Lech Lecha 5784 לך לך
By Rabbi Haim Shalom
In parashat “Lech Lecha”, we read the origin story of our people. It is a story of a calling. Of a journey. Of a special land and a special destiny. It is our story, but it is also a universal story. A story about the spiritual necessity of journeying – of leaving one’s home and what one knows, in order to be able to see the world through different eyes.
The opening line of the parasha, from which it takes its name is particularly dramatic:
“וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.”
“And the Eternal said to Avram, “Go to yourself / Really go from your land and from your homeland and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you.””
Together with the emphatic “Lech lecha”, the verse is characterized by the repetition of the place that Avram will leave “Your land, your homeland and your father’s house” – three terms which all mean the same thing- while the eventual destination is distinctly vague. This strange instruction shows us that we don’t need to know the destination for the spiritual journey to be effective: the journey itself is what is necessary for spiritual transformation. The act of (spiritual) journeying is an unmooring from our certainties. We leave behind the things which stop us being able to see our lives from a new perspective – the things which keep us within our singular frame of reference – in order to enter the void, the liminal, to discover new truths.
The most important (and hardest) part of the journey is the first step out of the door. This is the message of the forceful “lech lecha” and the seemingly unnecessary repetition with regard to the point of departure, and the lack of a clear destination.
By embarking on this journey, Avram starts a process which will see him earn a new name, Avraham, and a new moniker, HaIvri. Both the new name and the new moniker point to a transformation within Avram: he is made anew by the journey.
There is much discussion of the term “HaIvri” and its meaning. The Jewish tradition records the opinion that this is an ethnic or geographic marker, describing either from whom Avraham is descended (Ever) or from where he came (from beyond the river (m’ever hanahar), but it is also as a descriptor of worldview. Avraham becomes HaIvri as a result of a transformation of his soul. He ends up being “on one side, and the rest of the world on the other”. He rejects the standard view (idolatry) and embraces the oneness of G?d. According to all explanations, HaIvri denotes distinct otherness. This understanding is reinforced by the use of the term to describe Yosef later in the book of Bereishit and also, anachronistically, another great journeyman – Yonah.
Personally, as parashat Lech Lecha rolls around I always think of my own “Lech Lecha moment”, as the parasha always falls within a week of the date of the anniversary of my move to Israel 21 years ago. This year, there is no celebration for me in the marking of this day. My new homeland is in deep pain.
But the journey is eternal, and we are all called to the journey, to see the world through new eyes, maybe the eyes of the other, and to understand that the person who appears a dangerous stranger on our journey may actually be just a fellow traveler.
There is a famous passage in the Talmud about a Rabbi on a journey – we meet him on his way to release Jewish captives when he comes to a river. The river parts since his mission is so important, and then the Rabbi asks that it part again to allow the wheat carrier designated to make matza (which cannot get wet) to also pass. Then, the rabbi asks one more time for the river to part to allow the free passage of a fellow non-Jewish traveler.
The story comes to teach what should always be on the mind of a Jewish leader (whether a river or a person):
How do we take care of our people (redemption of captives)?
How do we ensure our traditions survive (Wheat for matza)?
And ultimately and most importantly, how do we treat the other (the non-Jewish traveler)?
So I call us all to find our journey and leave our places of comfort. Let us see the world from fresh perspectives. Let us open our eyes to the suffering of others and see in that suffering the oneness of the world.
Haim Shalom is the rabbi of Kehillat Mevakshei Derech in Yerushalayim and the director of Israel Studies at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.