We tend to think of the matriarchs and patriarchs as very different kinds of people from us, living in different times and conditions. But every year, in Parashat Lech-Lecha, the first Torah portion that focuses on the matriarchs and patriarchs, I am reminded of how resonant the themes of Genesis are to our current times and how we can all see ourselves in these rich biblical characters.
When we meet our patriarch Abraham, his name is Abram and he is already 75 years old. His wife is Sarai and he is, I imagine, envisioning living the rest of his life in perfect peace in Haran. And then in one significant moment, his life is turned upside down. Seemingly without warning, God instructs Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
A while back, a version of this story was told on television, and God’s voice was presented in a most interesting way. The story makes many of us imagine that God speaks to Abram with a booming voice out of the sky, but that is not what was portrayed on the small screen. Instead, God’s voice is portrayed as Abram’s own voice. As Rabbi Levi Meier, of blessed memory, wrote in “Ancient Secrets,” “what Abram most certainly heard was an inner voice, something inside of him. And the inner voice is a silent voice.”
This moment, Rabbi Meier explains, is the kind of call where “you hear an inner voice that you feel is a higher voice, a divine voice that tells you to redirect your life in a certain way.” And, of course, most of us simply resist both the voice and the call. It’s too scary, too inconvenient, and too uncertain. Even Moses and Jonah resist the call at first, but not Abram.
And notice that God does not even so much as inform Abram where God is leading him or how long the journey will take. God continues to promise him, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”
How did Abram summon the courage and the strength to pack up everything he owned and set forth with his wife, Sarai, and nephew, Lot, along with all of the people he had acquired, and journey into the unknown? Sure, the Torah tells us that God gives Abram some pretty significant assurances, but the details are actually quite fuzzy. He doesn’t know what the tangible rewards will be, and God doesn’t promise everything will turn out just fine.
There is one clear message, though: “You shall be a blessing.” It’s the very fact that Abram doesn’t know how the story is going to end that makes him so special. If he only looked at what was good for him and his family, he wouldn’t have been responding to God’s call in the fullest sense, and he wouldn’t be on his way to becoming a blessing.
“If you follow the call of initiation,” Rabbi Meier teaches, “whatever you do will be a blessing for yourself, for the people around you, for your family, for your country, and for all of humanity. You shall be a blessing.”
Abram had enough faith to trust in God’s guidance and God’s words. When God tells Abraham to “lech-lecha,” to go to a land that God will show him, God is asking Abraham, above all, to have faith, to try something new. Yes, God promises Abraham much in return, but ultimately Abraham must decide whether he is willing to take a risk.
All change involves some loss, a relinquishing of control and a feeling of insecurity. In this story, Abram teaches us that this is what it means to be a blessing and models for us some timeless lessons.
First, the first step to becoming the most blessed part of ourselves is when we hear the call and pursue it. Second, becoming a blessing requires making ourselves vulnerable. And third, though the process may well be difficult, even scary, the rewards may be so many that they are beyond measure, like the stars in the sky. May we hear the call that summons us to journey into unknown lands so as to be a blessing.
Rabbi Daniel Feder is the spiritual leader at Reform Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.