The early part of the story of Avram and Sarai tells us of their journey into the unknown path. After hearing a call from God telling them to “get up and go,” they take their nephew, Lot, and begin the mythic history of the Israelite people. Although surely there is much to focus on in this sedrah (section of the Torah), I want to take us to one small word in chapter 14 and the ensuing commentary. Genesis 14:13 notes that during an intertribal conflict, an escaped prisoner came le’avram ha’ivri, to Avram the Hebrew, to inform him that Lot had been captured. Ha’ivri, that notion of Hebrew peoplehood, also begins its long journey through history at this moment.
But why note here that Avram was a Hebrew? It seems to be an unnecessary detail. A comment from Genesis Rabbah, an early collection of homiletical midrash (extra-biblical stories), teaches that Rabbi Judah said: Ha’ivri signifies that the whole world was on one side while he was on the other side. Rashi, a famous eleventh-century commentator, has the same question and answers that the root letters of the Hebrew word ivri (ayin, bet, resh) should be understood as “other.” Avram the other.
Just as Avram and Sarai go out with little assurance, it is often easy for members of the LGBTQ community to feel alone in individual journeys toward identity. Whether it is harassment in schools, bigotry, violence or intolerance in public and private spaces, it can often seem like being queer means being “the other.” And moments of breaking free from the closet and coming out are points of intense emotion and fear. So often there is enormous risk in that first moment of journeying toward a true self. But we are blessed with a tradition that embraces that otherness and cherishes it. Sarai and Avram’s journey is one reminder of the power of journey and it teaches that we should love that journey and embrace it.
The question remains about where Avram and Sarai are journeying to. For us, we might reframe that question and ask instead, how can we as a Jewish community create a place for everyone? How can we make a spiritual home for people to journey toward as opposed to a home that we only leave? Just as God enters into a covenant with these new Hebrews, faith communities across the world should enter into covenants of equality internally and covenants of advocacy externally.
For Avram, the internal covenant is about getting up and going. As Reb Kaplan previously taught in a commentary for Jewish Mosaics, Leh Leha is about “going to yourself.” The act of moving and getting your soul committed to the journey is no small task. The external covenant is the act of circumcision. For us the internal covenant is about creating welcoming communities that celebrate the journey and the destination of LGBTQ folks with the fullness of our rituals, traditions and celebrations. The external covenant comes from publicly affirming our commitment to the fullness of expressions of identity and to advocating a religious case for marriage and social equality.
I believe that if we do these things, we will find that the journeying will be a source of blessing for the Jews we encounter at the destination and along the way.