And G-d said to Abram, Leave your country, leave your kindred and your father's house – and go into the land that I will show you.
This is the moment that Abram breaks with his ancestors, leaves where he is from and starts a new life – one that will lead to his becoming Abraham. It's where, as Rabbi Plaut notes, Genesis leaves the epic and universal stories of creation, flood, Babel, and moves into the smaller, specific family dramas of the Patriarchs.
And in terms of those stories, this parsha is very dense: one could conceivably write several different dvrei Torah without beginning to overlap: the first move into the land of Canaan (later to be the kingdoms of Israel and Judah); some drama with the Pharaoh; the disposition of flocks; and of course the birth of Ishmael and the beginning of the story of Sarah & Hagar, and their jealousy. And we have – repeatedly – the promise of this land to Abraham and his progeny.
Leave your country, leave your kindred and your father's house – and go into the land that I will show you.
It's that line, and that focus on a new life that has led to this portion to be sometimes identified as a "convert's parsha" – which makes it appropriate that I, a recent convert, should talk about it. As a recent immigrant to this new Judaic land, it often does feel like arriving in a new place. Things are often kind of foreign – and I only partly speak the language.
I think that a lot of people who haven't had the chance to experience conversion feel very drawn to that idea of complete transition. I understand why! It's a thrilling, romantic notion. People kept asking me "how do you feel different?" in exactly the same way I ask new arrivals to Canada how they find the country. I want to share in their adventure!
And I always feel a little bad when I have to tell them that it's more complicated than that. How can I say that I "left my kindred"? For a start, my mother is sitting right there! I've come to a new place, but I've done so without stepping away from where I was, and the place I've come to is also, well, far from 'new'.
There is a sharp parallel, here, to the impulse that so many of us feel when we approach the story of Parsha Lech L'cha. That story of Abram stepping out into a new place: a land strange and potential and somehow deeply home, a blank piece of parchment that he was always destined to write upon.
But this is not what is written in the Torah.
Just like my experience at the mikvah, Abram's entry into the land of Canaan is "more complicated than that". In fact, G'd never tells Abram to go to a 'new' land … he never says it!
And G-d said to Abram, Leave your country, leave your kindred and your father's house – and go into the land that I will show you.
Not a 'new' land: "the land that I will show you".
And then there is a whole section, right in the middle of the parsha, which serves to reiterate in comprehensive detail exactly how "more complicated than that" Abram's entry into this territory is. It's a story that we often forget because, as important it was to the early readers of the Torah, it's so inaccessible to modern readers that we often just kind of skip it. It is a chapter that I had NEVER read before, which hadn't been included in any children's bible I ever had, and which I had glossed over in my youthful reading of Genesis.
It is Chapter 14, and the story of the War of the Four Kings against the Five – and in one of those odd, but serendipitous twists of fate, it is exactly the chapter that we will be reading first today, thanks to the triennial cycle.
Chapter 14 is a break from the family and personal religious drama of the previous and following chapters – suddenly, we're pulled from talking about wives and nephews and pastures and thrown into a confusing mélange of kings and countries and cities – which sparked my historian's curiosity, but which I also couldn't understand without stopping and doing a lot of research to pick apart what is written in these few, terse paragraphs:
Chapter 14 opens:
- And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel king of Shinar, Arioch king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer king of Elam, and Tidal king of Goiim,
- that they made war with Bera king of Sodom, and with Birsha king of Gomorrah, Shinab king of Admah, and Shemeber king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela--the same is Zoar.
