By Rabbi George Stern
Parshat Lech L’cha
A few days before you read this, Americans and Israelis will have gone to the polls with many different ideas about what sort of future they would like for themselves and their country.
The specific outcomes aren’t known as I write, but this Shabbat’s parshah, Lech L’cha, provides some insights into the importance of playing active roles in determining the future.
The first words of the parshah, Lech L’cha, demand explication. God’s command to Abram is usually translated as “go forth.” But that misses the significance of the lamed (L) in the second word. According to the medieval commentator Rashi, lech l’cha means “go for yourself”: Do what God is asking for your own sake.
I prefer the more literal “go to yourself,” such as, “Go find yourself, learn who you are and be that person.” That speaks more to a person’s soul.
In this Jewish foundational story, Abram sets out on a journey “to a land that I will show you.” Jewish history, then, begins with “leaving.” In this parshah alone, Abram arrives at the Canaanite site Elon Moreh near Hebron, “moves on” (Hebrew root ayin-beit-reish, avar) to the east, then heads south to the Negev. Next, a famine drives him to Egypt, then he returns to Hebron.
In next week’s parshah, Vayeira, Abraham (he now has the name we know him best by) takes perhaps the most fateful journey of all. Responding to another lech l’cha from God, he takes his son Isaac to Mt. Moriah, “the place that God told him of,” where Abraham expects to have to sacrifice Isaac. The Hebrew word for “place” used here is hamakom. It’s also one of the Hebrew names for God. Was this “place” Abraham’s intended destination all along?
I have to think that Abraham had real doubts about the climb to Mt. Moriah: Am I really supposed to sacrifice my son? When a voice told him to withhold the knife of sacrifice, he must have breathed a huge sigh of relief, realizing that his doubts were appropriate and that he all along could have proven his faith by refusing this call, just as he had done when he questioned God’s intent to destroy everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah. I imagine he wondered, “Why wasn’t I more forceful with God?”
While we might wish it were otherwise, it’s not enough to stand for principle only once or, for that matter, to assume that a stance we take today is necessarily the right one for tomorrow. It is important always to “keep moving,” to question our motives, decisions and the “place” we are in. Indeed, after Moriah, Abraham moved on and even took a second wife.
The Place — God, the human soul, the true self, call it what you will — isn’t one place at all; it moves as we move. It’s not simply “found and done.” It’s not the idols that Abraham’s ancestors worshipped, nor atop some particular mountain; it’s not a grand Temple in Jerusalem or a synagogue. The Place, we might say, is in the journey, the ongoing soul-searching, questioning and rethinking as life moves on. The Place moves with us. The Place is us, each and every one of us.
Let’s go back to that root word, avar. Add to it a yod (ayin-beit-reish-yod) and you get ivri, the word for “Hebrew.” Jews are Hebrews, people who move from place to place, who don’t “settle,” but rather forever search for the Place.
In both American and Israeli society today, it seems to me that too many have stopped seeking. They are so afraid of change, of what’s new, that they would do anything to find immediate equilibrium, whether it would be good for them or not. They are afraid to keep looking.
As Jews, descendants of Abraham the ivri, we know that the world around us can be challenging. We also know, with Abraham, that we have a role to play in creating the future for ourselves and, yes, for our nation.
As Rabbi Tarfon said (Pirke Avot 2:21), “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We must always be movers and shakers.
Rabbi George Stern is retired from both congregational work and executive director positions at several Philadelphia faith-based nonprofits and attends Germantown Jewish Centre and Congregation Rodeph Shalom. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.