Avram The Great Man Sets Forth, Through the Words of His Friends & Family: Parsha Lech Lecha

Avram; or, The Great Man Sets Forth, Through the Words of His Friends & Family (Parsha Lech Lecha)

By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: The office of Tsuribal ben Merokam, a Hurrian Cattle-Dealer. It is early evening, almost closing time. Scrolls and small clay tablets lie strewn about a counter; in a corner stands an assortment of terafim, household idols, ranging from a chubby Venus of Willensdorf to a scowling Pazuzu, complete with rampant erection, both meant to encourage fertility and profundity of business. Over the front door, written in Hurrian, Akkadian, Sumerian, and proto-Hebraic, the name of the business: Tsuribal ben Merokam of Charan—Cattle, Donkeys, Oxen; Stables to Let; Veterinary & Boarding Services. Reasonable Rates. Within, a brazier of clay offers friendly flames to beat back the cold of a mid-October night. Seated on mats round about are Tsuribal, himself, a robust, barrel-chested septugenarian; Malki-Kesef, a Tax-Collector, a thin, shriveled man who makes his living sponging off the wages of others; Bakar, a teenaged stable boy. There is a jug of Egyptian-style beer making the rounds.

Tsuribal, the Cattle Dealer: I tell you, I don’t know what’s come over him. We’re old friends—at least, I thought we were; since that day, years ago, he had come in at his father’s side—he was in his twenties then—and his old man Terach, said to my father, Merokam, Baal rest his soul, “Avi, this is Merokam, my friend, the cattle-merchant, and his son, Tsuribal: deal with them honestly, sell them no diseased lambs, and they’ll do right by you,” well, since that time, we were thick as thieves. I remember the time—it must have been about the time that donkeys were first coming in—amazing creatures, really; no one had ever seen them before—and Poppa had gotten one with a split hoof. No one could help us, there, and the poor beast was suffering so! It was none other than Avram who showed me how to mix the tar and glue the animal’s hoof together, until it could heal. And he refused payment, he did; that was the sort of fellow he was. Honest, to a fault….

Malki-Kesef, the Tax-Collector: Pass me the jug, will you, Tsuri? I have a tale to tell, as well: I was on my rounds, visiting the houses in the neighborhood, knocking on doors, collecting the coin for the Royal Treasury—King Goz of Charan must have his gold, you know, to protect us from the Canaanites, not to mention the Egyptians, should they come a-calling up this way—anyway, I came to Avram and Sarai’s house, and gave a knock, only to find the door half open! I look in, not to be nosey, but just to see—

Bakar, the Stable Boy: What was there to see? All these mud-and-wattle houses look alike.

The Tax-Collector: Hush your mouth, when your betters are talking, can’t you, O’ Gatherer of Droppings? I meant to say, Avram’s Sarai was there, bustling round, and packing, packing—they’re off on a trip somewhere, I’ll tell you—“Morning, Missus!” says I, friendly-like, just to see if I can find something out; after all, it’s my job, to keep the tax-rolls in order—(drinks)

Tsuribal, the Cattle Dealer: To keep your purse in order, you mean, taking your cut of the collections, don’t you, Malki-kesef, O’ Go-to for graft?

The Tax-Collector (looking hurt): I take no more than any man would in my position; I paid heavily for the right to collect taxes from this block of houses, and, as they pay the king, so does the king pay me! As for Sarai—she looks at me, mumbles something, absent-mindedly shoves a head-scarf into a reed basket, smiles again, though I could see her thoughts are a mile away, and rushes into the sleeping-chamber. Aha, no time to talk, thinks I. When she never returns, I call out, “Well, well, Missus, give my best to your husband and nephew!” And I leave. What I meant to say, was, they’re leaving. Leaving town. Sold out. Gone.

(The shop’s doorbell chimes; Avram’s nephew Lote enters; Tsuribal the Cattle Dealer greets him)

The Cattle Dealer: What news, Young Lote? What can I do for you this fine day?

