Today is February 16, 2020 -
This week’s parasha, Lach L’cha, “Go Forth in Faith,” has a special place in my heart.
It was my 3rd and last year of law school, and I had been offered a clerkship with a prominent federal judge, in Montgomery, AL. While this particular clerkship was my first choice, I was, quite honestly, more than a little nervous about moving from the Northeast to Montgomery, Alabama, especially at a time of great racial turmoil there. And then a friend recommended that I read the Torah portion, Lach L’cha.
As I read the first few verses of the parasha, I found myself almost immediately gain strength and courage from Abraham—if Abraham were willing to “go forth” in service to God and leave his family and his community, likely never to see them again, certainly I should be able to garner up the courage and move from Washington, D.C. to Alabama for just a year—my plan, at the time, was to return to D.C., upon completing my clerkship, to work for the lawyer for whom I had worked, while I was in law school. (That life is truly an unknown journey, with “humans’ planning” and “God’s laugh- ing,” is borne out by the fact that, rather than returning to the D.C. after a year, I practiced law and remained in Alabama for the next several decades.
And when, some 30 years later, I began to contemplate a new “calling,” which “calling” would require my picking up and leaving my friends and moving from Montgomery to Manhattan, Abraham’s faith in and devotion to God again helped me to overcome the many doubts, questions, and concerns I had and do, what I believe to be, was God’s will.
That “good things come in 3’s in life,” was demonstrated by a third occasion in my life, when this Torah portion came to have special meaning to me. I had been in Rabbinical School for only a few months, when I began to question my decision to pursue the rabbinate. I had left the practice of law, a profession in which I was experienced and competent and therefore felt confident, and had a community I knew well, for “a new calling,” and a city about which I knew very little. I even began to wonder, if I had overestimated the strength of my faith and trust in God?
Like the Israelites, whose fears and doubts, within just a few months after witnessing the Sea of Reeds, caused them to remember their lives in Egypt through rose colored glasses, I began, in the same way, to make Montgomery into some type of Utopia, remembering only the positive things that had happened to me there.
The confirmation that I was looking for-that I had, in fact, made the right decision-came totally unexpectedly, from one of my classmates. During my first year of Rabbinical School, as part of a 5-day-a-week, 8 am Talmud class, one student in the class would be responsible for delivering a d’var Torah on the parasha of the week. The student assigned this particular parasha, Lach L’cha, was a young man for whom I had already developed a great deal of respect and admiration.
My classmate began his d’var Torah by noting that he had begun, even before starting Rabbinical School, begun to question the relevance of many of the stories in the Torah to his life and to the far different world in which we live today. Pausing, he then said, “but having gotten to know one of our classmates, Howard, and having learned what he gave up to serve God and the Jewish community, my faith,” he continued, “in the continuing relevance and wisdom of the stories in the Torah has been restored.”
I was taken totally by surprise and a little embarrassed by my classmate’s d’var Torah. Continuing, my classmate compared my journey to Rabbinical School, unfairly to Abraham I would argue, to that of Abraham’s Lach L’cha journey to the land that God would show him.
Many of you have had your own Lach L’cha journeys, journeys and life changes that have trans- formed your lives, uncomfortably stretched your comfort zones, and in the process created simulta- neously both great anxiety and excitement. Not long ago, I had a conversation with a retired friend, who recently agreed to come out of retirement to serve as the acting CEO of a non-profit organiza- tion, while a search to hire a full-time CEO was being conducted. She acknowledged, during our conversation, that she had had many questions, doubts, and concerns about whether she should take the position before agreeing to do so. When I asked her why she ultimately decided to accept the position, she responded that she strongly believed in the organization’s mission, and that, while retired from her fulltime job, she was not ready yet to stop serving.”
Most of us who watch and read the news today are familiar with the name, Ambassador William Taylor, who just this past year came out of retirement to assume the position of U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine. When Mr. Taylor was initially asked to assume the position by the Secretary of State of the United States, the first person he spoke with was his wife, who urged him not to do so. Still not sure what to do, he then went for a second opinion to a very close friend whose response was brief and to the point: “when your country calls upon you to serve, you should always say, ’yes’!”
Abraham’s response to being called upon by God, as well as the faith and trust shown by the then young shepherd, David, in doing what none of the Israelite soldiers had the courage to do–fight Goliath—can together teach us a very valuable and important lesson—the more that we are able to put our faith and trust in God, the more effectively we will be able to, first, address and hopefully overcome our human fears, doubts, and concerns, and second, in doing so, do God’s will and serve God and community.
We will soon be celebrating together perhaps the only Jewish holiday, Chanukah, commemorating a Jewish military victory. It was their faith and trust in God, I believe, with God always present in the background, that enabled a small band of committed Jewish fighters, under the leadership of the Maccabee family, to prevail over and defeat the much larger and powerful army, the Greek Seleucid army.
And it is this same faith and trust in our mission, in each other, and in God that has and will contin- ue, I believe, to enable the Congregation Beth Israel community to overcome whatever challenges may confront us, as we continue to do our best to serve God and the Jewish and greater non-Jewish communities.
May your Chanukah season be filled with much joy and light!
Rabbi Howard Mandell
NOTE: I will be on vacation December 15 through January 12. Please contact Amy Sherr in the Synagogue office in an emergency.