Lech Lecha: When God calls us to begin a fateful journey

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Isaiah 40:27-41:16

The birthrate for Holocaust survivors of childbearing age in the Displaced Persons Camps was one of the highest ever recorded anywhere. A dear friend of mine, the child of Holocaust survivors, was conceived in a DP Camp. Although his parents had witnessed Nazi atrocities, they so possessed a vision of the future and were so imbued with an unshakable faith in God that they began a family even before they knew where or how they would live.

My grandfather left his village in Hungary when he was 14 years old and came to this country not knowing what to expect. He sold fruit to workers building the New York City subway system and sent money home to bring each of his siblings to New York, where they prospered, raised families and lived successful lives.

Like many other immigrants, he came to America to start a new life, escape poverty and persecution, satisfy political idealism, be reunited with family members, and live in what they had heard was the goldene medina, where the streets were reputed to be paved with gold.

Stories of immigrants starting life anew remind a Bible reader of perhaps the most enduring journey in history, when God commanded Abraham in Genesis 12:1, "Lech lecha (go forth from your native land)."

Biblical commentator E. A. Speiser termed it "the most fateful commencement in history." Abraham's journey was no routine expedition; it began an epic search for spiritual truths.

A modern reader may wonder if Abraham truly understood the importance of his "fateful commencement." Consider the two verses that end the parashah immediately preceding this week's portion, Lech Lecha:

"Terah took his son Abram …and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan, but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there" (Genesis 11:31).

The verses suggest that Abraham may have intended to complete his father's unfinished migration to Canaan. However, in so doing, Abraham embarked on two journeys: one physical, to settle the land of Canaan; and the other, spiritual, to make a great nation and to be the progenitor of the people Israel.

Long after Abraham's journey to Canaan, the rabbis expressed the tension between physical and spiritual journeys, and the real world in which we live vs. the idealized world in which we aspire to live. They named one Yerushalaim shel mata — a lower or earthly space — and the other Yerushalaim shel mahlah — a lofty or a spiritual place. Rabbi Yohanan expressed the strain that this duality imposes: "I will not enter the Upper City of Jerusalem until I can enter the Lower City of Jerusalem" (Taanith 5a).

A story acknowledges the conundrum raised by Rabbi Yohanan: A man dreamed that he died and entered heaven where the greatest sages of the Jewish past sat at a simple table, absorbed in sacred study in a shtetl-like academy. He was taken aback by a heaven that was very much like Earth.

"Is this all there is?" the man asked. "I thought this was supposed to be Paradise."

A voice responded, "You are correct, the sages are not in Paradise, but Paradise is in the sages."

Scholars have noted that the phrase "lech lecha," or "get yourself," is redundant in Hebrew. But the phrase's most literal interpretation, "get to yourself," is too appealing to ignore. Abraham's going forth to Canaan, his going away from his homeland, coincides with his going into himself. Thus, a real journey should lead to two places: inward and outward, the known and the unknown, heavenward and earthbound.

The words "lech lecha" set in motion a "fateful commencement," not only because it launched events that resulted in ethical monotheism and the undying devotion of a people to a land, but also because it provided a foundation for those in personal search of Yerushalaim shel mahlah, the spiritual realm. While people may travel to planned destinations, they often do not understand where their pilgrimage will lead to when they're called upon to go on a journey for God.