“The Caravan of Abraham” by James Tissot, ca. 1900.
“The Caravan of Abraham” by James Tissot, ca. 1900.

Like Abraham, you can go on an epic journey

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.

Lech Lecha

Genesis 12:1–17:27

At the start of the Torah portion Lech Lecha, God calls out to a Mesopotamian man named Abram completely out of the blue with a compelling yet unusual charge: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

Why does God choose Abram rather than someone else? Why must he leave his homeland and family? Toward what mysterious terra incognita is he going to be guided?

While we never learn from the text why Abram is selected from all others, nor which land (yet) he will be led to, God does make it clear to the future patriarch of the Jewish people that the result of his action, the reward for his fealty to the divine call, will be great. From Genesis 12:2-3:

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse the one who curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.

This scene — in essence, the origin story of the Jews and, ultimately, of Judaism — occurs after the “prehistoric” section of the Torah, the primeval narratives about Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel.

Does Lech Lecha represent not just the birth of the Jewish people but also the birth of history itself?

The Torah portion gets its name from the first two words that God utters to Abram, the odd grammatical construct, lech lecha. It literally translates from the Hebrew as “Go to yourself” or “Betake yourself.” But how have commentators interpreted it over the centuries?

Rashi (1040-1105) conceived of the phrase in personal, familial terms, as “Go for yourself, for your own benefit, for your own good. There [in Canaan] I will make of you a great nation, whereas here [in Mesopotamia] you will not merit the privilege of having children.”

The Lord said to Abram, “Go for yourself, from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you …”

One Hasidic midrash understands the phrase to mean, “Go into yourself, to learn who you are meant to be.” This imagines Abram as an as-yet-to-be-actualized human being, an unrealized man who will ultimately gain insight and wisdom and become the world’s first monotheist.

Perhaps my favorite interpretation comes from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888). He imagines lech lecha to mean “Go by yourself,” since “a journey [like this] must be made alone. One must become a stranger in the world to view it clearly, a wanderer to find its resting point. Abraham is God’s possession, not the world’s. The aloneness of Abraham foreshadows that of all religious seekers and, above all, that of the people of Israel in their historic solitude.”

For Hirsch, the call of Abraham has a universal, as well as a particular, dimension to it.

On one hand, it expresses the idea of the “lonely person of faith,” how spiritual seekers in general must often venture alone as they seek God, and how their unique perspectives and insights are only possible when they stand at the margins of society.

On the other hand, Abraham’s call is uniquely Jewish, in that the Jewish people have, throughout our history, lived apart from other peoples and communities. Often that separation and solitude was forced, such as when we lived in ghettos and shtetls. Jews have also seen ourselves as different from other cultural and religious groups — and sometimes as chosen.

As is probably clear by now, Lech Lecha does not represent a single journey by a single man. Abram is certainly the one who heard the Divine call, but his steps have had lasting and multi-faceted impact. His was a spiritual as much as a geographical journey.

It is our mission, and our challenge, to listen for that same call in our own generation — the call to grow, the call to look within, the call to assess and respond to the world around us.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."