There’s a short story I tell often. It’s a personal anecdote and every time I tell it, I feel the need to emphasize to my audience that although it indeed happened to me, I don’t expect them to take it at face value, as I still find it hard to believe myself. In fact, I probably wouldn’t believe it at all, and as the years pass would become more apt to attribute it to faulty memory, fanciful thinking or exaggeration…were it not for the fact that I found it so astonishing that I immediately recorded the incident in a journal, knowing I would come to doubt my own experience.
This past Shabbat the audience was my own children. It’s the week of Parshat Lech Lecha and I felt my seven year old son especially was ready to hear it. I felt they all needed to hear it, given the impact it has had on my life and, by extension, their lives. The story goes something like this: many years ago, after finishing my undergrad degree, I found myself at a crossroad. Nothing too unusual so far. I finally found myself “out there in the world” and had to decide where to build my life. Luckily, I’d narrowed it down to two places: here in America or there in Israel. All the pros and cons charts in the world, advice from teachers and mentors, input from family and friends, though helpful, just couldn’t provide the certainty I needed to make such a huge decision. I was so overwhelmed, I began to think that no one less than G-D could make such a decision.
Then I learned of a Jewish tradition, along the lines of sending igrot to the Rebbe, but dating back much further. It is straight forward enough; pop open a chumash, point to a random posuk and there you’ll find some guidance. For anyone who knows me well, to say that I don’t believe in such things, is quite an understatement. I flipped the pages as nonchalantly as I could and judging by the thickness, could tell that I’d landed somewhere in Sefer Bereisheit. I wasn’t in the ballpark, in the neighborhood of, or on the page opposite from, but right on the posuk:
“וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ”
“God said to Avram, ‘Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”
-Bereisheit (Genesis) 12:1
Coincidence? Seemingly. One in a million chance? Yeah, probably something like that. Worth looking in to? You bet. And the rest is history. Here’s some of what I’ve learned about that one posuk, that one sentence that allowed me to make a decision that changed the course of my life. I say “allowed” because I already knew the answer, the decision…I just couldn’t give myself permission to take such a giant leap of faith.
Let’s look at the posuk closely, break it down, and if you’re able to, please read it carefully in the original Hebrew.
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךּ
There are two major issues with the wording here. Firstly, what do we learn from the repetitive, seemingly redundant language of this posuk? If G-D was telling Avraham simply to leave his land, it could have said “lech”, which means “go.” But the words “Lech lecha”, literally translated, mean “go to yourself.” Secondly, the instructions given to Avraham seem counterintuitive. Obviously, when giving someone directions, you instruct them in a step-by-step order from their present location to their destination. Here, the GPS isn’t messed up, it’s ordered perfectly backwards. Avraham is first told to leave his country, then his hometown, lastly his precise location; his father’s house.
Rashi commenting on the words “lech lecha” tells us that the double language denotes for one’s own good and benefit. The Zohar reads it “go to you.” Examining further commentaries, we find that the first word “lech” describes a physical journey, while the second word, “lecha,” describes a spiritual and emotional journey. The Slonomer Rebbe, elaborating on this concept, teaches us that the command “lech lecha” implies fulfilling one’s purpose, reason for being and unique task in this world.
The proper understanding of the words “lech lecha” sheds light on the second half of G-D’s command to Avraham in that one fateful, zipfiled sentence. Hashem is telling Avraham as well as instructing the entire Jewish people how and just as importantly where to begin their individual and national journey. We’re instructed to go on a journey of self-discovery and growth, far away from all that we’ve ever known. As such, Avraham is not directed in chronological order from current physical location to destination, but rather in order of the easiest to most difficult steps on a spiritual journey. Avraham is being instructed to fulfill his potential through a journey to self-perfection. “Your land, birthplace and father’s house” serve as an ordered representation of the depth of character traits ingrained in a person, and thus the difficulty in uprooting them.
“Your land” comes to represent your earthly, everyday attachments and the negative influence of the culture in your home country; all those cultural traits foreign to Judaism, which we take on through assimilation, as well as unnecessary material attachments. “Your place of birth” is an indication of the social and economic status you’ve attained through accident of birth. Leaving “your father’s house” refers to overcoming self-defeating behavioral patterns, social and psychological conditioning. It entails an awareness and improvement of any negative traits you possess – genetically as well as those picked up from your immediate surroundings that have become second nature. The lesson taken is that in order to fulfill your purpose in the world, you have to rid yourself of the things holding you back, whether inherited, learned or absorbed from your environment.
Furthermore, we see that G-D is in fact telling Avraham to go on aliyah. Regardless of any difference in interpretation or understanding of what it means to be a Jew or a part of the Jewish nation, I think we can pretty much agree that it is no coincidence that Avraham, who is destined to be the father of the Jewish people, is being told to leave everything behind and immigrate to the Land of Israel.
No one can claim that living in Israel is easy, and the Torah never presents it as such. In fact, almost immediately upon his arrival in Israel, he is confronted by certain poverty (some things never change) as famine ravages the land. Avraham is commanded to take a leap of faith and travel to the land that G-D will show him, where he will then merit to father a family and an entire nation.
The Torah clearly presents Israel as the place most suitable for a Jew to realize his full potential and it is G-D’s will and explicit command to live there. The duty to live in Eretz Yisrael permeates and underlies all of Torah and the reasons for doing so are borne out constantly and very often tragically throughout Jewish history. We don’t have to search very far to learn why. It is in Israel that an Israelite goes to find themselves, in Judea that a Jew goes to become themselves. Such a special story to be able to share with my children this past Shabbat. And I’m thankful for now having the opportunity to share it with you as well.