I want to take just a few minutes to unpack some of these names, so you get a sense of the depth the story had for its original readers:
Of the Four kings listed in verse 1, two are from places which we can identify -
We have first Amraphel of Shinar: Rashi identifies him with Nimrod, the "mighty man" who was supposed to have founded the cities of Babel and Accad in the same "land of Shinar" – (in traditional midrash, Nimrod was also the king who was tried to kill the idol-smashing young Abram before he and his father left Ur Casdim …)
But whether Amraphel was Nimrod, or another king, he is clearly identified as coming from Mesopotamia, probably Sumer (later called Babylonia), which was a much more populous and powerful region than Canaan
K'dolaomar is named as the King of Elam – which was itself a powerful kingdom south-east of Mesopotamia, on the far side of Sumer from Canaan. Interestingly, Elam was not a Sumerian, Semetic or Indo-European power; they spoke a language that seems to be unrelated to any other, and most of their written records have never been deciphered
We can't place Arioch of Ellaser with any certainty – and all we know of the fourth king is that he is supposed to be Tidal, king of Goiim – or the Goyim - literally "nations" –
Plaut suggests that here it was probably used to just mean "foreigners", perhaps with a sense of "barbarians"; Rashi says that this means that he was a king of a country of many peoples – perhaps somewhere like the historic Mitanni, a multi-ethnic state which dominated northern Syria from around 1500-1300 BCE
So these kings – at least the two whose lands are potentially identifiable – are from powerful, but far away places; in the case of the kingdom of Elam, both very far away and quite culturally distinct from the Semitic cultures which otherwise dominated the Near East in the Middle and Late Bronze Age.
In verse 2, we are told that these Four Kings made war with Five Other Kings – Plaut suggests that the personal names for these kings are probably fictitious – especially Bera and Birsha, as he points out that they mean "with evil" and "with wickedness" respectively. (Not my first choice for a baby-naming)
But their domains are names that we recognise: All five of their domains are identified at one point in the Torah as being one of the "cities of the plain" of the Jordan River Valley – that "well-watered" place Lot had moved to in just the chapter before.
So the War of the Four against the Five is, as told here, a war of Mesopotamian big-shots (ancient and/or mythical, and powerful) versus local guys from the plains (not the hills, which is important as we'll see in a moment). It's like we wrote that China and Russia came to invade Mississauga – not to imply that Mississauga is as evil as Sodom, I mean, not quite ….
Eventually Abram strides into this story. He's living up in the Central Hills at the Terebinths – that is some big Trees – of Mamre, an Amorite who, along with his brothers, has allied with Abram. The Amorites are identified in the Torah as one of the many Canaanite tribes, descendent of Canaan, son of Ham the disgraced son of Noah –
But they have also been identified in other ancient sources as a nomadic or semi-nomadic people resident in Syria and the Levant – indeed, by about 1100, all of what would later be called Palestine was known in Assyrian sources as "Amurru"; they also spoke a NW Semetic language, closely related to Hebrew
So Abram, along with other men of the hills who may have been culturally similar to him, rides off to defeat the powerful kings from away, and rescue the people that the cowardly kings of the decadent plains could not – (there's a whole dvar to be written on that topographical rural split in the Torah…)
Thus this is a story about how Abram is awesome and people who live up in the hills that became the Jewish heartland are also awesome.
But is that all? Why this lengthy and confusing interruption of Abram's family story? There's a lot more detail than necessary – the story could have told simply as "Abram defeated powerful kings from Far Away with just 318 men – or just one man, whose name added up to 318!"
Scholars are keen to point out that there are some aspects of this story that resonate with later Hebrew history: Plaut points out that Salem (Shalem in Hebrew) is traditionally identified as Jerusalem – thus Abram pays a tithe at the exact place where later Hebrews will bring their tithes to the Temple. And, as in other parts of Bereshit, place names are checked in this chapter which will have significance for the generations of the Exodus and Conquest: K'dorlaomar and the others smite their way through to the wilderness of Paran, where later the Israelites would travel right after leaving Sinai – and back again to Kadesh, the encampment where Miriam and Aaron would die and be buried.
But this parsha is not just telling us the Hebrew history – but also (and explicitly) setting out the pre-Hebrew history of Canaan.
