In this week’s episode we look at how Abraham “begins to wander in his mind.” What Abraham needs to set out on this unprecedented journey with so much uncertainty, according to Avivah Zornberg, is “radical ‘folly’ of those who abandon safe structures and fare forth on unmapped roads.” We will need something like this “radical folly” for the week ahead, as we head into the election and whatever will come beyond, and as we face the aftermath of police killings in Philly and DC. We need to let go of old ways of thinking — truly acknowledge and begin to dismantle our country’s racist foundations — and really roam into something new.
The phrase “hitchil l’shoteit b’dato [he began to roam in his mind],” is used in two midrashic discussions around the beginning of this week’s Torah portion: Lekh Lekha, Genesis 12:1-17:27.
Midrash can be understood as a kind of story about stories in the bible, used to fill in holes in the actual text. In this case, Abraham is called, with so little backstory, to leave everything and start a new covenant with God — why? who was he? what made God think he was a good choice?
There is a great deal of discussion on “why Abraham?” over the centuries and many stories about his youth as part of that. Zornberg cites two versions of stories about Abraham as a toddler: One from Maimonides (c. 1135-1204) and one from Midrash Hagadol (14th Century CE), both based on far older tales. She also cites Thomas Kuhn’s 1962 Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Here is one particularly pertinent paragraph from Zornberg’s discussion:
…the evocative expression… — “the roaming of his mind” — is used to very different effect [iin thn Midrash Hagadol vs. Mishneh Torah]. Here, Abraham bears the whole world with him in his personal anguished search. Le-shotet — To roam, implies full exposure to the hazards of experience. The resonance of shoteh — “fool” — lingers on: the radical “folly” of those who abandon safe structures and fare forth on unmapped roads. In terms of the “normal science” of his world, his is a non-paradigm problem and is therefore viewed as a “distraction” — irrelevant, even crazed. He is armed with no alternative paradigm but only with a pressing sense of anomaly that may find no resolution at all. His question can never be solved within the puzzle-framework of “normal science”; the question he asks is a different, a larger one; and in seeking to “enter into” the castle [a famous midrash about Abraham’s search for meaning], he intuits an experience that is latent, not manifest in the material world.Zornberg. Genesis: Beginning of Desire, p.85
One way to “begin to wander in mind,” in a way that speaks to our current situation, is offered in The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities through Mindfulness by Rhonda V. Magee. (Penguin 2019).
Lekh Lekha — go for yourself, to yourself, your own way
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg. Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (Jewish Publication Society, 1995). Get a copy, if you can — or read some of it on Google Preview.
Maimonides. Mishneh Torah (late 12th Century CE). English and Hebrew at Sefaria