Last night I drove to JFK International Airport to drop off my parents, who live in Israel, after a three-month visit to the States. They had come to visit us in July, initially, a few days before our little one turned two years old and stayed through the hot New York summer, during the High Holidays, and into the burgeoning autumn.
Three months is a long time — a quarter of a year — and it’s an especially long time in the life of a tiny person who has only been around for a couple of years. A lot has happened since Savta and Saba first came to visit. For one, back in July, he was saying two-word, fragmented sentences. In contrast, yesterday he said, “Saba v’Savta nosim b’matos l’Yerushalayim,” (Saba and Savta are going on an airplane to Jerusalem).
We’ve come a long way.
It almost began to feel as though they lived here, in their extended-stay Airbnb down the street. While this, naturally, came with complications (as any close relationship does), it also came with a lot of comfort. There’s something really wonderful about running into your dad on the way to the supermarket, as I did with my wife the other day, and making casual plans to meet up later in the afternoon. It’s especially heartening for that to happen after we’ve been living so far from our families for ten years.
The transition back to a long-distance relationship is going to be an interesting challenge, both for us and for our kiddo. He’s been extra sensitive these past few days, acting out in different ways or getting upset at tiny annoyances. He has two little dolls named Saba and Savta, and two nights ago he threw them across the room. When I asked why he’d thrown them, he said he was angry. “Are you angry because Saba and Savta are going home?” I asked. “Yeah,” he answered.
This morning, when I came into his room to wake him, the first thing he said was, “Eyfo Savta v’Saba?” (Where are Savta and Saba?). He wouldn’t get out of his crib until my wife and I explained, several times, that they were on an airplane and that, once they got home, we would call them. Then he refused to go to daycare.
How can we explain to a toddler about airplanes flying over the ocean? How do we make him understand that his grandparents, despite coming to visit for an extended time, don’t actually live here? That they aren’t gone, just away, and that we will see them again, soon? How do we explain what soon even means?
All of this turmoil requires a whole lot of patience on our part, and more than a few deep breaths. It helps to remember that figuring out what to do with emotions is hard enough for adults, and much harder for children who have big feelings and minimal understanding of abstract concepts. As it turns out, there’s also some wisdom in this week’s parsha to help us gain perspective and strength.
This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha, the portion wherein God tells Abraham to, “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” When I read that, I couldn’t help but think that this was a particularly apt text for me to be reading the morning after I bid my parents a tearful goodbye. This is a text about leaving everything familiar, taking a step into a new adventure, trusting in a higher power to guide your feet to safety. God is commanding Abraham to head out into the wilderness on a grand journey, to take a literal leap of faith, without any physical guarantee that everything will be alright.
But the text is just getting started. This portion contains myriad stories and in each one, someone is asked to give to believe, against all odds.
Abraham sets forth, traveling here and there in the desert. In Egypt he tries to be sly, telling people his wife is his sister, for fear that being married to a beautiful woman will put him in danger. In this case, Abraham didn’t trust God to look out for him, to his detriment. Pharaoh takes Sarah as a wife, comes down with a plague, and has Abraham and all those in his encampment escorted from the country with armed guards.
You should have believed, whispers the subtext.
Then Abraham and his nephew, Lot, have a falling out over sharing grazing fields for their cattle. Abraham proposed that they separate, “Is not the whole land before you? […] If you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.” he says in Genesis 13:9. Indeed, that’s what Lot does, choosing to pitch his tents in “the whole plain of the Jordan,” according to Genesis 13:11. Who knows what that plain holds? So what if he is leaving behind everyone he knows in order to set up camp in an unknown territory? Here is, once more, someone with buckets of faith.
There are plenty more of these examples, but perhaps the most potent comes during a moonless night, on which Abraham is called to make an even-more decisive covenant with God. Actually, thus far his name has been Abram and his wife was Sarai — it’s only after he keeps a steady gaze throughout this night of sacrifice that he gets the name Abraham and that she gets the name Sarah.
“‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And [God] added, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” says Genesis 15:5. The following verse goes on to say that, “because [Abraham] put his trust in the Lord, [God] counted it to his merit.” In order to sign this moment of trust into an everlasting covenant, God asks Abraham to take a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a baby bird. He has to cut each of them, except the baby bird, in half and then wait all night among the pieces, keeping the vultures away, listening to God foresee the future of the nation that he will beget. And he sits. He listens. Even though “a great dark dread descended upon him,” Abraham stays.
I don’t know about you but that’s a pretty gruesome scenario to me. I don’t even watch trailers for horror movies, so being asked to sit all night listening to a disembodied voice talking to me amongst the bloody carcasses of farm animals is a hard no.
I have a lot of respect for Abraham in this chapter.
I also take a lot of inspiration from him, as well as from Sarah, Lot, and all the rest, in this portion. It seems to me that the Bible is trying to tell me that it’s okay not to know how this next chapter is going to play out. It’s fine not to be sure how we’ll bridge the familial divide, or how our little one will adjust to this new phase of relationships with his grandparents, his aunts, his cousins. Even though it’s so much easier to succumb to the “great dark dread,” maybe this time I can be like our forefather who, a few verses later, focuses on the “flaming torch which passed between those pieces.”
Maybe, even in the times of the most confusion, there are still sources of light.