The Torah portion that Jews across the world read this week is one of the oldest narrative formulations of beginning a significant journey. "And God said to Avram, 'Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you ... and I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you ..." Avram and Sarai follow God's directions and set out for the unknown.
Avram and Sarai are promised a blessing. But as we read through the five chapters that constitute this portion, we see that their way was far from easy. When "there was a famine in the land," they head south to Egypt. They devise a scheme they hope will provide travel insurance: They tell the Egyptian Pharaoh that Sarai is not Avram's wife but his sister.
The Holy One intervenes, perhaps to remind Avram and Sarai that God is the only true source of protection. Yet their challenges continue: There are land disputes, night raids and the constant concern about the couple's childlessness. How can these two become the parents of a great nation without progeny?
All who claim the foundational stories of the Hebrew Bible acknowledge Abraham and Sarah as the first of many ancestors who respond to a call to set out for a better life. Yet how many of us know the details of our family's journeys, from one language to another, and away from all that was familiar?
How many of us have shared with our children the barriers and challenges faced by those whose names we bear, those who left one land for another, often with little more in their pockets than dreams? Most of us owe our very existence to the courage and tenacity of those who set out from the lands of their birth in the hope of improving their lives. How do we count those blessings?
As Jewish Americans, each of us has a story of migration. And some of us must bid farewell to our children who follow their dreams to distant parts of this country, to Israel, or to other lands.
We share the experience of migration with many others, including the six million African-Americans who, between 1914 and 1970, left the American South in search of freedom, education and opportunity. Isabel Wilkerson's majestic narrative, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, chronicles the journeys of three Americans, who, like Abraham and Sarah, stepped into the unknown in search of a better life.
And across the world, every day, thousands pack up and set out for the future, often without maps. They are fleeing famine, land disputes and marauders. Many arrive on our shores, enriching American life and culture with their gifts and their questions.
Lech Lecha invites us to recognize the universal desire to find a life of blessing. Abraham and Sarah were both the first wandering Jews and the first to respond to God's invitation to enter into a covenant that transcends their own lifetimes. In this portion, we meet our ancestors as human beings whose decisions and actions reflect their own fears and frailties. They persevere, becoming the parents of a great nation.
Lech Lecha challenges us, their heirs, to reclaim our own journey narratives, to count our blessings, and to share our stories with our children. Most of all, Lech Lecha challenges us to be generous with those who, like Abraham and Sarah, take great risks to journey towards freedom -- and security. Let us welcome those who seek the safety and comfort of our shores, extending the ancient blessing of hope and home to today's wanderers.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as rabbi for the East District of the Union for Reform Judaism. Email her at: slelwell.@urj.org .