You've got to move it, move it...
Thursday, 29 October 2015 | 16 Heshvan, 5776
You’ve got to move it, move it…
In 2005 DreamWorks released the movie Madagascar, a delightful animated movie about a group of zoo animals that are washed ashore on the island of Madagascar. In one of the most raucous scenes, the four penguins have a song-and-dance routine with the lyrics: “I like to move it, move it…Ya like to move it, move it”.” While the movie and the lyrics are not exactly the stuff of deep thought and reflection (but a lot of fun!), the words started playing in my head as I began to study the story of Avraham last week.
The opening words of the great call and journey of Abraham (and Sarah) are לך לך “Lech Lecha”, which literally means “You go/walk!” or “You gotta go!” It refers to the address of God: “Leave (go from) your land, your birth place and your father’s house”. Commentators have long been fascinated by the phrasing of the directive, the fact that Abraham is told to go and the emphasis on the subject “you” which is seemingly superfluous – it could have just said “Leave” or “Go”. Rashi comments that the focus is on the “you”, that this journey would be for the benefit and the good of Avraham, that it would transform him, reveal his destiny, make him into a household name.
To travel is to transform yourself, to travel is to leave your comfortable self, your comfort zone, the warm cocoon of home and birthplace, of family and familiar country. You leave yourself to discover yourself. You journey away from yourself only to return to a deeper, more authentic sense of self. You have to leave your parents’ home to create your own home, your own space in the world.
But you also have to keep on moving. The word לך (Lech) is just two Hebrew letters but is probably one of Judaism’s most important words. We are a restless, energetic and creative people. We don’t believe in keeping still or stationary for too long. Our history and destiny are defined by two epic journeys: Abraham’s and the exodus from Egypt across the wilderness to Israel.
The Halacha which determines the Jewish way of living and being may mean “the law” but it also more accurately means “the move, the way, the path along which we move”. Which also says a lot about the process of Halacha. Jewish law was never meant to be stagnant, a prescribed and frozen book of do’s and don’ts. Halacha is a dynamic process, constantly evolving and the more learned the interpreter the greater the possibility of innovation. The prodigious responsa or applications of the Halacha to changing circumstances bear witness to the sheer creativity and flexibility of the Jewish way. Courageous Halachists and commentators continue to show how Halacha confronts the contemporary. We don’t need to be afraid of a changing world because we have got a great system to help us navigate. Thus contemporary issues like the greater inclusion of women, addressing the conundrum of the gay community, global environmental challenges and dealing with an influx of strangers and refugees, can all be encountered on the great walk of Jewish life and thought.
On a personal level you also “gotta to keep on moving.” It was the poet e.e cummings who put it most interestingly: “Unbeing dead”, he said “is not being alive.” Being alive is being in motion and of course in emotion too. The Zohar suggests that a human being is called a הולך a mover and an angel is an עומד a stander. Unlike the angels who are restrained in their holy mission (they don’t multi-task) people are unfettered in their capacity to move the world.
The לך לך call to Abraham comes not once, but twice. It heralds not only the mission call but also the critical binding or Akedah scene. When God tells Abraham to “sacrifice” or bind Isaac the words he uses are: “And He said: Please take your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac – and go Lech Lecha (לך לך) to the land of Moriah…” (Genesis 22:2).
Unlike the first call which, despite its difficulties, is a call to adventure to cross borders, to discover, explore and uncover, this one is frightful, perplexing and even outrageous. And yet Abraham must do it. If you are committed to a cause (and to a Creator) you keep on going despite the fear and worry and even when it seems counter-intuitive. Sometimes you have to just keep on moving in the face of the pain and perplexity. If you are lucky enough the journey leads to an epiphany as it did for Abraham. At the Akedah he learns to face his darkest deepest fear, to confront his own inherited (and learned) pain and how to embrace his son and life itself.
Immediately after the Akedah the Torah seemingly moves from the sublime to the ridiculous: “After all these things, Abraham was told, Milka has had kids…and Bethuel gave birth to Rebecca…” (Genesis 22:20). When you think about it, it’s not so strange or ridiculous…Even in the midst of our own particular or peculiar pain, life moves on. As Auden in his memorable poem writes: “About suffering they were never wrong, the Old Masters: how well they understood its human position; how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
And as life moves on, as long as we are alive we need to keep on moving along, not dully but as courageously and vitally as we are capable.