One night in my sophomore year in high school, I awoke around 3 AM to the sounds of bangs outside my bedroom window. We went outside to find our yard on fire, my sister’s car broken into and our mailbox shattered across the street. Shaking, we called 911. The first responders arrived and told us that someone had placed pipe bombs in our mailbox and painted swastikas on the car. “You’re lucky the mailbox broke the other way; it could’ve gone into your living room,” the officer said to us.
As I sat in our living room in my pajamas watching the red lights flicker menacingly off the windows, I noticed a look in my father’s eyes. Something inside of him seemed to know this moment with a kind of ancient familiarity. It was like he was channeling generations of ancestors who have known this anti-semitic moment. To me it was like he was transformed briefly from the suburban Texas dad to the immortal Jew, preparing to have the forever intergenerational talk with his children about what it means to be a Jew in America.
He looked at me with a strength in his eyes I had never noticed before and said, “You’re going to school tomorrow.” Shocked, I protested. I felt that if there was ever an excuse to not go to school it was because our mailbox was just blown up. But before I could say anything he preempted my reply with wisdom that has remained with me forever. With a resolve that only comes from the collected wisdom of the generations, he said, “If you don’t go, they win. They want to scare us and define us; don’t let them. Be proud. Be yourself. Go back to school.”
What sprang forth in that moment was a profound truth. My father was right. If I didn’t go to school the next day, these anti-semites would win not by scaring us, but by defining us. They wanted us to feel unwanted. They wanted us to feel insecure. They wanted us to live our lives by their rules, in their town, as secondary and inferior players. These radical acts of hatred were a ploy to become the authors of my story, where I’m merely the antagonist in theirs. If I stayed home, it would be their story to tell, not mine.
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, writes, “I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one.” Meaning that when a slave internalizes their condition, and cannot conceive of anything outside of their own condition, slavery becomes complete. One does not need to be a slave to know what Douglass is writing. How many of us have felt the sting of a remark, a joke, or even been punched upon our bodies in the name of framing another’s story? How many of us have internalized structures that hold us back because we were never given the opportunity to live for ourselves? How many of us feel we have to be who we are because of what the powerful say we must be or because what society demands of us?
This is exactly the framework that begins the next section of the Torah in Lech Lecha. For the first many chapters, the Book of Genesis focuses on the creation of the world and the movement of time and tides. Now the focus shifts radically to a single family – to Abram and Sarai, an elderly couple who were on the road from Ur (present day Iraq) to Haran (Syria), with their extended family. God calls out to Abram, “Go forth, from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
With this one line, Abram begins a journey to become the most influential human being who has ever lived. He is credited with being the father to billions of Christians, billions of Muslims and millions of Jews. After a lifetime of living, of being “in his father’s house,” Abram and his partner Sarai, are called into history.
The Torah is incredibly poetic in this vocation. The line in Hebrew begins with the words lech lecha, a poetic form which means “go forth,” but as the Rabbis quickly point out, “go for yourself.” (Rashi ad locum) Notice the subtle movements from the beginning of the verse to the end. It begins with “go for yourself,” but ends with “to the land that I [God] will show you.”
For the first time in the Bible, God is giving full agency to a human being to write their own story. Adam was given a garden and told to till and tend it. Noah was commanded to build an ark. Abram was told to “go for yourself,” and only then would God show him where to go. Even in this line, God did not disclose which land and where to settle. (Ibn Ezra). It was only when Abram was able to start to write his own story, to take the full power of his life, did God show up and show him the rest of the path. (Genesis 13:15).
Perhaps the most important journey in life is the one that shows each of us how to begin to write our own narrative. Even if you don’t know totally who you are yet, deciding to find out, not based on society’s expectations of you or even that you have of yourself, is the first step to claiming your power. The journey can begin at 15 or 50. At any moment you can choose to free yourself from what was – to become the person you are meant to be. To “go for yourself.”
The next morning I went to school. I looked around my chemistry class not knowing if any of those around me were at my home the night before. But I knew one thing was for sure, that I was not going to let them win. As tired as I was, I had energy because it was the first morning that I was going to write my Jewish story. Because I went for myself.