From Bereaved Refugee to Man of Destiny: A Midrash on Pandemic Languishing and Hearing the Call

As year three of the coronavirus unfolds, we find ourselves living in a time of profound uncertainty. On a daily basis, we have reason to fear for our health, our psychological and emotional well-being, and our sense of social connection, or disconnection, as the case may be. We keep waiting for the days of COVID-19 to be behind us. Each time the end is in sight, a new iteration, a new variant shows up. In the meantime, we keep holding out for new medical and pharmaceutical developments, staying focused on what is in front of us, and working hard at being healthy and safe.

I am choosing to call this a time of “pandemic languishing.” The past has passed, the unknown future awaits, and in the meantime, we are sitting, perhaps grieving our losses, feeling a radical sense of uncertainty and insecurity about the future. Something new will emerge, we know that … but what? And when?

In my own exploration of Torah and Midrash, I chose to look at the experience of Abram and Sarai, stuck in Haran on the journey between Ur of the Chaldees and Canaan. We often read and speak of the Lekh Lekha calling of Abram, the call to “Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house and go to the land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). In Joseph Campbell’s words, this is the call of the Hero’s Journey. Like Moses, Odysseus, Luke Skywalker, Dorothy Gale of Kansas — like anyone on a hero’s journey — Abram is called into a life of destiny, just as we are all called into the destiny of our own lives.

But what was going on for Abram in the moment before the call? In the last verses of Genesis Chapter 11, we read of Abram’s Sitz im Leben, his existential world situation just prior to the call.

Now these are the generations of Terah; Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah in his native land, Ur of the Chaldeans. Abram and Nahor took wives; the name of Abram’s wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, daughter of Haran, father of Milcah and Iscah.

Now Sarai was barren; she had no child. And Terah took Abram his son, and his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran, and lived there. The days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran(Genesis 11:27-32).

On first reading of this passage, it is easy to dismiss it as one of those boring biblical genealogy passages, a section of Torah that might not be a first choice for Bar/Bat Mitzvah portions. But read it again. This passage is a bereavement story, delineating a state of emotional languishing and radical uncertainty, not unlike our own time.

Abram’s father, Terah, packed up the family and set out from Ur to Canaan. He was a father who had buried a child. His son, Abram’s brother Haran, had died. This was a family in grief. Even more, this was a refugee family that had left their homeland and were on the way to a strange land.

Abram and Sarai were an infertile couple. We can only imagine what that might have been like for them. And Lot was an orphan, he was being raised by his grandfather Terah, and we assume by extension his Uncle Abram and Aunt Sarai. None of this is midrashic interpretation. This is what is in the biblical text.

And then Abram’s father Terah died. Abram, Sarai and Lot were alone in the wilderness of unknowing, in grief, unable to return to the old familiar ways. And so it is with us today. We are grieving the loss of the familiar, we are grieving the unknown impact of climate change, we are on a journey, we know not where we are heading, and we can barely be certain of the next steps.

I offer this midrash as a reflection on Abram’s journey that can help each of us reflect on our own journey:

It’s chilly sitting here under the stars. Even with the vastness of the desert night sky, I feel so alone. So small. In the deepest place of my heart, I know my God is there somewhere, afar. But tonight in this strange land of Haran, that is so little comfort. So little comfort.

I don’t understand how all this happened, so quickly. Everything once familiar is gone. Dad is dead; my brother Haran, he died so young, didn’t even get to raise his own son. I miss Ur Kasdim, its familiar sounds, smells, our old home. All the family gone! No news. Now, it’s just the three of us, grief stricken, sad, lost.

At moments I want to scream out, “Terah ben Nahor, why did you get us all into this mess? Why did we have to leave everything that was comfortable back home, in search of this unknown land Canaan? For what? And then you died! How could you do that to us?” But I don’t think he really wanted to die. I guess there is “a time to live, a time to die,” and Dad’s time was up.

So often throughout the day, I think of my father. I miss him so much. That last conversation we had together keeps re-playing in my mind. “Avram,” he said, “I don’t understand your Gods, your ways are so different than mine. But I am proud of you, proud to see you following your Gods just as I followed my Gods. I forgive you for wreaking havoc in my idol studio when you were younger.” Of course, I had to correct him, and tell him it was one God, not gods. But he smiled with a twinkle in his eye, knowing he was riling me once more. That was our closure, a tender teasing moment. I knew he loved me, in spite of all that had happened over the years. I am glad he lived long enough for there to be healing between us.

I hear Lot yelling in his sleep, more night terrors. Poor kid! It was my father’s idea to bring him along with us, Dad was like a father to him. Lot has been so traumatized by death. He doesn’t let on, but I see it in that distant look in his eyes. Sometimes, I try to reach him, I tell him a story about my father, or my brother Haran his father but he shrugs it off, disinterested. When I am around him I want to cry. Is it my grief? Or his?

I miss my brother Haran even more now that Dad is dead. I wish we could talk. Even though he was the younger one, I remember how I could always confide in him. He would listen when I was upset about something or other that happened between Dad and me. When he grew older we would laugh, making fun of how Dad would grumble at both of us. Whenever I see Lot, I see Haran’s face. I want to hug him, but stop myself. I wish I could reach him. At times, he is like a son to Sarai and I, but he is becoming a man, he is in his own world. I looked at him closely today, he seems so lost, distant. What’s going to happen to him? We will need to find him a wife soon.

Sarai sleeps quietly in her tent. Poor woman, she is so beautiful, but I see her aging each day. This infertility has taken its toll. There is such a big empty hole between us. We don’t even look each other in the eye. A numbing silence crevices through my body when she walks by. How did this happen? How did we get to this point? What is she thinking? Does she hate me? I wonder. I am so sad, angry that God has not blessed us with children. Why? Why us? This has been going on so long. I hardly even want to visit her tent any more, the passion is dying out. I sense she feels the same way. I saw her praying in her tent early this morning as the sun rose. I could see tears streaming down her cheeks. For me, it’s almost impossible to keep praying to a God who has not answered our prayers. How long will this continue?

I just don’t understand the intensity of all that is happening to our family. Everything seems to have fallen apart. I feel rudderless, lost. Life feels so empty …

It was not that long ago, when we first left Ur for Canaan. We were on the threshold of something new. I trusted my father’s vision, and believed God was with us. I felt the call to a new destiny. Terah was following the passions of his heart. Sarai and I were in love, and we had faith that our family life was about to begin. We were all starting over and bringing Lot into a new life. We had the audacity of hope.

Now, stuck here in Haran surrounded by these shadows of death, infertility, loss I don’t know any more. Sometimes I think we should all go back home. But we’ve come this far, can we really go back to the old?

In quiet moments I sense there is something important I am supposed to do, something that calls from deep within, or perhaps from that most distant star off in the heavens. But is it a dream, some delusional fantasy I have that this solitary man Avram ben Terah can leave my imprint in the world? Will I simply die, like any other desert nomad, and be buried in the shifting desert sands, cast away to the wind?

I am so weary. Tonight, under these stars I need to sit with this emptiness, and listen, listen deeply. Perhaps if I can hold onto the audacity of hope, perhaps my God can show me the next step on this journey.

Adonai said to Abram: Leave your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house and go to the land I will show you. I promise to make your descendants into a great nation. I will bless them and make them great. You shall become a blessing (Genesis 12:1-2).

Perhaps like Abram, our time of pandemic languishing is really a time of “pregnant emptiness,” waiting for the authentic inner “Go Forth!” to move us towards the next step of our lives. Abram goes from bereaved refugee to man of destiny. What is the destiny that awaits each of us?

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