The opening verse of Parashat Lech Lecha tells us, “God said to Avram, go for yourself (lech lecha), from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Writing in the eleventh century, biblical commentator par excellence Rashi explains that the words lech lecha (go for yourself) imply a journey that will be for Avram’s pleasure and for his benefit.
For many years, I have read, listened to, and even written d’rashot on the subject of lech lecha, focusing on the opportunities that are present in an individual’s personal and spiritual journey. Many Jews, many followers of a faith practice are likely to share in the belief and the hope that searching spiritually and religiously will ultimately be a pleasurable and beneficial exercise, a way in which to contextualize the events of our lives.
In light of last week’s statistics about the Jewish community released by the Pew Research Center, I wonder if it is time for a different reading and rendering of the expression lech lecha. The ancient rabbis were textual masters and loved to play with words creatively, suggesting alternative meanings. Rather than read a text in just one way, their suggestions encouraged other readings of biblical passages. One example of this practice is found at the conclusion of Tractate Berachot of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Elazar in the name of Rabbi Chanina teaches that the biblical verse, “And all your sons (banayich) will be disciples of God,” should be read differently. Sons (banayich) should be read as builders (bonayich), the slight difference suggesting the importance of building the world according to the wisdom of our timeless tradition (BT Berachot 64a).
In referencing a passage such as this one, we might also acknowledge that the state of the contemporary Jewish community requires a different perspective as well. I fear that we have become too deeply focused, too entrenched in the journey of the individual, journeys that are for pleasure and for our own benefit. In a world where we are presented with innumerable choices, where we are all too painfully aware of our free will, each of us attempts to discover “meaning” in everything we do. But too often, this search becomes a quest for “me-ning.” How does this practice make “me” feel? How does this concept relate to “me?”
Given the recent trends in Jewish demographics, we are in need of a different imperative, a different injunction. What if the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion simply said, “And God said to Avram, Go! Go!” The words lech lech (Go! Go! or even Get Going!) have a different meaning indeed than the expression lech lecha (go for yourself). In our Jewish world today, it may be necessary to take ourselves out of the equation – to get going on the journey as a community, rather than merely as individuals engaged in a personal spiritual quest. Avram was commanded to leave his homeland, birthplace, and his father’s house. He needed to leave his comfort zone, everything familiar to him, to face the unknown, without any proof or empirical evidence that good outcomes would ever transpire. Contemporary commentator Aviva Zornberg argues that Avram’s journey is significant because the journey originates from a Divine command. “For the first time,” Zornberg writes, “a journey is undertaken, not as an act of exile (Adam, Cain) or a quest for domination (the generation of Babel) but as a response to a divine imperative.” Following in Avram’s footsteps, living a life of mitzvot is not necessarily about finding pleasure and benefit, but about the obligations and responsibilities we seek to undertake. We see that Avram was willing to face the unknown, to go on a journey with God. For the future of our community, are we ready and willing to leave our comfort zones and get going?