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Friday, November 4, 2011

Parshat Lekh L'kha: It's the Journey That Counts

This week's parashah/portion is Lekh L'kha (Genesis/Bereshit 12:1-17:27). It begins with the call from God to Abram (later Abraham), “Go forth from your land, and from your birth place and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.” It seems that every year when I comment on this parashah, I never get beyond this particular verse. Yet each year I find new meaning in it. Such is the way of Torah.

I have focused in the past on the phrase “lekh l'kha – go forth.” Because of it's unusual construction the phrase can mean, and is interpreted by many as, “go (in)to yourself.” The central idea of these commentatories is that Abram is commanded by God to take a journey inward to find his “authentic self, to learn who he was meant to be” (Mei ha'Shiloah).

Others comment on the fact that God commands Abram not simply to leave his home, but to leave his land, his birth place and his father's home. Each place that he is commanded to leave is both more intimate and more difficult to leave behind.

In this commentary I would like to focus on a comment by Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, from her book Genesis: The Beginning of Desire. Zornberg writes, “for the first time [in the Torah], a journey is undertaken not as an act of exile (Adam, Cain) or a quest for domination (the generation of [the Tower of] Babel) but as a response to divine imperative.” For the first time God is not casting someone out or using exile as punishment. Instead, God is commanding an individual (and his wife) to leave for a higher purpose. What is that purpose? To go to an unknown land that God will show him.

Abram is commanded by God to leave all that is familiar to him and travel to a place that is totally unknown. But this journey must be taken step by step. He must first leave his general surroundings, then the places more familiar to him, and finally, the place with which he is most intimate. The home in which he was raised. And yet he is actually only leaving one place. But the process of detaching from that place takes place one step at at a time.

So it is for us when we embark on a spiritual journey into the unknown. Following, the commentary of Mei ha'Shiloah, if this is an internal journey towards our “authentic self”, then it doesn't happen all at once. The journey involves detaching from our various attachments, those things that we believe are most central to our lives. It means letting go not of preconceived notions, but the notions and beliefs about who we are, of which we (or actually our ego) have carefully conceived and constructed over time. These seem to be the parts of us in which we are most invested and find most difficult to discard. For the building of these constructs has been so slow and incremental, that we haven't even noticed them being built. In fact, it seems as if these pieces of our identity have always been there. They have become like our parent's house, the place in which we have always dwelled, or the ideas that have always dwelled in us. We believe that we simply can't exist without them.

For Abram, the most difficult place to leave is his father's house. For us it is those pieces of our identity that seems so central to who we are. And yet, just as God commands Abram to leave that place of safety and comfort, so too are we commanded to detach from those pieces with which we are so comfortable, which we belief keep us safe, but which ultimately impede our spiritual growth.

But what does it mean in this case to be commanded by God? Of course, it means something different to each of us. And for many of us, it is language with which we may be uncomfortable. For me, it means that there is a Divine force that is the source of all, and with which we are all connected, that naturally propels us towards that which is best not only for us, but for all. If we listen to the voice deep within, we can hear it's call to take the journey. It is what we are meant to do. It is why we are here.

Yet, when we first hear that voice, it may seem like it is asking us to give up everything. Indeed, it may seem like it is desiring a kind of exile from that with which we are most familiar. Yet, viewing this through the lens of Zornberg's commentary above, it is actually a call not so much to leave, as to take a journey. Others in our life might tell us to leave as punishment (like Cain and Adam). And our ego may want us to take a journey that is all about self-aggrandizement and power (like the Tower of Babel). But God, that power that is the source all, simply wants us to take a journey to a new place. It is the journey that is important, not the destination. For, as I have written so many times before, each step of the the journey is in itself a destination.

Yet, it is written in the Torah that there is an ultimate destination, though it is shrouded in mystery. Abram and Sarai are to travel to the place that God will show them. But a rabbinic midrash (legend/commentary) reads the lines as “the land wherein I [God] will appear to you.” So the journey we are taking is simply to the place where God becomes manifest in our lives. For them and for us, it is the place where we come to experience our connection to and compassion for all of creation. That place is deep within, but when we get there it calls on us to move outwards and act in compassionate ways in that world of which we are a part, and which is a part of us.

In this way, I disagree slightly with the wording of the Mei ha'Shiloah's commentary. We are not exactly journeying to find our “authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” For the idea of self is a construct created by the ego to convince us that our individual “self” is all that matters and that we are not really connected to the universe. The self created by the ego tells us that we can use others and the world around us to fulfill our needs and desires. But taking this journey, we instead reach a place where we actually become authentically “no self”; a place where we can truly feel our connection to the Divine flow of the Universe. And when we reach that place, we are then truly the people we are meant to be and in the place where our hearts are meant to dwell. We are in the place in which the Divine has been revealed to us. We may only be there for a moment before the demands of the world or the machinations of our ego bring us back to focus on self. But our own Abrahamic journey is not a one time thing. It is a journey which we try our best to make all of our years, each day of our lives and in each moment that we live and breathe.

Shabbat Shalom,


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