Parshat Lech L'cha
When it comes down to it, we are all creatures of habit. We have our favorite beverage at Starbucks; we drive that same route to and from school or work each day…we even have our preferred seat in the sanctuary. The familiar comforts us, and at times, change can be quite frightening.
Think back to a time when you were afraid to make a change. For me, one of those moments occurred in the spring of 2012. I was happily serving as the cantor of a congregation in Toledo, Ohio, undertaking all the duties that I dreamed about just 7 years earlier when I began cantorial school. But I felt something was missing in my role as clergy. I yearned to know more.
I wanted to be able to answer a myriad of questions from my congregants: about Torah, theology, literature and history, not just the questions about music. It was then I decided to apply to rabbinical school. I knew it was going to be a difficult journey. I would have to leave a loving community and a career that I had worked so hard to obtain. Was I ready? I would only know if I tried.
Avram must have felt the same way when God said to him, “Lech L’cha, Go forth from your native land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1) So what did Avram do? "He went forth…" He left his home.
But we ask, why was Avram the one that was chosen from all the people? There is no explanation in the Torah why God chose Avram, for it seemed he was not more deserving of God’s attention than anyone else. For me, the answer seems simple: God chose Avram because Avram chose God.
In a Midrash from Sefar Hayashar, Avram, at the age of three, went out and observed the world, with the all the wonder and curiosity of a boy that age. During the day, he saw the bright, shining glow above him and decided to pray to the sun, certain that it was the god of creation. But when the sun had set, he decided that, surely something that leaves us each day couldn’t be God. That evening, when Avram saw the moon and stars above him, he then thought the moon created the world and that the moon created a multitude of stars as servants. Avram then prayed to the moon.
When he awoke the next morning and saw that the moon and stars were gone and the sun had risen again, he realized that none of them could be the Creator… and so, like him… the sun, moon, and stars were also servants of God. Avram realized then that there was a higher God to which he would pray.
The Rabbis told this story as a way of explaining why Avram was different from everyone else. Ultimately, Avram believed in his ability to hear God's voice in a way that most of us think is impossible. Upon hearing God's voice, he wasn’t afraid. It was a voice that seemed familiar to him. It was a voice that he intrinsically knew was sincere and pure. Sometimes, a familiar voice will give us the confidence to do something that we ordinarily would be scared to do.
Following God's words, Avram set off towards his destiny. It was more than a physical journey in which he traveled from one place to another; it was a spiritual journey in which he would find his beliefs tested and his life changed forever.
Let’s imagine as to what might have occurred in Avram’s life the day after God spoke to him. He arose early that morning; feeling suffocated from the desert heat. His feet hurt, he was sunburnt and he was concerned about his wife, Sarai, and nephew, Lot, making the long journey towards this unknown.
Avram exhaled deeply, loaded up the donkey with all of their possessions, and began the long journey. As their dry, cracked feet walked across the hot sand, Avram couldn’t help but question why he was doing this. Maybe he was going mad…yet he couldn’t deny that God had spoken to him.
But why, out of all the people that God could have spoken to, did God choose him? Why didn’t God call on someone more worthy, like a nobleman or a sage? Avram had everything that one would ever need in Haran: a wife, family, and land. Now…he had sand in his hair, burns on his skin, and blisters on his feet. Maybe he was crazy.
As the sun lowered into the horizon, they set up camp. Avram had a chance to gather his thoughts surrounded by the arid desert wind, and the peaceful deserved slumber of Lot and Sarai.
He lay down next to them, and apprehensively pleaded to God, “Why me? I am old. The sacrifices I have made to leave my father’s home, my birthplace to go towards the unknown are destroying me! I don’t think we will make it. I miss Haran, and I am so tired. This journey has forced me to give up everything that I have known and loved! Can you hear me? Will you answer me? Why did you come to me and leave so quickly? I will not take another step until you speak up!”
Avram arose to the same blazing sun that greeted him the day before. His questions were not answered, yet he continued on the journey. After days of struggle, and nightly monologs before God, Avram arrived in the land of Canaan. “The journey, the struggle is over… I can begin my life again in this new land with my wife and nephew!” Yet this was not to be. Va y’hi ra’av ba-ar-etz. There was a famine in the land.
Imagine how Avram felt when he reached the land that God promised to him and his descendants, only to be faced with the fear of starvation. He heeded God’s calling and struggled on every step of the journey. “God, I was supposed to be a “blessing”, yet I have brought famine to my new land! The crops are dying; there is no food for the people to eat! God, am I supposed to leave my new land? What am I to do?”
We would think that Avram would stay in the land of famine, for that is where God told him to go, but he didn’t. Va yer-red Av-ram Mitz-rai-mah la-gur sham…Avram went down to Egypt to sojourn there.
12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides responds to Avram’s desertion of Canaan as such: “Avram’s leaving the land that he was originally commanded to move to, due to the famine was “an inequity which is a sin” for he should have known that God “in famine would deliver him from death.”
But by answering God’s call, by validating his belief in God, Avram accepted the challenge to self-reflect, to see where his priorities were. This was what God’s call was about…the journey to Canaan and then to Egypt…this was the journey of Lech L’cha.
Rabbi David Wolpe states: “Moving through this world is always an expedition into the ‘you’-into one’s own soul…this is the model and the challenge for one who undertakes a truly Jewish journey. Quiet and complacency tempt one along the way. “But”, he continues, “the call to depth is always there. ‘Go forth’ has no ending-not in the world and not in the terrain of the individual soul.”1
Each day of our lives we search for meaning. Sometimes this search is spiritual, like Avram’s journey in Lech L’cha. Through this journey, the Torah teaches us a great deal about our relationship with God, how God chooses to speak to us, and how we need to learn to listen. The declaration of God to Avram, 'Go forth from your native land your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you.” I assume most of us here, upon hearing a voice asking us to leave all that is dear to us to go to a foreign land, would first wonder if we were going mad! At the very least we would be frightened and resistant to making such a drastic, life-altering change, not only in our
lives but also in the lives of the people we loved. Would you leave all that you had behind for the unknown?
All of us live our everyday lives with some uncertainty. All of us have heard the call of “lech l’cha” and had to change. We may have asked: Are we doing the right thing? Are we living up to God’s expectations of us? We too possess the ability to hear God's voice, to see what God created, but is it familiar to us? Are we just too afraid to listen, too afraid to see?
However great our desire is to hear the voice of the divine, God’s desire to speak to us is even greater. God wants us to hear God’s voice; God is not hiding from us or avoiding us. God may not always speak in the ways we thought God would, in a loud, booming voice or in a soft whisper. As we grow in our ability to recognize that voice, we will hear it—even if it is heard in unexpected places and times.
As I come to the end of my rabbinic school journey, I feel that I am ready for the challenges that await me. I have followed the call of “Lech L’cha” and went forth towards the unknown. There were plenty of times of famine, but more times of plenty. Some choices had a result that was unimaginable. Some choices had me calling out to God, asking why?
Despite our situations, we can be confident that in the midst of struggle, in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of a journey, we are alive. We are human. And we are blessed by God.
1 “Why be Jewish” by David Wolpe