When were called on lifes journey, we must let go of the familiar

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Isaiah 40:27-41:16

At some time in our lives, we embark on a spiritual journey. We leave the familiar to find ourselves, to discover our true purpose. Whether we go motorcycle riding across the country, backpacking around the world, studying in a yeshiva in Israel, sitting in an ashram in India or simply going off to college, when we leave home to go on a journey, we’re hearing the echo of the same call heard by Abraham in this week’s parshah. God speaks to Avram (whose name will soon be changed to Abraham, along with his wife Sarai, who will become Sarah) and says “lech lecha” — go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you, I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-2).

Read literally, “lech lecha” means “go to you” and is understood to mean “go to yourself” or “go learn who you are meant to be,” “go find the person that God dreams of you becoming” or “go become that person who will be a blessing to the world.” There is a teaching in the mystical tradition that “lech lecha” was spoken to all people at all times; Avram was just the first one open enough to hear it.

Avram and his family follow God’s instruction, leave Haran and travel to the land of Canaan. It’s unclear from the Torah whether Avram knew where he was going or whether his destination was unknown to him when he embarked on his journey. The medieval Torah commentator Ramban explores both possibilities. We could read it that Avram knew he was going to the land of Canaan; after all, at the end of last week’s portion, the Torah says that Avram was already headed there. But Ramban also suggests that Avram wandered about from place to place like a lost lamb until God finally showed him the land of Canaan.

Other commentators agree that this prototypical spiritual journey involves both the destabilizing experience of leaving the familiar and the risk-taking of stepping into the unknown and of being unsure of the destination. Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, the Ishbitzer rebbe, interprets the Torah’s language of “go forth from your birthplace” as “go forth mehahergel shelcha” — leave your habits, leave all that you’re accustomed to. Rashi understands “to the land that I will show you” to mean that God kept Avram in suspense about where he was headed.

It seems the spiritual journey requires us to break out of our familiar ways and open ourselves to possibilities that are still unknown to us. The Midrash tells the famous story about how a young Avram smashed the idols in his father’s idol shop back in Mesopotamia. The story is important, not only because it gives some clue as to why, of all people, Avram was chosen to be the father of the Jewish people, but also because of what it symbolizes.

Smashing idols is breaking the fixedness of being stuck in what we already know — it’s breaking out of what’s limited and what limits us and opening ourselves to the unknown, to the world of possibility, change and something else that is better than what we currently have.

Avram’s smashing the idols showed that he was a person who would have the courage to leave the familiar and embark on a journey into the unknown. He sets the example for us in our own spiritual journeys, that coming closer to God and being a blessing might require us to leave the familiar and set out on an unknown path leading to an unknown destination.

When we hear the call of lech lecha, may we too have the courage to break the idols of the familiar. And when we realize on our journey that we don’t know exactly where we’re headed, may we know that our path is like that of Avram. And like Avram, may our journeys lead us to being a blessing.

Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.