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Friday, November 04, 2011
92Y Guest Blog: Connecting To The Weekly Torah Portion With Rabbi David Kalb

Rabbi David Kalb, Director of Jewish Education for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at 92nd Street Y, continues his series of guest blogs below, with another post on the weekly Torah portion.

Born To Run – The Journey: Lech Lecha

One of the greatest songwriters of all times is Bruce Springsteen. I still remember the first time I heard his classic song “Born To Run”. It hit me very powerfully with it’s theme of journey. That is how I feel when I hear the opening of this weeks Torah portion Lech Lecha.

Lech Lecha tells the story of the rather unusual birth of the Jewish nation. In Bereishit/Genesis 12:1, God commands Avram (Abram, who will eventually be known as Avraham/Abraham): “Go for yourself (Lech Lecha) from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” We read no theology, see no miracles and receive no proof of God’s existence. God simply tells Avram to go on a journey. The command itself is also unusual: Lech Lecha, “Go for yourself.” The Torah could have simply used the single word Lech, “Go,” and identify where Avram was coming from and where he was headed. It is unnecessary to add the word Lecha, “for yourself.” The word Lecha seems superfluous and somewhat awkward. It is more logical to say, simply, “Go.” Why Lech Lecha? Perhaps because the Torah teaches us that Avram’s journey is a journey of self, not simply of geography. God does not just tell Avram to go on a physical journey, but commands Avram to go on a spiritual journey as well. When God says Lech Lecha, “Go for yourself,” God commands Avram to begin a journey to try to understand God.

The entire story of Torah is the story of journey. We see it in the narratives of each generation of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Skipping Yitzchak (Isaac) for now lets examine Rivkah (Rebecca). Rivkah is very comparable to Avraham. Her story can be found in Bereishit/Genesis 24-27. She journeys. Rivkah leaves her home and family to go to a new place. Due to Rivkah’s journey she is the one who speaks to God directly. She also engineers the journey of the next generation, which brings us to Yaacov (Jacob), Rachel and Leah. Yaacov’s story begins in Genesis Chapter 25 and goes through the end of the book of Genesis. Yaacov is the paradigm for journey in the Torah. He journeys when he runs away from his brother Esav (Esau) after stealing Esav’s birthright. He journeys again when he runs away from his father-in-law Lavan (Laban) who tricks him many, many times. He journeys to Egypt where he is re-united with his son Yoseph (Joseph). All of these journeys are physical journeys but can be allegorically seen as spiritual journeys.

The theme of journey hits its crescendo in the Torah with the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It took the Jewish people forty years to travel from Egypt to Israel. This is an extraordinarily long time for even a large group traveling at a slow pace. A geographic journey, certainly, but the experiences that happened on that journey shaped the nature of the Jewish people.

We became the people we are today because of that journey, and the journey continues. It is the journey that creates meaning in Judaism. The journey takes place on a communal level, but it also must occur on an individual level as well. Lech Lecha, “Go for yourself.” To emphasize this point of Lecha, “Yourself,” we can now return to the story of Yitzchak. Yitzchak is the only one of our patriarchs who never leaves his home. He journeys neither literally nor metaphorically. There is a sense, when reading Yitzchak’s story, that he has no ability to see beyond himself or his times. Bereshit/Genesis 27:1 describes Yitzchak with the words “And his eyes dimmed from seeing.” It is a strange way of describing the loss of eyesight. It is as if to say that the events that Yitzchak saw in his life took his vision away. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that Yitzchak is not physically blind or that he is not just physically blind. The Torah is really telling us that Yitzchak lacks vision. Why does Yitzchak lack vision? Why is he never able to engage in a journey? Chapter 22 tells the story of the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak by his father – now called Avraham. In the end, as we know, Avraham does not sacrifice Yitzchak. However, the experience has a profound effect on Yitzchak. At the end of the story, Avraham returns from the sacrifice. The Torah says nothing about Yitzchak’s return. The story ends with the idea that on an metaphorical level Yitzchak remains on the Sacrificial Alter for the rest of his life. The experience of near sacrifice stunts Yitzchak’s ability to journey. We see how important it is for every person to engage in his or her own spiritual journey Lech Lecha, Go For Yourself. Perhaps the story of the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak teaches us that that Yitzchak, rather than participating in his own journey, was enveloped in his father’s journey. Ultimately Avraham found his own way, but Yitzchak never really did.

It is interesting that the Torah does not explain how Avraham comes to God. Different people come to God in different ways, and if the Torah explained how Avraham, the person who brought monotheism to the world, came to God, following generations would conclude that Avraham’s way was the only way. However, there is never only one way. Some come to God through logic, others through history, others through nature, and others through life events. We all must find our own way. Communities should offer many ways and approaches of looking and thinking about God. Communities that limit ways of understanding God, limit people and worse yet, they attempt to limit God.

Shabbat Shalom

Rav David

Learn more in a fascinating analysis of the central text of Judaism on January 3. Check out all 92Y Jewish Studies - First Class programs and you also might be interested in An Introduction to Judaism for Adults at Derekh Torah™ classes.

Previously: Connecting To The Weekly Torah Portion With Rabbi David Kalb

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