Lote: Uncle Avram sends his blessings, Tsuri, and wishes to know if you will buy five fat calves from him. Good ones, and healthy. But he must know quickly.

The Cattle Dealer: I am always ready for good merchandise, and your uncle has never sent me less than the best—but why the rush?

Lote (looking down, embarrassed): It is—is—I would rather not say.

All: Lote, we are your friends! You can trust us! What is wrong?

Lote: Is there any beer left in that jug? I will have some, then, if you please; then, I will speak. (He sits, and drinks deeply; the men make room for him around the brazier.) I don’t know what’s come over Uncle Avram. All those years, in the cattle business—working hard, day after day, taking the cows, donkeys, and sheep off into the fields, always looking for fresh grass. Then, he had the idea that we could grow our own provender; that was wonderful! We didn’t have to get up as early, and he bought slaves who did the planting and harvesting. True, we had to keep an eye out during the harvest, against Bedouin thieves, but it was a good life. (Drinks, yawns, and stretches out his long legs towards the fire; cracks his knuckles; leans back)

Tsuribal: You are right, young Lote; and I truly thought your uncle would chuck it all and hand off the business to you. Remember how we had planned it? I was to be your silent partner, and become your cattle dealer. It would be easy: you would supply the animals, and I would market them for you.

Lote: Yes, so we had planned. But then—but then—

Malki-Kesef, the Tax Farmer: What happened?

Lote: The Voices. It was the Voices.

All: Voices? What voices? What are you talking about?

Lote (trembling): Aunt Sarai felt that all of Uncle’s sitting around, as he got older, wasn’t really healthy for him: he loved her honey-sweetened dough, rolled in sesame seeds, and he wasn’t eating enough greens; between that and the beer every night, he was getting—well, chubby. She went to Chotev-Eitz, the wood-carver, and bought Avram a long, blackstrap walking-stick, to encourage him to take walks in the outdoors. At first, he joked about it; he preferred to stay home, sip a beer now and again, and nap. But he agreed, if only to stop her nagging. Then, oddly, the walks got longer and longer—

Malki-Kesef: Well, there’s nothing wrong with a walk, now and then. I like to take a stroll around the block after a good dinner.

Bakar the Stable Boy: And do you collect taxes from your neighbors to buy your dessert?

Malki-Kesef: Watch your mouth, Dung-for-Brains!

(They begin to quarrel; Lote raises his voice.)

Lote: He told us about an angel.

Tsuribal: What’s an angel? I know a sphinx; I saw one in Egypt when I was there a year ago.

Lote: It’s hard to say—golden wings? A halo?—but anyway, he says that we are to go out, to leave Charan, because a Voice told him to. There is a land, far away, and we are to go there. I don’t completely understand it, but he’s my uncle, and I love him, so—(rises wearily)

Tsuribal: You’re leaving? Leaving Charan? But this—this is the city you’ve lived in, all of your life. Everything a man could want—it’s right here. We call it “The City,” because there is no place else. Believe me; I know; I’ve traveled, and I’m glad to be back here.

Lote: Uncle Avram says that this land we are going to will be much better; the Voice told him so. And we are to become—well, it’s hard to explain.

Tsuribal: Lote, I don’t understand it, but Avram, your uncle—he’s my friend. And I know him. I believe you can trust him. (Hugs him) Good-by and good luck. We’ll miss you. Give him our best. If you ever come back, you have friends here at Tsuribal & Co.

Lote: Thanks, Tsuri. Thanks to all of you. Good-by. (Leaves; the door closes behind him)

Malki-Kesef: But a voice, Tsuri? How can you trust an invisible voice? (Pointing to the clay idols) At least, those gods, those are something you can see, something you can touch—

Tsuribal: Malki, old friend, old, cheating friend, you who trust in money only—you should be the last person in Charan, the last man on Lord Baal’s flat earth to tell me an invisible voice is lying! Anyway, gentlemen, a toast—Bakar, get the cups from the shelf—(pours the last of the beer)—to our good friend Avram—may his voices get him wherever he’s going—luck to his friends, and confusion to his enemies!

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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