Abie, it’s time for a change of scenery. Get out of here because there’s no such thing as a prophet in his own village. Everyone there knows you. That little pisher a prophet, they say? Then I’m the king of Haran. That’s the beginning of our parsha, and the beginning of the story of our earliest “Jewish” ancestors.
One sentence tells of their journey. They left for Canaan and they reached Canaan. It’s so concise we don’t even think about how long it took Avram and Sarai to make their journey. I’d like to share some insights from a fascinating book called Daily Life in Biblical Times by Prof. Liora Ravid. The Torah doesn’t dwell on this aspect, first, because it was probably known to the people of that time, and second, because it really isn’t the point of the story.
We know that Terach took his son Avram and Sarai and Lot, Avram’s nephew out of the rich and developed city of Ur (Ur Kasdim in the Torah) on their way to Canaan, the poor and undeveloped country, but that they stopped in Harran and stayed there. The map shows us that Ur Kasdim is about 370 km south of today’s Baghdad. Haran is up in southern Turkey, northwest of Israel.
You can draw a straight line from Ur Kasdim to the center of Canaan – but you can’t walk it because it’s mostly desert. The only way you can go is to follow the Euphrates rivers, which meanders northwest from Ur Kasdim to Harran, Turkey.
So Terach, Avram and Sarai and Lot set out. They couldn’t carry much food. They probably had some donkeys as well as a few goats with them for milk and, when necessary, some meat. Sheep were too delicate for the 1300 kilometers they had to cover.
How long did it take them? Traveling reasonable distances every day, the trip would have taken several months. But Ravid examines this more closely.
The goats probably could have covered 5 km every day. But the travelers needed food, which meant stopping to work. Work meant spending a day or two or a month in a field in exchange for food to eat and straw to sleep on and a little extra to take along for the next days. So every few days they would have to stop to work.
According to Ravid’s calculations, they covered an average of about 1.5 km a day (taking into account days they worked and did not progress). This means that the 1300 km would take 1200 days – three years plus.
Now they were in Harran, Turkey where they stayed for a while until Avram had his vision. The distance from there to Beersheba is 5300km, and now their path had to take into consideration water, mountains and highwaymen. 5300 km at the same pace as the first leg of the trip would come to 10 years. And don’t forget, afterwards Avram, Sarai and Lot went down to Egypt, and back. Another few years on the road! All told about 20 years.
So we see that the simple command to “Get thee going!” at the beginning of the parsha is much more complex than it seems. And it took a lot of courage, and even more belief in God, to make such a journey.
Let’s return to the text for a moment. The first sentence says “lech lecha,” which we can translate as take yourself and go. It’s a redundant phrase because “lech” is the imperative “go,” second person singular. And “lecha” is “you” or “yourself” second person singular. “Lech” is enough.
Of course homiletic mountains can be built out of smaller mole hills than that. Go into yourself, in other words, get to know yourself. Go and become the person you’re supposed to be. Develop yourself – these are some of the interpretations. Feel free to add your own.
We see during the parsha, and even more in next week’s, that Avram and Sarai do develop. In external relations, we see his altruism. He is ready to fight with the four kings against the five. He is ready to lead his band of followers up north to free his nephew Lot who has been taken captive. And he then refuses to take payment for the help he has given.
But he also develops in internal, family affairs. With all his altruism, his treatment of Sarai is rather dismissive and dangerous to her safety. His insistence on Sarai calling him her brother rather than husband in Egypt is meant to protect him, but what about Sarai? And she never says a word.
It is only later, in Canaan that things change. When Sarai can’t conceive, she tells Avram to take Hagar. He does (and why not!). But when she is upset by Hagar’s putting on airs and playing the fertile female to Sarai’s barrenness, she speaks up. I cannot bear it, she says, and Avram says, “She’s your servant, do what you want with her.” Even though the child she was carrying would be his. So there is some development in personal relations.
We don’t know why God chose Avram (other than what the midrashim tell us) but we see that the choice was fortuitous. Avram was not influenced by what “others will think,” – and unlike the gross way that some leaders today dismiss opponents as unimportant or treasonous, he treated others with respect. His independence of thinking was harnessed to a concern for others both inside and outside his extended family, and a basic respect for people. These are qualities worthy of emulation in every age.