The Eternal said to Abram, “Go from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The Jewish people’s journey begins with the opening of this week’s Torah portion. So much of Jewish history and imagery is tied up with homecoming and return from exile that we can easily overlook this beginning: Abram’s first move — and, by extension, our people’s — is to go into exile, leaving behind so much that was precious to him.
Leaving familiar places and the embrace of family out of necessity or in hopes of a new life was the story of so many of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, as well as of earlier generations. Surely many were sustained on their journeys by the faith, like Abraham’s, that they were not alone.
The Hebrew name of this portion, Lech-Lecha, suggests many possible journeys — physical, metaphoric and spiritual. The rabbis understood perfectly well that “Lech lecha,” in biblical Hebrew, means “Get (yourself) going!” But an ancient pun understands “Lech lecha!” as “Go yourself.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century author of an important modern Orthodox Torah commentary, wondered if “lecha” means “by yourself.” The journey of spiritual exploration, mused Hirsch, is ultimately and essentially an individual one. To find one’s place in the world — where one truly “belongs” — a person must abandon the familiar and wander openly and freely. (This strikes me as “so not Jewish!” I need to expand my idea of what “Jewish” can be.)
Hirsch ultimately links Abraham’s “aloneness in the world” to the Jewish people’s historical separateness; Jews, collectively, he suggests, can never be fully part of the world. While Judaism has never endorsed withdrawal from the world as a spiritual practice, Hirsch wants to read the historical experience of Jewish separation and our non-acceptance by others as a necessary dimension of the Jewish religious quest. While this interpretation will no doubt resonate for some, I cannot take comfort in explaining historical prejudice as being spiritually uplifting.
Rashi, the most famous of the Jewish medieval commentators, reads “lecha” as “for you.” Get going, God tells Abraham according to Rashi, for your own sake. You cannot thrive here, to become who you are to be, you must leave. Later commentators understand this instruction as a response to both threat and opportunity. The instruction could mean get out of town because it’s not safe for you here — Abraham was an activist and, according to Jewish legend, neither his father nor the king welcomed his outspokenness. Alternatively, God’s challenge to Abraham was pointing out that to realize all he might yet become would require, in Martin Buber’s words, “ultimate stake.” Abraham’s journey began with an immense leap of faith, heading out to parts west, destination unknown. And does Abraham’s journey culminate when he settles in the Promised Land, or when he reaches what he later comes to know as Mount Moriah but which is first described as “a mountain I will show you” (Gen. 22:2)?
The Hassidic commentators often map the Torah’s external narrative on the inner life of the individual. They suggest that “lecha” means “to you” — it’s not a physical or geographical journey at all, but an inner experience. The transformative encounter with the sacred is not dependent either on leaving the city or arriving at the mountain. Rather, the internal spiritual work is the most important part. This interpretation is consistent with the kabbalistic symbolism of aretz, “land” representing the soul. Thus, the verse could be understood as God saying: “Go deep within. By knowing your own authentic self, you will come to know Me.”
Another possible reading of these opening words is that they remind us of the deep, collective Jewish empathy for the immigrant and wanderer. An Ivri, a Hebrew, might mean “one who crosses over” and, as a people, we have vivid memories of closed borders, unsympathetic officials and the challenges of obtaining documentation. Abraham’s departure from home was necessary because he could not survive there any longer; a story repeated across the millennia and enacted today. For Jews, history generates responsibility. “Lech lecha! Get going!” God says, “Since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers … ”
Rabbi Yoel Kahn is the senior rabbi at Reform Congregation Beth El of Berkeley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.