The Problem With Dreaming (Parashat Lech Lecha)

In this week’s portion, Lech Lecha, we meet Abraham. There is so much that is special about Abraham. Our rabbis understand him as faithful, charismatic, patient, and hospitable.  Yet, more than all of these virtues, Abraham was special because he was foremost a dreamer.

Abraham was born in the land of Ur. Eventually, he and his family left for Caanan. It was a land of promise, a way to escape the harsh realities of his childhood home. Ur was famously the land where Abraham was persecuted for his belief in God; unwilling to eschew idol worship he was cast into a furnace (Genesis Rabbah 38:13). Yet, something happened during his journey and Abraham, along with his father, wife, and nephew, stopped halfway, settling instead in the land of Harran.

The fact that Abraham settled in Harran is perhaps the most challenging part of Abraham’s early story. Why not go the distance? If he was prepared to move to Cannan, why dwell on the precipice?

To answer this question, it is useful to look at two scenes from twentieth century literature that both speak to Abraham’s mindset during his journey.

There is a character in the novel, The Alchemist by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, that echos Abraham’s experience. In it, the protagonist, Santiago, befriends a crystal merchant who offers him a job. After a while, the two grow close and soon Santiago learns that this merchant, a devout Muslim, has yearned throughout his whole life to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. When pressed over his inaction, the merchant admits that a piece of him never wanted to go. As he explains:

“'s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. That's what helps me face these days that are all the same, these mute crystals on the shelves, and lunch and dinner at that same horrible café. I'm afraid that if my dream is realized, I'll have no reason to go on living” (pg 57)

The merchant's sentiment is echoed in a scene in a quite different book. In Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, a character named Kilmore Trout is making a decision to leave home on a journey of his own. In a mirror of his own experience, he opens his pet parakeet’s cage and positions him by the window, daring him to fly away. Immediately, his pet turns around and flies back into his pen. Remarking on the oddity of the bird’s reaction, Trout snipes, “That's the most intelligent [thing] I ever heard of. You made sure you'd still have something worth wishing for - to get out of the cage” (pg. 35).

Both of these scenes are profound because of what they teach us about the human condition; the reason it is difficult to fulfill our dreams is because even the best steps forward involve an inevitable loss. Both the crystal merchant and the parakeet (as imagined by Trout) spent their days yearning for a vision they might someday fulfill. Divorced from the reality of the world, these visions became perfect renderings of the future. The merchant imagined deep worship,  loving camaraderie, and moving vistas. The parakeet envisioned soaring heights, boundless expanses, and unwavering freedom. Yet, life in and after Mecca or life outside of the cage never could live up to those dreams. They both knew this, so they failed to walk forward. Frozen, they preferred living in the perfection of imagination rather than confront the messiness of life. They both knew that in order to fulfill their dreams, they were required to first watch them die.

Perhaps Abraham was the same way. Like our two characters, Abraham too dreamed. The Rabbis teach that as Abraham was wandering he found the inhabitants of the land eating, drinking, and celebrating. Knowing that this land was not for him, he exclaimed, “May my portion not be in this country!” Yet, as he journeyed further, he reached the edge of Canaan and saw the people there engaged in weeding and hoeing. Seeing beauty in this agricultural work he cried out, “Would that my portion might be in this country.” (Genesis Rabbah 39:8).

Standing before the land of Israel, Abraham began to imagine a future. Israel would be a place where he could work the land and make it bloom. Its fertile soils would yield a bounty to him and his family. For years, that dream sustained him. And the longer he remained outside the land, the more that dream became a living thing. To finally enter Canaan, Abraham had leave behind his vision.

Ultimately, Abraham was right in fearing the future. His vision was better than reality. No sooner does the Bible tell us that Abraham arrived in the land of Canaan than he learned that there would be no planting and no harvest. We read “Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe” (Genesis 12:10). Yet, even if in the short term, Caanan did not fulfill his expectations, Abraham and his family still survive. Yes, they could no longer dream about agricultural plenty, but this did not mean that without their dreams their lives were any poorer.

To live, Abraham had to let his dream die. But a dream is just a dream. Life is so much more beautiful. Reflecting on Abraham’s decision to go, our ancient Rabbi’s recite a two-thousand year old adage, “When you travel from one house to another, you lose a shirt; from one country to another, you lose a life, yet in truth you will lose neither life nor property” (Genesis Rabbah 39:11).

When Abraham stepped out of his home en-route to Canaan, he lost the life he had built up in his imagination. Israel could not live up to his expectations. Entering the land meant the crumbling of his dream. Yet, though that life was lost, it’s death meant the birth of new dreams. Israel would become the land where he would make a covenant with God, where he would learn to argue for justice, and where he would become the father of two nations.

Facing reality is unexpected, unsettling, and disquieting. Life is complicated, unpredictable, and absolutely astounding. If only our dreams were true; they are so predictable and controlled. Abraham couldn’t leave them aside on his own. He needed God to step in and command him “Lech Lecha...go forth.”

We don’t always have occasion for God to push us out the door. Instead we have to rely on our bravery and trust that though life will be different than our dreams, it isn’t any less valuable. There is a world of beauty in the messiness.