Yitzchak Ginsburgh
Head of Gal Einai Institutes, authority on Kabbalah and Chassidut

Lech Lecha: Wanderlust and Living a Life of Purpose

What is the source of the wanderlust that grips so many people today? Why do so many souls have such a strong urge to lose themselves in the world and to wander from place to place? Perhaps they feel that modern life is too goal-oriented. Life doesn’t seem to have a place to stop, to wait, to contemplate or simply to marvel. It is linear – moving in a straight line toward a predefined goal – measured by the yardstick of competitiveness and achievements. The wanderer seeks to exchange this linear lifestyle for a type of cyclical movement: a life with no apparent goal, which soothes the soul and contemplates reality. A life of wandering fosters a cyclical and inclusive perspective on the world, in which people are not judged according to their material success. Instead, everything is understood as an optional perspective.

But cyclical movement can be both positive and negative. The positive side is reflected by the Kabbalistic expression, “run and return”. This expression is used to describe the angels, but it was broadened to describe the basic pulse of the soul: its aspiration to ascend to its Creator and then to return to reality. The wanderer who eschews the tension of modern life, exchanging it for cyclical wandering, may simply be connecting to this deep pulse of his soul.

On the other hand, cyclical wandering also has a negative side, which is expressed by the Hebrew expression, “na v’nad”/”moving and wandering”. The curse of Cain describes his life as disassociated rambling, in which he does not manage to connect to anything. This is not a case of sensitivity and openness to the world. On the contrary, it is a case of extreme contraction to a state in which I am the only focal point of myself. The world passes by me as a series of beautiful views. But I do not belong to any of them, and I certainly do not give of myself to them.

Often, wanderlust begins with a desire to connect to the “run and return” of the soul, but ends with the dissociative “moving and wandering” of Cain. It can even deteriorate into the linear achievement-oriented paradigm: Conquering more and more mountaintops and treks, simply in order to say that I have been there and done that.

From Wandering to Purpose

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we learn about Abraham. Abraham’s movement is the opposite of the wanderer: In the idolatrous world in which he lived, the cyclical loop of nature encompassed everything – and society sought to create more and more loops, the future of which were identical to their past: ‘What was is what will be’. Abraham broke that circle and exchanged the cyclical movement with a purposeful movement of hope and rectification. In the golden words of Maimonides, “And in this manner, the world continued to turn until the pillar of the world was born, and he was Abraham”.

Two expressions that appear in our Torah portion regarding Abraham are a response to the expressions of cyclical movement. As opposed to “nah v’nad/moving and wandering”, God commands Abraham, “Lech lecha/go out for you”. In Hebrew, both of these expressions are comprised of two words of two letters, but they couldn’t be more different in their content. “Lech lecha/go out for you” turns the purposeless wandering that distances us from ourselves into a journey with a destination and destiny that connects us with our true selves. Abraham understood that disassociated wandering is a curse and that those journeys must be channeled into a blessed mission – which blesses others, as well.

Interestingly, Abraham did not only rectify the “moving and wandering” of Cain. He also upgraded the angelic “run and return”. This is the second expression in our Torah portion regarding Abraham: “Haloch v’nasoa/Going and travelling”. Although “run and return” is a lofty spiritual movement, it is also focused on itself. It is the personal journey of every soul in the face of its Creator. The movement of “going and travelling”, however, is directed southward (The verse says that Abraham was “going and travelling southward”) – identified in Kabbalah as the trait of loving kindness. Abraham’s movement is not a strictly personal ascent, but rather, a journey of loving kindness toward others.

The Torah portion of Lech Lecha, “go out for you”, calls upon us to channel all our energies of wandering into purposeful mission. In our times, the Lubavitcher Rebbe motivated his followers to become ambassadors, emissaries who seek to help others. But the Rebbe’s call was directed at all Jews: Every Jewish soul is an ambassador whose mission is to illuminate the world with Divine light.

A life of mission is replete with all the adventure of wandering, but in a way that takes us out of ourselves and directs us toward helping others. It does not have to be in any particular format or in any particular place. Every place needs ambassadors of loving kindness, and the possibilities for rectification of the world are multi-faceted and endless. But no matter where he goes and what he does, the ambassador takes the power of wandering and – instead of allowing it to purposelessly scatter – channels it into rectification of the Jewish Nation and the world.

The Soul of a Wanderer in the Body of an Ambassador  

Unbalanced ambassador consciousness, however, can also be dangerous. By exchanging the cyclical wandering for goal-oriented movement, it can fall into the same linear rigidity from which the wanderer sought to escape. While the ambassador does not judge others according to their social or economic status, he may be stricken with a different version of the same problem. He may adopt a one-dimensional approach to the people that he encounters, which measures others according to how ‘close’ or ‘far’ they may be to his mission. He may become so conscripted to his mission that he becomes closed to other perspectives. Simply put, the transformation from wanderer to ambassador is liable to lose all that is beautiful about wandering.

This is the place to come full circle. After the wanderlust has been channeled into a life of purpose and mission, the ambassador must pour the free spirit of the wanderer back into his psyche. He must certainly be tied to his mission and ask himself at every moment what more he can do to fulfill his goals in the very best way. But deep inside, his heart must beat to the pulse of the open, curious wanderer, who does not know exactly where his journey will lead him, what souls he will meet on his way and what he will learn from them (and not just what he will teach them). After all, if the purpose of being an ambassador is to reveal God’s light in the world, how can we not leave God space to surprise us and to appear in all sorts of ways?

In Chassidut it is explained that Abraham began the work of clarifying the holy sparks in the world. Great, righteous people are able to see where the sparks in need of clarification are waiting and they go there on their own initiative. Similarly, the ambassador knows that he has a role to perform and he puts all his energies into carrying it out. But for all the others who don’t know where the sparks are waiting for them – or even that there are sparks waiting for them – it is written that God creates conditions that bring one to a particular place, where he can fulfill his particular mission. On a deep level, every person is an ambassador – even if he doesn’t know it. What seems to him like purposeless rambling is actually directed from Above to bring him to his different missions.

One of the reasons why it is important to infuse our mission with the spirit of wandering is to ensure that we will be patient toward those who are not living with a consciousness of mission. Whenever we meet wandering souls, we can help and strengthen them – but not judge them or force them into our own idea of what they should be doing. We give them space to go through the processes at their own rate and on their own path – which are not necessarily the quickest or most efficient of roads. “How do I know,” we must remind ourselves, “what immense missions these souls, who are not even aware of their purpose, are performing in their journeys?”

About the Author
Rabbi Ginsburgh was born in S. Louis, Missouri in 1944. He initially pursued an academic career in mathematics and philosophy, later studying Torah under the guidance of several great sages–most notably, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Ginsburgh made Aliyah to Israel in 1965. His familiarity with mathematics, science, philosophy, psychology and music has enabled him to lecture throughout Israel, relating the ancient wisdom of Torah to many currents trends in academic thought and art.
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