leaving the safe confines of everything he knows and takes for granted. It depends on taking a risk.
And leaving is a risk, even when what is at home isn’t so safe, after all.
(TW child abuse in the following paragraph).
According to midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38:13) —again, a classical Jewish tale—Abraham’s childhood had at least one painfully abusive episode in it. As the story goes, Terach, Abraham’s father, sold idols. One day, he had to travel and left Abraham, his son, in charge of the place. We understand from the Torah that Abraham was the first monotheist and the first Jew, so the Rabbis who wrote this midrash decided to extend his passion for the Holy One a bit. So in this midrash, Abraham smashes his father’s idols, blaming the damage on the largest idol (in whose hands he placed a big club), as a way of getting his father to admit that the idols are not real. As punishment, Terah passed Abraham off to the king, Nimrod, and eventually the both of them threw Abraham into a fiery furnace, telling him, “the God you worship can save you from it.” Indeed, in the deus ex machina way of devotional texts, Abraham was saved, but we do have to wonder what parts of him might have been burned down that day.
Sometimes the unknown is the place where our power is finally unlocked.
Sometimes it’s the only way to get to safety.
Sometimes those are the same thing.
Lech lecha—"go, you,” but it could also be translated, “go, for yourself,” or “go to yourself.”
We all need to grow into ourselves, into who we have the ability to become, and we need new experiences and new challenges in order to help us do that.
Whether those experiences are about getting somewhere where we can finally simply exist without abuse, about discovering or deepening our passions, about discovering the ways in which our identity and worldview does or doesn’t reflect that of our family of origin’s, about challenging ourselves when everything isn’t so safe and easy, about being open to learning lessons about the human heart and relationships, or about trying new things on smaller or larger scales, the message remains the same: there’s a time to let go of how things have “always been” and to plunge into the heart of the unknown.
It is only when we have the courage to do this—and to try, and to experiment, and, maybe, also to fail along the way—that we open ourselves to discovering our own expansiveness, our own capacities. To seeing ways of being, doing, loving, connecting, existing that we didn’t even know we had in us.
Going towards ourselves—and learning to access the intuition that is constantly broadcasting the information we most need about how to make the decisions that we need to make—is how we grow into ourselves. It's the work of discerning between what we might want, (or think we want, or think that we should want) and what we need, about what the deepest part the self and soul demand. That discernment doesn't come easy. And sometimes it’s harder to do that work inside the complicated dance of embedded relationships. Consciously or not, we act the roles that other people expect of us, and their perceptions of who we are and who we can become shape and limit our own expectations of ourselves.
Sometimes the leavetaking is literal—an actual setting off in new geographic space and experiencing our selves expanded or shifted in new terrain. Sometimes it’s more metaphoric—finding ways to interrupt the familiar script, the familiar dance we have with those who know us best.
Of course, if you’re engaged in a familiar dance with family or friends or in your intimate relationships and you begin responding in new ways, it can get tricky for a while. When one person is doing the steps of a familiar dance and the other something different entirely, toes can get stepped on. Pressure may be on to maintain the status quo. Ideally, eventually, everyone begins finding their words for a new script, moving their feet in time with the new rhythm. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the move towards health, towards saying true things, towards our own voice can involve, like Eve offering Adam the fruit--bringing those we love along with us. And sometimes it means, like Abraham—or Lilith—understanding the limits of what can be and leaving something behind.
Abraham, after setting off into the unknown, after trials and transformations, became a man who trusted himself enough to argue with God on behalf of the people of Sodom. He became able to understand that his abilities could serve a larger context.
We can all choose to decide what sort of meaning our lives will have—and when we do, we often find that we have the ability to be useful to others in ways that might have been impossible to anticipate.
What’s necessary is the willingness to let go of the familiar and leap into the unknown, without certainty of what lies ahead; to seek out teachers along the way who can illuminate the path; to learn that, ultimately, those teachers have limits and we must, at some point, look for guidance within; and to understand that when we understand our own actions as meaningful, the implications can reverberate not only in our own lives, but in the lives of others.
It’s about asking, “Who am I?” with fearlessness and being open to hearing answers that might surprise.
It’s about knowing that as confusing and overwhelming as it can be to seek one’s place in the world, there are guideposts along the way to help us find our way.
And it’s about knowing that if we trust ourselves, and the process, we can find the keys to our own capacities, to the person we have been able to become all along.
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