From Comfort Zone to Home

Parashat Lech Lecha
Reform Judaism Shabbat
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

From Comfort Zone to Home

Vayomer Adonai el Avram lech lecha me’artzecha u’mimoladecha u’mibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’echa’ (Gen. 12:1) – ‘And the Eternal said to Avram, go for yourself, from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you.’

If we would have to compile a Top Ten of meaningful lines from the Torah that are just begging to be ‘d’rashed’, then this line would make the cut.

One of the things that makes me passionate about the Torah is the sweep of its narrative arc, the ‘God’s eye view’ of the story, from Creation to the death of Moses. Even more powerful, perhaps, is not the ability to zoom out to the expanse of the universe but rather to focus on molecules of meaning that, like subatomic particles, can hold enough energy and wisdom to fuel the world entire. This first line of Lech Lecha has such density.

‘Go for yourself, from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you.’

There are four components to God’s charge to Abraham-then-still-Abram. ‘Go for yourself’ we can read as ‘go into yourself’, which is our starting point. Rashi explains how this is ‘for your benefit (or enjoyment) and for your good’. This is Abraham’s genesis of personal growth—the kernel of any transformation starts with the self. Then he is called to leave his land, his birthplace and his ancestral home. Isn’t the text being superfluous? Wouldn’t it have been enough to say that Abraham should have just left his land. But the Torah chooses her words wisely and we learn from these shades of nuance.

One’s land is different from one’s birthplace.
One’s birthplace is different from one’s home.

National identity versus local community versus the comfort of our homes. Once we’ve ‘gone into ourselves’ and found our own strength, set our values, can we face the inevitable alienation of being uprooted from everything that is familiar to us?

That is the Abrahamic message: he was our first wide-eyed wanderer, our existential explorer, our first migrant. Unlike Cain, he was not banished in exile for sin. Unlike Noah, he was not set adrift on the tide of destiny. Abraham’s mission was intentional, existential, proactive and positive: he may not have known what lay in store for him (‘to a land I will show you’) but he was confident that he could meet the challenge. He trusted. In God and in himself and inspired others. He is driven by his vision and values.
If we fast-forward towards the end of the parashah, we see the ultimate consequence of the Abrahamic mission: sojourning for the sake of finding a home, rootlessness for the sake of offering audacious hospitality. Only when Abraham left his own privileged position in Ur Kasdim could he appreciate the depth of his mission to welcome new souls into God’s covenant—the ‘souls he made’ in Charan—to articulate a consciousness of justice and loving-kindness and to open his tent to those who have nowhere to go. Abraham’s work to this day is not yet done.

Today is ‘Reform Judaism Shabbat’, a new annual initiative spearheaded by the Movement for Reform Judaism, placed alongside the Chief Rabbi’s ‘Shabbat UK’. The aim of RJ Shabbat is to encourage us to infuse Shabbat with greater purpose and meaning.  And I quote:

‘Today we are marking Reform Judaism Shabbat as a way to demonstrate our values - inclusive and open to everybody who wants to participate.
This Reform Judaism Shabbat is a wonderful opportunity for us to be part of a nationwide Reform Movement project with each community finding its own way to engage with the concept, practice and meaning of a day of rest.
Shabbat is the jewel in our week. Shabbat brings heaven and earth closer. Shabbat nourishes each one of us, and we can also deepen our relationships by being together in our homes and communities in peaceful and joyful encounter.’

There are many ways in which we can enhance our Shabbat practice but the one I would like us to focus on is Shabbat hospitality. In light of Abraham’s experience, many of us can relate to what it is like to leave our familiar places and communities, to push ourselves beyond our comfort zone, to have to make new connections, build new friendships. By that same token, the inverse is also true: many of us derive immense pleasure from welcoming and hosting, from getting to know new people, crafting an atmosphere of inclusivity and warmth in our own surroundings.

We need a place at the table. We can offer a place at the table.

I would like to invite you as a community and as individuals to think of celebrating Reform Judaism Shabbat by considering participating in a Shabbat Hospitality theme. The idea is very simple: let us extend the hospitality we show at Chavurah Suppers and Kiddushim to our own Shabbat table at home. I would like to encourage you to sign up: if you would like to host and if you would like to be hosted—and keep in mind, both are a mitzvah! Consider how you might invite someone to your home after services or pluck up the courage to ask to be hosted (which is, of course, the more difficult assignment).

Our approach will be staggered.

If you feel a bit shy, then commit to making an extra effort to speak to a fellow congregant at Kiddush.
If you feel a bit bolder, then consider walking up to that new person and welcoming them into the life of our community.
And if you are particularly bold, then invite someone to your home.

I have passed around anonymous sign-up slips that offer a two-fold option: to commit to hosting or being hosted (and if you can’t or need more time to think, that’s okay too—we have plenty of time!) Fill them in for processing and we will add you to a list. Even if it’s only once a year, it’s a great start.  

Let us be like Abraham and find audacious hospitality, embrace courageous vulnerability and to be open to experience the two sides of the Abrahamic experience: to go into new and scary places and to offer the warmth and safety of your tent. Or even, to offer one’s tent in the full recognition that this can be new and scary!

As Rabbi Rick Jacobs, URJ President, said at the 2013 URJ Biennial:

‘To be sure, many of our congregations do an outstanding job of welcoming, but many do not. Here’s a simple thing you can do: Take every member of your board, every staff and team member, everyone who might come early one Friday night, and give them a run-through on the power of being Abraham and Sarah.
That’s just the beginning. Audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so people don’t feel excluded. It’s an ongoing invitation to be part of community—and a way to spiritually transform ourselves in the process. Audacious hospitality is a two-way street where synagogue and stranger need each other, where we not only teach newcomers, but they teach us.’
Abraham did and a people was born from his welcome. Do you dare accept the challenge?
Shabbat shalom!


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