Lech Lecho: Iraq – Yesterday and Today


The First Iraqi Emigrant

Who was the first documented emigrant from present day Iraq?

The answer lies buried in the beginning of history. 3819 years ago a man was born in the locale of modern-day southern Iraq, and his journey changed the world forever.

The chaos of that geographical region goes back to the beginning of time, and continues to this very day.

This essay explores the roots of the Iraqian quagmire, and ancient lessons that are relevant today more than ever.

As America is about to elect new officials in an election whose greatest factor is the Iraqi war we would do well do learn from Biblical events that took place four millennia ago in the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley.

Who would have imagined just several years ago that a country called Iraq would dominate headlines and influence the elections in the mightiest country on Earth?

But indeed, at the dawn of the 21st century, the Middle East and Iraq in particular, is shaking up the entire world, and affecting events in all hemispheres. As Americans are about to go to the polls, what is the number one factor concerning voters? Not the economy, not crime, not terrorism. Nothing as much as the war in Iraq.

As Iraq spirals into total chaos, affecting events all over the world, it’s wise to recognize that this same area is where chaos prevailed 4000 years ago and over the millennia and has in turn shaped all of history.

Though hardly a consolation, the current mess in Iraq is nothing new. As Iraq dominates the headlines and is about to affect the elections in a nation thousands of miles away, it’s hard to ignore that the exact same region also dominates this week’s “Torah” headlines.

Where does Abraham’s journey in this week’s Torah portion take place? You guessed it: In no other place but in what is today Iraq!

In this week’s Torah portion we read about G-d’s commandment to Abraham Lech LechoGo to you, away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

Abraham was the first Iraqi Jew, born in the city of Ur Casdim in the Hebrew year 1948 where he lived for at least 48 years [The Ramban disagrees with Rashi and holds that Abraham was born in Charan]. Ur Casdim, in the land of the Chaldees (Genesis 11:28), an ancient city of Sumeria and later Babylonia, was located in the lower Tigris-Euphrates River Valley in the region known historically as Mesopotamia, approximately 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of the Iraq’s modern capital city of Baghdad.

The Ur Casdim area formed the eastern arm of the Fertile Crescent stretching from the Persian Gulf northwestward through the Tigris-Euphrates River Valley toward Syria and then southwestward along the Mediterranean to Egypt and southward along the Nile River Valley. In Abraham’s times Semitic tribes settled in the Mesopotamian region to farm, to tend flocks, and eventually to create the great empires of Babylonia and Assyria.

Abraham was 48 years old when the Tower of Babel was built (Seder Olam), which resulted in the confusion of languages and the beginning of the first major population migrations (Genesis 11:9). Sometime after that Terach, father of Abraham, moved from Ur Casdim “heading toward the land of Canaan [Israel] and they came [as far as] Charan and settled there” (11:31). They traveled apparently along the Euphrates River (to ensure access to water). Charan, a city in ancient Mesopotamia, is situated somewhere near the Western border of Iraq and Syria, up the Euphrates approximately 600 miles northwest from Ur Casdim, and 400 miles northeast of Israel.

Then when Abraham was 75 years old he was commanded Lech Lecho. He picked himself up and left Charan and traveled to Canaan. [Actually Abraham left Charan twice, once when he was 70 years old, when he experiences the Divine Covenant of the Promised Land, and then returns to Charan for five years, after which he takes his final Lech Lecho journey (Tosafos Avodah Zorah 7a. Daas Zekeinim M’Baalei Ha’Tosfos Genesis 12:4)].

Many more major historical events took place in the same region. About three a half years ago, when the current war in Iraq began (March 2003), this column explored the roots of chaos in the region which was Babylon of old. Indeed, the name Babylon (Babel) means “confusion.” Here are some links to those articles, which include a list of the events that occurred over the millennia in that part of the world.

But here we will concern ourselves with Abrahams’ journey from Ur Casdim in southern Iraq to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land.

Being that Lech Lecho is the first mitzvah, the first commandment in the Torah to Abraham, “father of all nations,” it clearly is a major event: Abraham’s journey from Iraq to the Promised Land launches all the subsequent Biblical events, which would define the course of history. Indeed, the Arizal explains that Lech Lecho marked the beginning of the Sinai revelation.

What is the significance of Abraham’s journey? Lech Lecho is the secret to transcendence and all forms of growth and achievement. As long as Abraham remained stuck in his “land,” “birthplace” and “father’s house” in Ur Casdim and Charan he would not fulfill his true potential.

True growth, Abraham was told, is only possible when you leave the environment that influences you, especially when that environment is defined by chaos (Babylon) and wrath (Charan). And the Chaldean/Babylonian/Charanian quagmire affects you in three ways.

“Your land” – social conformity and peer pressure, which affect your standards and mind-sets.

“Your birthplace” – your inherent bias and self-love, which distorts your views and judgments.

“Your father’s house” – parental attitudes that shape and influence your life.

