The French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas teaches that what makes Torah holy is its infinite meaning. Holiness is therefore defined by inexhaustible possibility. I myself include in the category of Torah other expressions of art and spirit in this definition, such as Stephen Soundheim's "Into the Woods," a classic which weaves together several familiar fairytales and creates a nuanced moral tale pointing the way toward personal growth and engaged living. I'm not giving Soundheim rabbinic ordination, but Jewish learning can be deeply blessed by the gifts of worldly wisdom.
Let's set the scene: Three parallel stories take place in "Into the Woods." Jack (of the beanstalk) visits the sky-world of the giants, Cinderella gets her chance at the palace ball, and Little Red Riding Hood ventures off the safe path after being tempted by the wolf. Each character departs from the world they call home and plunges into the unknown, encountering both incredible highs and devastating lows. Whereas the play begins with the classic "Once upon a time," it surely doesn't end with "happily ever after." In fact, "happy ever after" is the title of the closing song of the first act - a true teaching that life rarely continues (nor ends) very cleanly.
And so we turn to the Torah. Lech Lecha (the beginning of the Abraham narrative) begins with "Adonai (God) said to Abram, "[Lech Lecha] Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1)." Previous to this communication from God, all we know of Abram is that he is married to Sarai and travels with his father, all very uninformative as to Abram's character. Except for this - his story sounds very typical. Very ordinary. Hardly the stuff of legends.
So what makes Abram worthy of receiving God's word? We have heard of no great deeds nor theological speculations from the text itself. There are many early rabbinic attempts to provide Abram a childhood narrative - any childhood! - but none of the creative gap-filling (known as "midrash') can begin to answer the question. The only answer to the question can be found in the following verses:
"Abram went forth as Adonai had commanded, ...took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan." (Gen. 12:5)
God speaks, Abram goes.
We live with a deep desire for routine and pattern. Comfort is an ideal we crave in this world. How easy would it be to give up not only the luxuries we enjoy? If nothing luxurious comes to mind, consider Starbucks and the internet. Now imagine leaving behind caffeine and computer, family and home, language and faith community - everything you know and understand.
Suddenly God speaks to you. You've had no interactions with God, no one around you has heard from this One God, and your first command is: Go! Enter a thorny new life of pain and unpredictability and joy and elusive transcendence.
What do you do?
Would you go? Take that step away from the path and take a chance at glory? With no covenant established yet, Abram displays chance-taking and takes the first step of a holy journey. That first step is ours every time we pause and consider self-transformation. These are sacred steps away from the safe and the sure.
The spiritual journey is an unending path of fluctuation and newness. A relationship with any person includes the unquantifiable - that which can only be discovered once the journey begins. So too with God.
As Soundheim says,
So it's into the woods you go again, You have to Every now and then. Into the woods, No telling when, Be ready for the journey. Into the woods- you have to grope, but that's the way you learn to cope. Into the woods to find there's hope of getting through the journey.
If Abram had not left the comfortable in favor of the transformative, the world would be a much emptier place, robbed of so much mystery.
And so, we begin our story: Once upon a time, a childless man named Abram and his wife Sarai began a journey with an invisible Partner they hadn't known. There are seldom "happy ever after"s in true stories, but their story included moments of Godliness and pain, loss and joy, that they passed on to their children and their children's children. You might be one of those descendants, but the only way you'll really know that you're worthy of their inheritance is if you venture yourself into the uncertain woods of faith.