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Traveling to New Places Can Be Inward Journey
LECH LECHA, Genesis 12:1-17:25
"Lech Lecha! Go forth." These are the words that God speaks to Abraham at the beginning of this week's portion. With that, the drama of the patriarchs and matriarchs is put into motion -- Abraham's wanderings, Sara's barrenness, the birth of Ishmael -- all begin in this portion.
But I am most captivated by those opening words. I love to travel: the farther away, the more exotic, the better. I have studied abroad in India, and I have lead High Holiday services in South Africa. Despite the boredom of a 24-hour plane ride, or the anxiety of being far from family and friends, I'm always ready to go someplace new.
The logistics, the jet lag and the bad food are all worth it. When I step on a plane, I leave my comfort zone, whether I like it or not. It's not easy to go back, and in going forward, I encounter something I didn't know before -- about another culture and about myself. I learn from how I face the ensuing challenges along the way, in addition to from what delights me and comes easily for me in the process.
Lech Lecha is the beginning of such a journey. "Go forth!" God instructs Abraham. "Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you." This is the beginning of a great journey for Abraham and for the nation that God blesses him to produce.
It is also the continuation of a journey. We learn at the end of Noah, the previous portion, that Abram, Sarai, Terach and Lot have already left Ur of the Chaldeans toward the land of Canaan. They only get as far as Haran, where they settle. Their intention was to go forth to Canaan, but they have become stuck.
So, God calls them out again. God does not tell Abraham explicitly to go to Canaan, the destination that he and his family had headed out for originally. Instead, God says, "to the land that I will show you." Travel is always a step into the unknown, but even more so when you don't know where you are headed.
The Sefat Emet, a Chasidic commentator, understands God's command to Abraham to go forth to an unknown place as a command to keep walking, and to go toward something new. He writes: "Whoever stands still is not renewed, for nature holds him fast." We must constantly seek the new in the world, just as God renews the world each day.
For Your Own Good
What do we find when we seek out the new?
Rashi, the medieval Torah commentator, points out that the words "lech lecha" literally mean "go to you." He understands this to say that God is telling Abraham to go forth for his own good and benefit, as is evidenced in the blessing that God promises to him once he begins his journey. We can also understand this translation -- "go to you" -- to mean go inward.
Go on a physical journey to the place I show you, and in doing so, learn more about yourself. When we leave our habitual ways, when we get out of our familiar environment to see something new, we renew ourselves, and are then able to see and know ourselves in deeper ways. We must be willing to move a little, to walk and not stand still, in order to discover all that's out there.
This self-knowledge -- and this desire to seek out the new -- are indeed blessings for ourselves and for our nation.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.