Sabbath candles: 5:38 p.m.
Torah readings: Genesis 12:1-17:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16
Shabbat ends: 6:36 p.m.
“God said to Avram: Lech lecha, go forth from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you.” [Gen. 12:1]
Why is Avram (not yet re-named Abraham) told that he must leave country, birthplace, and his father’s home to get to God’s land? The order seems backwards. When heading out, a person first leaves home, then community, and finally country. This is question was posed early on by the Ramban.
In light of the ecological approach to social work, as described by John T. Pardeck, the meaning is clear. Abraham was to work his way through the concentric circles that influenced him in life. He had to travel through the worlds that enveloped him. The world that most tightly wraps itself around us is the world of family. Our city of birth affects us greatly, but not as much as our home environment. Finally, we are affected by our country’s general environment. God advises Abraham to deal with these influences in the order progressing from what affected him least strongly to that which affected him the most. Only after sifting through these worlds could he arrive at the land of God.
Through letting go of attachments that are more distant we are able to let go of what is closest to our hearts. It is not simply that one circle is harder to leave than the other, but that each realm must be conquered before one can undertake the next quest. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the three places Abraham is told to leave are followed in the Torah’s cantillation by an etnachtah — a pause. As he puts it, “This indicates that ‘lech lecha’ is an independent command concluding with the last of the three places he must exit.” As Aviva Zornberg writes, “The imperative of transformation is the driving force of ‘lech lecha.’”
The Sfat Emet and the Zohar explain that Abraham’s mission was to travel through the layers that separated him from his real self. Lech lecha, often translated as “Get thee out,” is more accurately translated as, “Go to yourself.” Abraham, like all of us, needed to leave those influences, that comfort zone, that impeded his becoming who he was meant to be. As Zornberg comments, “To leave one’s place is ultimately to seek to become other.” Avram then becomes Avraham (Abraham), his change of name dovetailing with his change of place; he achieves transformation and realization of self.
Abraham was told to go to a place that is described as “the land that God will show you.” This can also mean the land in which God will show Himself to Abraham, the place where Abraham would reach his spiritual peak. Each place that’s listed is described as a separate place he had to leave. Rather than grouping “country, birthplace, home,” the Torah goes out of its way to place an “and” between each place: “Go out of your land and out of your birthplace and out of your father’s home.” This indicates that what is commanded here is a spiritual leaving with separate and distinct stages. Abraham was, according to most opinions, told to leave his birthplace when he was no longer physically situated in the place where he was born. He started the journey before God commanded him, but he had to start out again to re-birth himself and complete the trip for the sake of Heaven.
The Sfat Emet says that the call of lech lecha, to become oneself, is a call that went out to the entire world, but not everyone was tuned into the frequency. Though it was there for all to hear, only one person heard God’s voice. The fact that Abraham heard the call is what singled him out, and this provides the introduction to who he was. This explains why there is no back-story provided about Abraham as there is for others, such as Adam and Moshe. His hearing God’s urgent cry of lech lecha provides the entire introduction that we need about who this man was.
May we all be blessed — in the spirit of maaseh avot siman lebanim, “the actions of the fathers pave the way for the children” — to fulfill our imperative of lech lecha, to go to ourselves, to become our selves, and to arrive in the land of God.
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann is director of Torah guidance at The Frisch School as well as a writer and poet whose work can be found at http://rabbifleischmann.blogspot.com.