Lech Lecha 2021: Everyday Apocalypses

The word apocalypse evokes visions of celestial battles, earthly destruction, and ineffable entities. Yet, an apocalypse can be something much simpler. We, today, are living through our own apocalypse, and it is up to us, like it was our ancestors, to guide the future that it will lead to.

Apocalypses come in many shapes and sizes. In our culture, so deeply influenced by Christian imagery and ideology, apocalypse as a word tends to evoke visions of destruction and mayhem. But the word only means revelation; a divine exposition of novel truths. Sometimes, because of the power of these moments, they ARE filled with destruction and mayhem, but sometimes they’re much simpler. One event we may not often think of as an apocalypse is Abraham and Sara’s journey to Canaan, which we read this week. 

The opening of Abraham and Sara’s story is terse in its details, and in its terseness we find a richness of ground to understand what a journey into the unknown might be. Our commentators all agree that the reason God did not reveal where they were going was in order to give them the opportunity to act on faith, and to therefore be conduits for the Divine. 

In their travels they collected new people, revealing their novel knowledge of a singular entity behind all the universe, in opposition to the normal and accepted way of functioning with a bevy of local and diverse gods. In essence, the destination wasn’t the point; the point was the fundamental shift to their very reality, an apocalypse.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, or Ramban, a medieval Spanish sage, wrote of their journey: “Everything that happened to the Patriarchs is symbolic of what would happen to their descendants. That is why these stories go on at such length about the various journeys...they all come to teach about the future. Whenever such an incident occurs to one of these prophets, one can comprehend something that was decreed to befall their descendants. You should know that everything “decreed by the Watchers” (Dan. 4:14), once the decree leaves the realm of potential and is (symbolically) activated, will inevitably come to pass. ”

Ramban is tying the Patriarchs’ and Matriarchs’ journeys to the apocalyptic thread of our tradition, using the book of Daniel, which itself is referencing an obscure ancient Jewish belief in angelic beings who oversee and decree all the goings on of history. This interpretation radically reimagines the nature of Abraham and Sara’s journey. 

Through it Abraham and Sara’s choice to go forth in accordance with the message of Divine Unity, which would then transform the world, becomes an apocalypse itself. Each action they take sends ripples throughout time, changing the fate of their descendents - including you and I. 

In this Abraham is often cited as the founder of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam which over 50 percent of the world ascribe to, and that played an integral role in the creation of contemporary civilization. Foundationally, Modernity as we know it, secular or religious, is still based in a worldview with ideological elements of the Abrahamic move towards monotheism. 

During the Enlightenment, even during the foundation of the Reform movement in the Jewish Haskalah, attempts were made to sever the allegedly superstitious aspects of religion from the universal ethics therein, but this move only further sunk the foundational ideology beneath a layer of secular language. Ultimately, the ideology of progress, so integral to Modernity and all its constituent parts, are simply secularized versions of the Jewish and Christian visions of history leading towards a unified messianic redemption reflecting the unified God. These values and beliefs have driven our cultures and nations for millennia. 

In short, the story we read from this week is not only a story about the man and woman many refer erroneously to as the first Jews, but it is the start of the world we live in. Just as Ramban told us, Abraham and Sara’s steps recorded in our Torah this week are not only the founding of the Jewish people, but an apocalypse that has unfolded and guided human history until this day.

In her groundbreaking novel the Fifth Season, NK Jemisin ends the prologue with this short prelude: This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine. But this is the way the world ends.”

Apocalypses do not truly end the world; apocalypses end the basic facts about life that inhabitants take for granted. They shake foundations; they upend hierarchies; they rearrange priorities. Often, maybe always, this extreme turbulence does create a great deal of destruction, but a new world arises from the ashes every time. 

Abraham and Sara lived this; and, in fact, we are going through just such an apocalypse right now. Just a month ago our city was hit by a devastating hurricane that took many lives. I didn’t feel the effects myself, other than subway disruption, but that privilege is waning. Nine years ago, our city was hit by an even worse hurricane, whose effects many are still suffering from today. These are two snapshots of two moments in our one city in which climate change caused severe problems to our way of life. Many more occur worldwide with great regularity. Each could have been an apocalypse, had we listened. And listening is the key.

Abraham and Sara are called by God to “Lech Lecha” - to leave behind everything they know, and they do so. They venture into an opaque future, and their willingness to listen and act, not knowing what the outcome would be, made all the difference. We, too, stand this day at a moment of Lech Lecha, a moment of possible apocalypse. By listening and acting, Abraham and Sara were able to take part in the apocalypse; their actions made ripples throughout history, bringing about change, promise, and blessings for their descendents, and for us. We have the opportunity to do the same. We have an opportunity to bring about the next stage in the revelation of Abraham and Sara, moving beyond the industrial revolution and modernity to a world more unified, more whole, more just, and more at peace with itself.

Certainly, the changes necessary to bring about this world are vast and drastic, just as the leap of faith undertaken by Abraham and Sara was. A grieving process must have happened for them, and many of us are currently experiencing climate grief. Any loss, especially of an entire world, leads to grief, but they went through this process on their terms, knowing their truths. We can too.

Let us, today, look the truth squarely in the face. The order of the Modern world we exist in, the comforts and the fundamentals, as we have all known them, are coming to an end. The apocalypse is here, whether we like it or not - the choice we have is to face it, and take action, sending ripples of righteousness through to the future, creating a future of blessings by going forth to build a world we do not know, or to turn away, ignore the call, and allow the apocalypse to happen on its own terms, ceding our role.

It is a big issue, and one that requires thoughtfulness and strategy to confront, but we, like Abraham and Sara, must listen as we are being called. If you would like one quick and easy way to take your first steps. Take a look at rac.org, the webpage of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, where there are two letters to our government officials to sign in support of environmental justice. May each of us find our role in this unfolding apocalypse, acting and working to drive forward a new vision of a world to come. May each of us find our note to sing as we pray a new world into existence, and may we all find the beginning of a new, more glorious story swiftly and in our days. Shabbat shalom.