Lech Lecha 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

The first two parshiot of Genesis tell the story of the creation of the world; with this, the third parasha, the story shifts to the beginnings of the Jewish people. Avram and Sarai (later to become Avraham and Sarah) leave their home in Ur Kasdim to head out for the land of Canaan; they arrive there only to leave for Egypt and return to Canaan again. Avram’s nephew Lot is with him at first, but settles in Sdom, which will later be destroyed for its evil ways; Lot also has to be rescued by Avram in a bit of military action. God strikes a covenant with Avram to give him land and descendents, and changes his name. Finally, (now) Abraham has a son with Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant; this causes family tensions.

God spoke to Avram: Lech lecha- Take yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
(Genesis 11:1)


With these words, the story of the Jewish people begins. Avram cannot worship the One God in a country of idol-worshippers, and he must travel to Canaan, later to be known as the Land of Israel, where the Jewish promise will ultimately be fulfilled. Furthermore, God’s command is Avram’s first test of faith- he must set out without knowing exactly where he is going, but only Who sends him there.

My colleague and friend Rabbi Anat Moskowitz found a great question pertaining to this verse, from the collection Itturei Torah (Torah Gems), which quotes a book called the Ohel Yaakov, (Tent of Jacob). The commentator points out that if one were physically leaving one’s home, the actual leaving would take place in the reverse order from our verse. In other words, one would get up and leave the house, then one’s birthplace (this commentator interprets “birthplace” as family or clan, but it might mean village or home area) and finally after travelling a bit one would reach the border and leave one’s land or country.

So the question is, why did God phrase the command in a counter-intuitive way, with land first, then birthplace, then “your father’s house?” What’s being taught here?

Our commentator, the author of the Ohel Yaakov, suggests that God is giving Avram instructions not for the physical journey but for the psychological or spiritual one. First, if one is to undertake a journey of spiritual growth, and therefore away from whatever idols are cluttering up one’s spiritual path, one must discard the characteristics of your society that inhibit one’s growth- “take yourself from your land,”- in other words, take yourself away from all the values of the general society that are not Godly ones. In our day, we might think of materialism, sexism, racism, competition, callousness to human suffering, and so forth- all things we must leave behind on our journey to Divine service.

Harder yet, the next stage of the journey, is thinking through and possibly abandoning the bad habits, misconceptions, and prejudices of our community and even our family- “your birthplace and your father’s house.” In my experience, rare is the person who has undergone a process of thoughtful maturation into the person they want to be who has not decided to live life a bit differently than their parents did. I don’t think this means one must leave behind one’s parents and community completely- I think this means that the spiritual journey involves examining and evaluating one’s habits, preferences and preconceptions, and “leaving behind” those that hold one back from one’s spiritual potential.

According to this interpretation of the story, Avram’s real test was not his willingness to undergo danger and deprivation crossing the desert, but his willingness to undertake a process of “cheshbon hanefesh”- literally an “accounting of the soul,” and understood to mean an active introspection and evaluation of one’s life and deeds. Or, in the famous words of Alcoholics Anonymous, “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.”

Fearless rethinking of accumulated mental baggage- sounds much less exciting than Avram’s wars with the kings of Canaan, doesn’t it? But Avram’s greatness, and ours, comes not from without but from within, not from material achievements but from mental, spiritual and emotional effort, directed at love, service, prayer and truth. It takes humility and patience to grow oneself spiritually, and like Avram, for every trip to the Promised Land there may be a detour into Egypt [Mitzraim, the “narrow place.”] again. God’s promise, to Avram and to us, is that we will, eventually, get there.

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