Last week, at our welcoming shabbat meeting, 20 of us crammed into the old Billiards room. More people than usual, and not all of us knew each other. so we went around and introduced ourselves and I asked everyone to tell us their name and where they were born. This room full of people came from New York City, Upstate New York, Philadelphia, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, North Dakota and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Maryland, Chicago, London, Washington state, and California, and I am sure I’m missing a couple more. We all found ourselves in Sonoma County, making the decision to leave where we’d lived before to come here. So many people from so many places, making the decision to come here. Now some of us may consider Sonoma County a version of heaven on earth, but each of us ventured into the county, drawn for a lot of reasons, into unknown territory, calling out to us. Probably 20 reasons or more for the 20 people.
And it all brought to mind the text I read earlier:
Vayomer Adonai el Avram lech lecha may artzecha, u’me’moledecha, u’me’beit avicha el ha’aretz asher a’reka.
And God said to Avram (not yet Abraham), Go forth from your land, from the place you were born, from your parents’ house to the land I will show you.
This verse is endlessly intriguing—pages and generations of commentary.
So first, let’s put in its biblical context. In the previous chapter, we are first introduced to Avram, son of Terach, and they were about to set out on their journey, taking many of their large family with them from Babylon. On the way, Terach died, we assume of old age, since the chronology puts Avram at about 75 years old himself. We don’t know much from the bible itself about Avram’s early life, so our midrash, the stories that fill in the gaps, to inspire us, tell a variety of stories that begin to draw pictures of him.
Terach was an idol maker who once left (I imagine teenager) Avram in charge of the store while he went on a trip. A man walked in and wished to buy an idol. Abraham asked him how old he was and the man responded “50 years old.” Abraham then said, “You are 50 years old and would worship a statue we made yesterday?!” The man left in shame.
Later, a woman walked in to the store and wanted to make an offering to the idols. After she left, Abraham took a stick, smashed the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terach returned, he asked Abraham what happened to all the idols. Abraham told him that after woman came in to make an offering, the idols argued about which one should eat the offering first. Then the largest idol took the stick and smashed the other idols.
Terach responded by saying that they are only statues and have no knowledge. Whereupon Abraham responded, “You deny their knowledge, yet you worship them!” (Genesis Rabbah 38.13)
Or as the teenager would have said, “Exactly!”
So from an early age, Avram was literally an iconoclast. But he stayed in the family fold until he was 75. And then God asked of him something that would transform his entire life, history and future.
God asked him to lech lecha.
God was calling him, commanding him—lech is a command after all. The lecha – well cha means you or yourself, but it’s the le in front of it that makes it lecha… it’s a preposition (can you tell I was an English major?) – that is translated as for, by, with, into (among others). Go into himself, or go to himself, or go for himself, or go by himself. Lech lecha could mean any of those concepts. On a literal and psychospiritual level, they offer a glimpse of the journey that God was suggesting.
“Go for yourself” is how Rashi, the great French medieval biblical commentator, translated it. Go, because it’s going to be good for you, because I will give you this blessing, make a covenant with you and your (currently non existent) children. Go, because I am going to reward you with children, wealth, fine reputation, and you shall be a blessing…
You shall be a blessing.
So many of you, as we discovered last week, left your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house, and journeyed long distances before you arrived here.
What were you seeking, I wonder?
Did you feel called to go?
Was something pushing you or maybe something pulling you?
Were you following your dreams? Or your beloved’s dreams?
But what made you leave your home, your birth place? It takes courage to set out on that journey.
Did you leave thinking you might be a blessing? Or that you would find blessing? Or that you were making a new start? Or getting a chance to bloom out of the family sphere?
Another way to understand it: Go by yourself: Some of us need to find ourselves on our own, whereas others of us need our crew to help us.
R. Ed Feinstein makes the point that it is our face that most displays our soul and yet we ourselves are unable to see it–so that we can’t see how our souls manifest in the world – without the aid of a mirror–or, better yet—our reflection in others’ reactions to us.
Another way of thinking of Lech Lecha: Go into yourself: go from everything you know into yourself. Find yourself, go deep within yourself, to a sacred place that will be revealed – if you are willing to take the journey.
Twice more in this very parasha or set of chapters, God again tells Avram to go to himself – but in those instances – to go with God with the gifts that he has been given.
And while God will later give him the blessings of wealth, a fine reputation, and sons, the true gift is the one we each have – the gift of the divine image, the tzelem Elohim, deep within us.
But accessing it requires self awareness.
A brief midrash, retold by contemporary R. Harold Schulweis about the self awareness necessary to feel our divine spark:
The angels, having heard that God planned to create the human being in His image, grew jealous. What have mere mortal humans done to deserve such a gift?
