Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
While Jews around here are making a big to-do about Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coming together this year, why wait until November for a nifty intersection of American and Jewish dates? We need wait no longer than this weekend. Columbus Day (which now is a Monday holiday but was originally October 12) fits perfectly with this weekend’s Torah portion Lech Lecha. (Click here for a study packet with source material)
Leaving aside the question of whether Columbus was Jewish (though we have reason to believe that he was), and other questions about their moral fiber (Chris’s treatment of natives and Abe’s treatment of his sons), Abraham and Columbus had much in common, especially as their legacies have been embellished by legend. Both took their revolutionary ideas on the road, each shaking civilization out of a world-wide rut, forcing people eventually to take leave of their own ideological flat-earth societies. In order to fulfil their destiny, Abe and Chris had to go. Leaving home was the only option.
Maimonides mocks the inhabitants of Abraham’s hometown, writing in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Idolatry, chapter 1),
He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and all the people were idol worshipers, and he would worship with them. But his heart was exploring and growing in understanding.
Somehow Abraham was able to surmount the limits of his little town, gaining insight and even picking up a few proselytes along the way, but the going was slow and at times dangerous. He made some significant enemies, including the king, who desired to kill him. His father Terach remained not just any old idolator, according to the famous midrash, but owner of the Macy’s of idolatry. Then, just before the moment of decision, Terach died. Abraham’s break with the past was complete in every sense, except geographically. Now more than ever, he needed to leave his past behind.
Columbus would have understood. He wrote
You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
Once we leave the comforts of home, there is no returning. Thomas Wolfe could well have been commenting on the first verses of this week’s portion when he wrote:
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing’s sake, back home to aestheticism, to one’s youthful idea of ‘the artist’ and the all-sufficiency of ‘art’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘love,’ back home to the ivory tower, back home to places in the country, to the cottage in Bermuda, away from all the strife and conflict of the world, back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
There was no turning back from the revolutionary ideas that Abraham and Columbus carried with them. But if you travel long enough, a return to home, to a transformed home, is possible.