This was not a new land which Abram had come into, but one that was already old and well-populated, in which there are many tribes – who are listed out for us in detail, in this chapter as K'dorlaomar and the others rode through "smiting" them, and again at the end of chapter 15. Some, like the Amorites and other Canaanites, were like him, while others, like the Rephaim, the Zuzim and Emim - were said to have been like giants, "great, and many, and tall". These peoples inhabited not just parts of Canaan, but also Edom, Moab and Ammon before (as it is said) G-d destroyed them to make way for the descendants of Esau and Lot. .
This is not a history that the readers of the Torah can ignore or pretend away. It is graphically, exhaustively, demonstrated and placed right in the middle of the parsha:
Abram is not a sojourner in a virgin land. He is the latest entrant into a place of deep history and complexity. And the text rehearses that depth for us when it gives us, maybe not the literal names of people who lived there in the past, but echoes of tribes, kingdoms, empires.
This passage of the Torah is as dense and tangled as my own feelings about crossing my own border. It's complicated! People like me have to tread lightly because I'm stepping into an ancient and populated country.
What rights do I have an immigrant to Judaism? How do I fit in with those who came before me?
I can't stride in, like Abram, a conqueror. Nor should I.
This is especially difficult for me, because I'm not used to this immigration thing –
I am someone who could, by some, be described as an 'old stock' Canadian. My family came to this continent in the seventeenth century. They came to Canada as loyalists, fleeing the Revolution. My family history is full of stories of intrepid pioneers – I delight in Elizabeth Simcoe's drawings of the nascent town of York, being carved from the thick woods on the north side of the Lake …
but – as a historian, particularly of the colonial period, I am so aware that these thick woods were never virgin woods, but areas in which native societies have lived for millennia,
And G-d said to Abram, Leave your country, leave your kindred
I can't, and didn't. I am literally still standing in my country, upon this soil that is my native land.
As a new Jew, I need to step lightly.
As a Canadian, oh how I wish my ancestors had stepped lightly.
Indeed, the only reason that there was any place for European settlers to land in Massachusetts is that they had brought a devastating plague a couple of years earlier, wiping out whole villages, crippling the affected Chiefdoms.
We stand knee deep in the ashes of a dying of, well… biblical proportions.
And where we are standing right now is on "unceeded Anishnaabe land" – that is, the land of the Mississaugas, part of the Anishanaabe people, from the whom the British (aka my ancestors) purchased Toronto in a rather one-sided deal.
And yet … the Anishnaabe had inhabited southern Ontario for just about a century, having taken over this area from the Haudenosaunee, who we call the Iroquois. And they in turn had conquered this place, a bare fifty years before that, in their terrible war with the Wendat, also known as the Huron.
So whose land is it?
These details are not to try to absolve Euro-Canadians of our transgressions, deny our responsibilities to aboriginal people – and certainly not to make any argument about whose claim to this land is more legitimate. Obviously, the various aboriginal groups have a strong and prior case.
But the point is that it was never a new land – or a timeless, unchanging land. It's more complicated than that.
I know that I am standing in a landscape of blood and betrayal, of kings and chieftains, of warring tribes and conquering states – that is, of epic struggles that invade my own, small, domestic story and put me in my historical place.
I know, in the same way that the first readers of Lech L'cha were enjoined to know the history of their land -- and to be aware of how no land is new, no land is timeless, but has already had history written and rewritten upon it like a tattered palimpsest.
Parsha Lech L'cha teaches us that these questions are without answer, that before before there was always another before. Lech L'cha teaches us that our transitions are never complete or uncompromised, that we carry our past with us, and take it to a place where ancient things will shape us as we shape them. Lech L'cha teaches us what we all secretly knew: that despite our desire for bright, clean answers and sharp, simple boundaries, we are bound together in time and place and story and none of us will ever be quite distinct.
And I carry that knowledge with me. Into my local park, where the aboriginal drum circle celebrates their faith in the open air. Into this synagogue, where I celebrate my own place in the universe with my family and friends: Christian, Jewish, or miscellaneous.
But if we respect that complexity and revere our connections as well as our distinctiveness, maybe we can have a home together, and perhaps, one day, find the land that G'd will show us.