My closest relatives - parents, siblings, grandmother - live at least 90 minutes from our family. My wife’s family is even more distant. This is not a new state of affairs for us; our first shul was in Rhode Island, at a time when our closest relatives lived no further north than Manhattan.
To be honest, while we’ve always felt ourselves at a disadvantage - missing family events, not developing the close relationships we want, our children not knowing their aunts and uncles and cousins well - I never really felt like I was losing out on something huge. Part of that is my natural self-centeredness, and part is simply that I didn’t know what I was missing.
So when I have read the beginning of Lech Lecha over the years, and I’ve seen HaShem tell Avraham, “Leave your land, the place of your birth, the house of your father,” I have understood alienation from the comfort and familiarity of a homeland, and from the nostalgia and natural fit of a birthplace, but I never really understood the gravity of the “house of your father” piece of Avraham’s challenge. It always seemed more or less like and add-on to the other, more serious elements of estrangement.
Today, though, I learned more about what it means to “leave your father’s home.”
Through an unlikely chain of events, I was at a conference in midtown Manhattan on the same day that my cousins Jacques and Berthe Torczyner were visiting my parents, also in midtown Manhattan.
I had rarely (never?) met my illustrious nonagenarian cousin Jacques, about whom I once blogged here, or his wife Berthe. I had heard a ton about them, people asked me, "Are you related to Jacques" all the time, and I wanted very much to see them, but because they live out in California and I never get out there, and because they don’t travel much anymore, we had not met in person, or at least not in my adult life.
So when I heard that Jacques was in New York, I immediately left my conference and walked across town to meet him. I walked 25 minutes each way and we only had 15 minutes together, but Wow, that was great.
Of course, in one way it was great because of who Jacques and Berthe are, of the life they have led. For those who were too lazy to click on the link above, here’s a brief digest of some of the items on my cousin Jacques’ resume: Holocaust survivor, leader in the World Zionist Organization, president of the Zionist Organization of America, major activist in the Republican party, head of the North American delegation to the critical World Zionist Congress in December 1946, associate of David Ben-Gurion and Teddy Kollek, activist in preparing for the UN vote on Israel’s independence. And this is not even close to a complete list.
But, more than that, today I met two members of my family, two people who knew the paternal grandparents I was too young to know, two members of the chain of people whose existence encompasses my own. Seeing them gave me an expanded sense of belonging.
Now I have a better understanding of what Avraham did with his Lech Lecha march. Yes, leaving the familiarity of his land and his birthplace must have been difficult, but leaving that circle of people among whom he belonged was a challenge in itself.
And one last note: My favorite part about meeting Jacques and Berthe? When Jacques told me he reads my blog!