Thus G-d’s first commandment to Abraham: “Lech Lecho” – Go to you, away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. “Go to you” and discover the “real” you by leaving the subjective influences of your inherent bias, your parents and society. Then you will go “to the land that I will reveal you,” your true self.

Everything that happened to the patriarchs is an indication for their children (Midrash Tanchuma Lech Lecho 9.  Bereishis Rabba 40:6). All the events that happened with the Patriarchs [Abraham, Isaac and Jacob] come to teach us about the future…they were shown what would happen to their descendants (Ramban Lech Lecho 12:6).

Like our father Abraham – who G-d took and “made him Yours, bringing him from Ur Casdim, and giving him the name of Abraham” (Nechemia 9:7) – each one of us is brought forth from Ur Casdim and called to Lech Lecho:

We are all born into a chaotic world (Babylon), a dark, wrathful universe (Charan), out of touch with its higher purpose. The mission of our lives is to not remain stuck in our subjectivity – our natural self-interest, our habits, patterns and parental influences. Thus we receive the call of Lech Lecho – our calling to leave our wrathful environment and go on a journey; to travel toward the Promised Land and discover our true selves – our essential beings.

War in Iraq today brings our attention to that region in the world. It compels us to realize that the entire human experience began in that area, and that above all, the actual geography of Iraq tells us the story of our own lives.

Regardless of our opinions about the American presence in Iraq today, it is clear to any student of history that this region in the world – the cradle of civilization – has been a center of chaos from the beginning of time. Indeed, even the Garden of Eden, whose Tree of Knowledge is the origin of confusion, is situated in Iraq, by the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers (see In Search of Eden).

Perhaps the real battle is rooted in the eternal struggle to find Divine purpose in an aimless world. What we are truly facing is a battle that has been raging in one form or another for thousands of years. This battle can be understood only in a historical and Biblical context. There is no short-term solution to the war. Even after removing Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, the region is a boiling pot of stewing forces within a population of over 1 billion (and growing) Muslims, many driven by fierce ideology, which is not going away. His has become a breeding ground for radical and violent martyrdom. The battle is about the tension created by the clash between the secular and the sacred, between the material and the spiritual, between the universe and G-d.

Though I am not pro-war, this war is an inevitable – even tragic – necessity to get out of our complacent reverie and begin confronting the real issues facing our lives and the world today. September 11 was the first wake up call; this is the second.

History is a continuum. Peace in our lifetime will only be possible if we make peace with the rifts of our past. Today, we are confronted with forces that have been unleashed thousands of years ago.

Yet, we gather profound strength from our pioneering father Abraham, who paved the way to travel from the depths of the Mesopotamian abyss to the Promised Land. And with Abraham’s eternal legacy we forge ahead in our Lech Lecho journeys, transcending our own comfort zones and mechanical patterns, to… reach heaven and beyond.

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A related letter received today:

Dear Rabbi J.

Last week you asked the question “Are you for or against the war in Iraq? Why?” Then I proceeded to read an article you write close to three years ago when the war in Iraq began. I quote:

“As foretold, the war that began in Iraq on Shushan Purim (March 19) ended in the days of Nissan (April 9 is when Baghdad was officially taken displacing the power of Saddam Hussein), just as all major victories in history took place in this month of redemption.

“The question is what happens now? Is the world safer? Are our lives better? What will it take to make this world a secure place? Do we have to attack Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya… and then what happens next? And what about all the greed and corruption in America – does this country have the right to preach to others and dictate terms when it as guilty as anyone?

“Now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power, is Iraq free, as promised in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”? Will it become free? And what does freedom actually mean – freedom by whose definition? Will Iraq’s majority of 60% Shiite Muslims rule, will it be controlled another faction or will civil war break out. At least three quarters of Iraqis are members of one of the country’s 150 tribes – what exactly will constitute freedom in this country of so many driving forces?”

I commend you for your foresight back then in questioning the consequences of the Iraq invasion – chaos that we are now tragically witnessing, escalating each day. Yet, you conclude in your article that the battle in Iraq is an inevitable part of a historical quagmire.

Interestingly, this parallels Elie Kedourie’s essay, “The Kingdom of Iraq: A Retrospect,” published in 1970 – and cited by David Brooks in today’s NY Times – that disorder is endemic to Iraq. Iraq is a bomb of a nation and crisis there is perpetual. “The record of the kingdom of Iraq is full of bloodshed, treason and rapine,” Kedourie (a Baghdad-born Jew) wrote. It is “a country riven by obscure and malevolent factions, unsettled by the war and its aftermath. The collapse of the old order had awakened vast cupidities and revived venomous hatreds.”

Can you please elaborate on this topic?


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Question for the week: Please share any practical suggestions that can help each of us get out of our “comfort zones” and experience Lech Lecho, a journey beyond our own propensities? What can we do on a daily basis that would allow us to get beyond our own selfish needs?


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