People often ask me if I had some kind of calling from God toward becoming a rabbi. Actually, I sort of did, but not in the way most people might imagine it. I had spent a lot of time in teenage angst about God, because I was educated in a very traditional environment in which we were told, “Do these mitzvot because they are what God wants you to do, and don’t ask questions.” For many, “don’t ask questions” doesn’t quite work. So, instead of trying to find another approach to Judaism, as a teenager, I just got angry with God for being inflexible, and then began to deny God’s existence all together.
It wasn’t until I was in college, during a transitional time in life, riding through a huge thunder and lightening storm on an airplane that I began to reconsider. I really was on a quest for meaning, a journey toward a new approach to God and humanity and Judaism. I wasn’t scared during the storm; it was just that at that moment, I felt God’s presence – one that continues and I hope will continue for a long, long time. God may not have spoken to me directly, saying “Sharon Litwin, go be a rabbi,” but I think that time in the air was kind of my own Lech L’cha.
Parashat Lech L’cha defines the ultimate journey of humanity. Within each of us there is a search for meaning. Lech L’cha defines this search as one that is deeply spiritual. In these few words, the Torah teaches us a great deal about our relationship with God and how God speaks to us.
The words “Adonai said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land . . .'” are remarkable in how little Abram reacted to them. Most of us, upon hearing a voice asking us to leave all that is dear to us to go to a foreign land, would wonder if we were indeed sane. At the very least we would experience some fright, some resistance, and some form of acknowledgment that the request presents a great challenge – a life-altering change. That’s how I first felt when I started to think about Judaism anew again. It was time to stop being angry and consider how much more Judaism had to offer: community, connection, ruach, learning, and a life path.
But Abram was chosen because he was different from us, or perhaps more precisely because he was like all of us, only more so. He was gifted with the ability to hear God’s voice in a way that most of us think is impossible, but I believe that all of us are able to do. When he heard God’s voice, he did not shake or tremble. It was a voice that was familiar to him. As has been interpreted, it was a voice that he somehow knew was true and pure and good.
The rabbis sought to explain this by telling the famous midrash of Abraham as a young boy of 3. In the midrash, Abraham went out and observed the world, wondering in his heart who created it and all its creatures. During the day he prayed to the sun. But when the sun set, he decided that the moon was much more powerful. When the moon sank in the west and the sun rose once again in the east, he realized that neither of them could be the creator. Abraham realized that there was a higher God to which he would pray.
The rabbis told this story as a way of explaining why Abraham was different. He was in essence a spiritual genius. He had an ability that we all have – namely, to hear God’s voice – but in Abraham it was more finely developed.
In heeding God’s words, Abram set off on a journey. But it was more than just a geographic journey in which he traveled from one place to another; it was a spiritual journey in which he would find his life and his beliefs challenged and changed forever. This journey required that Abraham break from his father Terah’s teachings. The other famous midrash tells a story of Abraham as a little boy left in charge of Terah’s idol-making shop. While his father was away, Abraham destroyed the idols with a hammer. When Terah returned, Abraham told him that the idols fought among themselves. When his father challenged him, saying, “That’s ridiculous, idols cannot move!” Abraham replied, “Then why do you worship them?” This midrash, the one which so many of us are shocked to find isn’t really a story in the Torah, explains the turmoil that Abraham’s journey caused within his own family. And it also displays Abraham’s deep-seated conviction of belief in one God – a God that has no form that can be seen.
Toward the end of Lech L’cha in Genesis 17:5 the Torah recounts, “And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham. . . .” Likewise, in Genesis 17:15, his wife Sarai, who accompanied him on his journey, also had her name changed from Sarai to Sarah. Like Jacob’s name change to Israel, which takes place later in Genesis, Abram’s and Sarai’s name changes indicate spiritual transformation. They serve as a reminder that when we truly encounter God, our lives, our very beings and our very sense of self, are changed in ways we could not have previously imagined. We all take on new names for ourselves as we continue on our journey. Some people lose their childhood nickname, or take on a new married name; some of us have a new prefix or suffix to our name, like doctor or esquire; some of us are mom and dad, grandma and grandpa; and others of us have taken on new names by the name we have made for ourselves in the work that we do in our families and outside of our home.
Abraham may be the paradigmatic journeyman in Judaism. And as the first Jew perhaps he sets us on a path toward our own spiritual development. These are some of his lessons:
In a world that is so filled with the noise of the every day, find time to truly listen.
A spiritual journey is just that – a journey. We are not meant to encounter God and remain passive. We must not fear change or avoid the challenge of change. Abraham got up and went on the journey. It wasn’t always easy, but at least he set out.
Life is meant to be lived. We are not to hide from life or allow life to pass us by untouched and unappreciated. The tradition reminds us that when we are called before the heavenly court, we will be held accountable for all of life’s joys in which we did not partake. Like Abraham rejoicing in the welcoming of guests, as he learns he will become a father, we too must rejoice when given the opportunity.
Deep within each of us is the potential to hear God’s voice, to hear God’s challenge. I have learned that prayer is our way of reaching out to God; study is God’s way of reaching out to us. Through prayer and through study, through the performance of mitzvot, we embark on dialogues with God that will lead us through our own spiritual journeys. The challenge is finding the time, the courage, and the commitment to begin.
Margaret Thatcher taught us all an important lesson when she said, “Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s when you’ve had everything to do, and you’ve done it.”
I had to be angry and struggle and eventually think that my own life was in jeopardy on that airplane before I was willing to listen long enough to hear God’s call. We’re all on a kind of Lech L’cha journey. Many of us have a moment when we first heard a call. Our names have changed over and over. We have traveled far and continue to seek God on our journeys.