The angels plotted to hide the image of God from the human being.
One angel suggested that it be hid on the tallest mountain.
Another suggested that it be sunk into the deep of the sea.
But the shrewdest angel demurred.
“A human,” he said, “is an adventurer. People will climb the highest mountain. They will plumb the deepest ocean. But if we really want to hide it from them, let us hide the image inside each of them. It is the last place on earth they will look for it.
So being mindful enough, aware enough to access our divine spark, is no trivial matter. We have to go where no person has gone before.
And yet, I believe that is part of what God is telling Avram to do.. Go into yourself, you who already have faith, let’s begin the journey so that you can truly become a blessing. Don’t just go on auto-pilot, but be willing to examine your soul: what you’ve done, who you really are in your heart, how you’ve treated the people you love, the people around you. The Chassidic masters noted that by now Avram has realized the full capacity of his conscious powers, and so now he is ready to go on into himself.
And then God specifies from where Avram is to leave. A reminder: “from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house.”
You might have thought that “from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house” was just literary repetition. But Jewish commentators generally believe that each word in the five books of Moses is there for a reason.
But each of those places – your land, your birthplace and your parents’ house – hold specific meaning…
Think of all the ways we come into the world as so much more than a blank slate.
The DNA we receive from both parents, the prenatal care our mothers received, the prenatal environment:
- did our mother smoke while we were in utero (mine did)?
- Did she drink? Oy vay.
- Did she have enough to eat?
- Did she have gestational diabetes?
- Did she live in a safe or violent home?
- Did stress hormones cross the placenta?
We begin life with our own personalities already programmed in: we have our own desires, our own will. Any of you with children or grandchildren can attest to that.
And then, once we’re born, our environment plays a profound role:
- Were we cuddled enough?
- Attended to when we cried?
- Given enough to eat?
- Did our teachers notice us, teach us in a way we could learn?
- Did our parents speak enough words to us as babies?
- Were our friends good influences, or the ones who drank or did drugs?
We know now the vital importance of our first five years. The influences of our early life, of our parents are stamped into us.
And finally, what have we done with our own opportunities:
- Did we use our wisdom well?
- Did we make the right choices for ourselves, our families, our community?
- Did we overcome, when necessary, our own inborn drives, our family patterns, the path that might have been set that might have been the wrong one for us?
For this is one way of looking at what “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house” means.
The Chassidic masters make a play on words for land. In Hebrew it’s eretz, a word related to ratzon, which means will and desire. So our chassidic teachers tell us to think of eretz, land, as our will and desires, our personalities.
They further propose that moledecha– your birthplace—is a reference to the place where we were influenced, the environmental forces we grew up with.
And finally, they comment that beit avicha, your parents’ house, is where we attain maturity, where our mind-set and character and behavior are formed, what they think of as our intellect. And to them, intellect is all about learning to control our will and desires so that we can truly be a blessing.
The logical order of one’s leaving is to leave our parents’ house, then our city, or birthplace, and then our land. But in our verse, the order is reversed.
Because the spiritual meaning is to acknowledge our will and desires that pull us off course, and the environmental forces we grew up with, so that we can use our maturity and our intellect to move forward.
But this verse also teaches us that God—through the torah—asked Avram, and therefore us today, to take the next step. Rather than stopping at the intellect to control his urges, God is asking Avram to reach higher—lech lecha—into himself to the spark of the divine within him.
Go, we are told, reach beyond all you know. After you reject your negative idolatrous origins—remember the midrash I told you above—you (Abraham and we!) are being asked—or commanded—to now transcend even what we have achieved to go beyond, to truly connect our divine sparks with each other, with the most holy, with what is true in the universe. Go into yourself, into unknown territory, shine light on those parts that still need light.
And then we will be a blessing.
What has it meant for you to move away from your land, your birthplace and your parents’ home to wend your way here? Did you go into yourself, for yourself or by yourself? Did you depend on the kindness of loved ones? Did you find your sacred center, make that leap of faith into the unknown? Did you, like Avram, create something new?
What were the challenges you met?
Because such a journey, physical, geographic and spiritual is full of challenges to overcome.
Abraham and Sarah faced drought—sound familiar? And war—sound familiar? And rivalries and jealousies and infertility and wantonness. Again, sound familiar? They kept going forward, believing the covenant that the Ground of Being made with them and their offspring. So did you all, or else you wouldn’t be here together today.
I pray that each of us, as we face new challenges, or just the challenges of every day, can find the courage of Abraham, and be a blessing to yourselves and to each other…may it be Your will.