Nov. 6, 2020
By ILANA KRYGIER LAPIDES
Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you.
– Dr. Seuss
In passages following the story of Noah and the collapse of the Tower of Babel, we meet Abram, but G-d is AWOL. The Torah mentions Abram’s ancestors and his family, but on the topic of a budding relationship between him and G-d – one that resulted in monotheism and the creation of three of the world’s religions – the Torah is not forthcoming on Abram becoming the world’s first Jew. The first indication that G-d has made contact with him is in the first line of Lech Lecha:
“Adoshem said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you’” (Gen 12:1).
This is a little disorienting: It feels like we stumbled into the middle of an intense and affectionate conversation with no context or understanding. The reappearance of G-d raises many more questions than it answers; How did G-d reach out to Abram? How did their relationship develop? Why did G-d choose Abram in the first place?
Our sages fill in the answers with Midrashim, but much goes unanswered, and the mystery is never really solved.
Another unexpected occurrence is after G-d tells Abram to Lech Lecha, usually translated as “Go Forth.” It speaks of making Abram a great nation, how he will be blessed, his name shall be great…and then the conversation abruptly stops. Abram doesn’t thank G-d or ask any questions or even acknowledge G-d’s extraordinary message. All we learn is that at 75 years old, Abram went forth. His silence is puzzling. Perhaps he is overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to say, or maybe he feels there is nothing to say. Or maybe Abram realizes that Lech Lecha here is not just information but a spiritual destiny, and that there are no words to express that new awareness. As the expression goes: “A meaningful silence is always better than meaningless words.”
Abram’s subsequent journey away from his father’s home is one with which many of us can identify. Most of us remember having to make a physical and emotional break from our parents’ homes to become self-actualized.
Hillel houses on university campuses highlight Lech Lecha as a touch-point for new students arriving every year. These young adults leaving their parents’ homes for the first time feel a connection with Abram when G-d tells him to Lech.
But it’s not only students who can identify with Lech Lecha. The phrase has another deeper connotation: It doesn’t just mean “Go Forth,” but also “Get To Yourself” or “Go Inward”. When a student breaks away and leaves home, another journey is occurring, that of the parent. Yes, Abram and Sarai embody young adults leaving their parents’ homes, but they also represent their middle-aged and menopausal parents examining and restructuring their lives from within.
Rabbi Stephen Pearce says, “Abraham’s going forth to Canaan, his going away from his homeland, coincides with his going into himself, instructing the reader to understand that a journey should lead inward and outward, to the known and the unknown, heavenward and earthbound.”
Like Abram and Sarai, young people have to decide where to go, how to conduct themselves with strangers, how to manage their households, and a thousand other decisions, making mistakes along the way. It all comprises how they want to live.
But Abraham and Sarah are also commencing a different journey – a journey inward. They have to decide who they are, what do they believe, and how much faith they have in this next stage of life. When G-d adds an extra hei to their names to reflect their covenant, they need to reassess: Do their internal identities match their new external ones?
Lech Lecha is a journey that we all take and we take it more than once in our lives. For good and for bad, in sickness and in health, in the versions of ourselves that are young and a little older, the command to go forth must include the time and the silence to learn who we are.
Ilana Krygier Lapides is a Jewish educator and storyteller in Calgary. She is currently attending the online Rabbinic School, the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute (JSLI) in New York, and will be ordained in December 2020.