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Lech Lecha 5770-2009

“Go for Yourself “

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, the Almighty says to Abram (Genesis 12:1): “Lech l’cha may’ar’tzeh’chah, oo’mee’mo’lahd’t’cha, oo’mee’bayt ah’vee’cha, el ha’ah’retz ah’sher ar’eh’kah.” Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. G-d promises that in the new land He will make Abram into a great nation, He will bless Abram and make his name great and Abram shall be a blessing. So great will be the blessing that G-d will bless all those who bless Abram and curse those who curse Abram and all the families of the earth will bless themselves by Abram.

Rashi explains that the doubled Hebrew expression “Lech l’cha,” go for yourself, rather than a simple “Lech,” go, implies that Abram’s taking leave of his birthplace will be for Abram’s own pleasure and benefit. In the new land (Canaan), G-d will make Abram into a great nation, whereas if he remains where he is he will not have the merit of children. In this new land, G-d will make Abram’s name known throughout the world.

Many commentators note that the order of the verse is rather unusual. After all, upon departing, one first leaves one’s father’s house, then one’s place of birth and finally the country, but the order in the verse is reverse. One noted commentator, author of Haketav Vehakabbala, suggests that there is very good reason for this order. It is not so difficult to leave one’s country when accompanied by one’s entire family. The same is true regarding leaving one’s place of birth. However, when leaving one’s father’s house, everyone and everything is left behind, which is the most wrenching experience. Therefore, Abram was instructed to sever his connections first with his country, then with his city, and finally–the most intimate bond–that of his home. So great is the challenge of leaving one’s home, that G-d’s call to Abram to depart is considered one of the ten formidable trials to which Abram’s faith was subjected (Avot 5:4).

As we’ve mentioned in our previous studies (Chayei Sarah 5767-2006), Abram’s life was actually bracketed by the expression “Lech l’cha.” In Genesis 12:1, Abram is told by G-d, “Lech l’cha,” Go for yourself, give up your past, leave Mesopotamia and Haran, relinquish all the luxuries that you’ve amassed in the Cradle of Civilization, and set out on the arduous 700 kilometer trek (approx. 435 miles) to an unknown land that I will show you. Can there be a greater challenge or test than that? Only the “Lech l’cha” that appears again in parashat Vayeira is greater! In next week’s Torah reading, in Genesis 22:2, G-d says to Abraham “Kach nah, et bin’chah, et ye’chid’chah, ah’sher ah’hav’tah, et Yitzchak, v’lech l’cha el er’etz Mo’reeya,” Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah. Bring him up there as an offering upon one of the mountains that I shall show you. If the thought of giving up one’s past was difficult, G-d now tells Abram to give up his future by taking the son that he loves, who believes in his father’s values and cherishes them, and offer him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

We could very well ask ourselves, what kind of test was G-d requiring by asking Abram to leave his homeland? After all, it was an idolatrous and decadent land! Yet the fact that it’s idolatrous and decadent doesn’t, in any way, suggest that it wasn’t a fun place. Imagine the orgies that took place in the names of the different gods and goddesses! Were there nightclubs and discotheques? For sure! Casinos and arcades? Absolutely! Were there computer games and Plasma TV sets? Unquestionably! One can force oneself to get used to being chauffeured around in a stretch limousine from the floor show in one casino to the next! And even if these types of entertainment do not find favor in everyone’s eyes, especially those who are spiritually oriented, the challenge of leaving one’s birthplace and one’s family is excruciatingly painful. G-d says to Abram, “Give up your past!” If your parents don’t want to be part of your new lifestyle, leave them behind, 700 kilometers behind, in Haran.

There are different ways of looking at the departure of Abram from his family. In order to establish a new, holy and sanctified lifestyle, Abram must go, as they say, “cold turkey.” He must have absolutely nothing to do with his past, just as an alcoholic, or drug addict, or chronic gambler must do. There’s only one way to be successfully rehabilitated–no alcohol again, ever, no smoking again, ever! Cut yourself off from your past, otherwise you will always be subject to the blandishments, influences, and temptations of that past.

However, while Abram abandons his past, he never renounces or denies his past. Without his past, he would not be who he was, and would never be able to become the great Abraham that he was to be. His parents, his environment, the culture that he had rejected, certainly left an indelible impression upon him that he could not eradicate, and though he no longer subscribed to the beliefs or values of that past, he could not deny them. When scripture later identifies Abram (Genesis 14:13), he is called “Avram Ha’Ivri,” which is often translated as “Abram the Hebrew,” but what is essentially being underscored by this nomenclature is that Abram is being identified as a descendant of his great-great grandfather, Aber, who was the father of Peleg, the father of Reu, the father of Serug, the father of Nahor, and the father of Abram’s own father, Terah. Some would say that scripture goes back six generations in order to identify the one righteous great-great grandparent that Abram had, but what is certainly being noted is that Abram cannot deny his past. He is who he is, and although it is not easy for him to change, he can change.

The question of identifying with our past is something we all face. In each of us there is, undoubtedly, some painful aspects of our past with which we must reckon–embarrassments and shortcomings that are likely to be found in our own histories or our ancestors” history.

In the Baal Teshuvah world, inhabited by those who come to traditional observance, we often find that returnees take extreme measures to hide and deny their pasts. Not only do they adopt new names, Hebrew names, which is understandable, but they often try to shelter themselves and their children from their non-religious parents, grandparents and siblings. Not only does this “Lech l’cha,” the distance that they create, make it impossible for their families to appreciate the beauty of the new traditions that they have adopted, but in the long run, it is often counterproductive. Ultimately, when the past is exposed, it is in a most unexpected and embarrassing manner. It is one thing to protect one’s child from Christmas celebrations or eating non-kosher food, but it is entirely wrong to teach one’s child to look down on their grandparents, and to harbor disdain for their non-observant aunts, uncles and cousins. It is far more productive, both emotionally and educationally, to teach one’s children to appreciate the good things that are to be found in every person, even though their customs, habits and practices need to be rejected.

While those who change often need to take extreme measures in order to effectively accomplish those changes, eventually they must moderate, abandoning the extreme mode that they adopted in the beginning of their transformative journeys when they were most vulnerable. Without that, they will never achieve what Judaism truly sees as the optimum lifestyle, a balanced lifestyle that others see as an exemplary lifestyle, rather than as a fanatic and extreme way of life.

As Rashi says, “Lech l’cha,” do it for your own pleasure and for your own benefit. G-d says to Abram, I will make for you a great name, but do it in such a way that others will bless you, and you will be a blessing.

As the old Beginners Service adage advises, “G-d wants spiritual fruits, not religious nuts!” It’s ok to enjoy oneself along the way. It’s ok to feel pleasure. It’s ok to identify with the good things that undoubtedly come from each individual’s past.

Two little words, “Lech l’cha,” consisting of only four Hebrew letters (that are really only two individual letters), but how much these two little letters have to teach!

May you be blessed.