Lech Lecha: On hearing the still voice of our God

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Isaiah 40:27-41:16

In this week's momentous Torah reading, the Jewish people are born. We hear God's majestic call to Abram, "Lech lecha — "Go forth from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father's house, to the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation…"(Genesis 12:1-2). Abram is called to his destiny, to be the father of a great people, and we see him answer the call.

As always, the rabbis read the Torah text with exquisite care, assuming that every twist and turn of the language is a clue of the Author's intent to bring us wisdom. At the start of our parashah, a peculiar feature of language has always fascinated Jewish interpreters.

God's call to Abram, "lech lecha," would in normal — non-divine — Hebrew be superfluous. Often translated simply as "Go forth," the phrase actually means something like "Go, for you." Rashi comments that, in choosing this language, God is already offering Abram a blessing, as if God has said, "Go, for your good and for your benefit." Throughout the ages, Jews who have studied this verse have read this comment along with the text.

I am aware of two Chassidic commentaries that place this sense of the text alongside another well-known rabbinic tradition: that the command to Abram to leave his home to launch the history of the Jewish people is but one of 10 tests or trials that Abram undergoes during the course of his life. If, in fact, God promised that leaving Terach's house to go to Canaan would ultimately be for Abram's "good and benefit," then how could this order be such a difficult trial?

One answer offered is that Abram's difficulty lay in sorting out the voices of God and the voices of self in his own being. Since Abraham dedicated his life to the service of God, all of his actions directed toward responding to the call of his Creator, how would Abram know how to respond to a command that God promised would include self-benefit?

The test, according to Rabbi Elimelech of Grodzisk, was not whether or not Abram would obey the call, but how Abram would continue to tease out the difference between selfish motives and sacred motives as he made his way through his divinely ordained journey (Itturei Torah, Vol. I, P. 84).

How do we tell the difference between God's voice in our lives and the call of ego, of greed, of desire, of fear, of personal need? The biblical stories suggest to us a reality of a God who communicates, as it were, from the outside — in unmistakable form.

For us, who no longer have access to the undebatable sound of God's voice, the task is so much more difficult. Living in a psychological society that trains us so carefully to attend to the voices of our own needs, how do we know which of the inner voices we hear are simply the distorted voices of our feelings, wishes, fears and needs, masquerading as sacred commands, and which calls of intuition really are commands from the Divine? This is no small trial.

In some circles, even among Jews, I hear people trying to direct their spiritual lives with the prayer, "Thy will, not mine, be done." The prayer asks for guidance to discern God's desire, God's command, God's way, from among the cacophony of voices that call to us in the course of our lives. The desire of the religiously motivated person is to try to discern which voice is the voice of the Divine.

Of course, the formulation, "Thy will be done" has its origin in the New Testament. We have a similar formulation which, oddly enough, is little known, though it appears in our very own Pirkei Avot.

"Rabban Gamliel had a favorite teaching: "Do God's will as though it were yours, so that God will do your will as though it were God's" (Avot 2:4).

In the Jewish version of the prayer, the Jew asks for a kind of partnership, a kind of union between our will and God's. What makes for the trial, the test, the confusion in life, is when we feel we must choose — or are simply confused — by the conflict of voices calling to us, not knowing which to follow, which to honor, which to worship.

In this teaching, the goal of spiritual life is to purify our own will — and this, of course, is a lifelong task — so that it speaks in accordance with God's will. If I accomplished this, then I could trust the voices from within, knowing that they were simply the way the Divine could whisper its call to me.

May we hear the call of "Lech lecha," hearing God's desire that we bring our lives and our will into partnership with the Divine. May we know when to trust the sacred voice within, and may our journey bring us peace. Amen.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.