Lech Lecha: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Lech Lecha sets into motion the ancient journey which lay the groundwork for Am Yisrael’s enduring connection with Eretz Yisrael. Yet the formulation of the text begs for elucidation.

While this parsha finds Avraham and Sara leading the charge, only a few verses earlier, in Parshat Noach, it is Avraham’s father Terach who sets the journey in motion. Why then does our tradition credit Avraham with leading the quest?

We wonder to ourselves, if each word of the Torah’s text is necessary for the narrative, why is it presented out of order?   In contrast to the order of the text, one would have expected to find Avraham and Sarah first leaving their father’s house, then their community, and ultimately their country of birth. Perhaps rather than “Leave your homeland, your birthplace, and your father’s home,” the text should have read: “Leave your father’s home, your birthplace, and your homeland.”

Then, there are those two troubling words which open the parsha.  Yes, the composition is beautifully poetic with its alliteration, but what exactly does “lech lecha” mean?  Taken literally, “lech lecha” means “go to, for yourself.”  Is that what is occurring?

Perhaps Avraham and Sara’s journey wasn’t simply physical, but rather existential. In setting Avraham and Sara on their way toward the Promised Land, God was asking our first patriarchal family to abandon a life of routine and complacency; to view life as a journey and not simply as a destination.  Much in the same way that beating waves are responsible for carving a shoreline, so too the joys and difficulties we experience along life’s journey are responsible for “carving” who we ultimately become.

As such, the words “lech lecha” was a Divine invitation for Avraham and Sarah to journey not just toward a location but toward a greater awareness of who they are and what values would ultimately define them as individuals, as a couple, and as a new monotheistic community.

Each of us is equally bidden to enjoin a mission of self-discovery through bringing proper norms and mores to our “life’s travels.” To recognize that through our life’s travel we have the capacity to find ourselves, “lech – to go – lecha – to you”. God is instructing us through the personage of the patriarchal family on where to find those values in the concentric circles of “M’Artzecha – from your homeland” – extrapolating the positive values found in contemporary society, “Me’moladetecha – from your birthplace” – to be nurtured by the values found in our Jewish birthplace, “U’Mibeit Avicha – from your father’s home” – to learn from the heritage of our family, which formed us. Much in the same way Avram and Sarai were transformed through their journey into Avraham and Sarah, so too life’s journey has the power to transform us into better and more refined versions of our truest selves.

After Noah left the ark, there was no journey; just a drunken destination. For Cain and the community of Babel, the story is not about the journey, but rather about the exile they would endure, physically and existentially.

For Avraham and Sarah, however, the journey of “lech lecha” is a triumphant march toward uncovering their truest selves.  And as if self-discovery weren’t a sufficient reward, the text goes on to describe the impact that moral development can have as a foundation of blessing for society as a whole: “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 (Bereishit 12:2).”

We become a more perfect nation when our journey as a people is predicated on the norms and mores steeped in our tradition, orchestrated with modern sensitivities.

This year, Parshat Lech Lecha is unlike any I’ve experienced previously, as this will be my first Lech Lecha as an oleh chadash – a new immigrant. But the commandment of Lech Lecha is more than becoming a citizen of Israel. It is about the capacity to be involved in a more perfect union, thereby helping to shape Israeli society. It is about recognizing that there are multiple cultures in this land that need to be incorporated into our own personal journey. Ultimately, the inspiring journey of the Israeli nation allows it to become a greater light unto the Jews and nations across the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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