By Saul Golubcow
Special to WJW
This week’s Torah portion is Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Robert Frost may have opted for “the road less traveled,” but Jews for the last 3,500 years have been on “the road well traveled.” Parshat Lech L’cha inaugurates our journey and anchors it as the great meta theme within Judaism.
The journey begins. As the parshah opens, Abraham (Avram) accepts on faith God’s command to “go” (lech) and leave his birthplace and the comforts of what he knows. But God also instructs him that he must volitionally (l’cha) take on the journey. We may be born Jewish or come to Judaism by choice, yet at the outset, our willingness to embark and stay on the journey requires a personal response that says, hineni, “I am here, I myself wish to go.”
We don’t travel alone. Abraham had his wife, nephew Lot and household members with him. While each of us owns personal initiatives, we are part of a much greater community engaged in the larger journey. With bonded purpose, we proceed over a shared landscape along with other Jews around the world. Periodically, we may be in conflict with each other.
Abraham and Lot clash over land ownership, but they resolve their differences so that later, when Lot is taken hostage, Abraham unflinchingly comes to his rescue. There are always obstacles, reversals, internal conflict and outside threats, but our joined commitment moves us forward.
The journey is everlasting. Abraham moves seven times in the course of the parshah. How wearying that soon after Abraham and his entourage arrive at their destination, “there was a famine in the land,” and they were forced to move to Egypt to survive. God also tells Abraham that the Israelites should not get too comfortable in Canaan since later they will be afflicted as “a stranger in a land [Egypt] that is not theirs for 400 years.”
Our satisfaction thus has been linked to getting there as opposed to having arrived. Think of Moses, our exemplar of Jewish leadership, who brings the Israelites to the promised land but dies before their entrance. In Lech L’cha, we have the initial chapter in our oft-repeated story of the historical Jewish road, telling of nationhood, exile, diaspora, reinvention and return.
Why we journey. Launched on our journey, we navigate toward a never-ending concept of a promised land so as to improve our own selves, our people and, as God promises Abraham in the second verse of L’ech L’cha, to be “a blessing” to all.
While getting there, we mature as the journey itself rebuilds us and our community. What a change Abraham undergoes in our parshah from his cowardice in prostituting Sarah to the Egyptian Pharaoh so he might live and benefit financially to his selflessly saving Lot and spurning booty.
L’ech L’cha initiates God’s covenant with us through the circumcision commandment. But after Sinai, we are given the laws and obligations that comprise a roadmap for how we may improve in search of personal integrity, communal responsibilities and building a better world. On our road, we accept and constantly modify instructions for contracts, torts, hygiene, medical care, home improvement, animal husbandry and diet that teach us how to explore, absorb setbacks and learn lessons as we progress.
Rest and reflection along the way. After instances of prolonged travel, Abraham stops to offer sacrifices (pray) to God. His examples of rest and observance later crystalize within the Jewish journey as our Sabbath and holidays. There is a time to move and a time to stop from moving to embrace joy. On our well-traveled road that began in L’ech L’cha, the concept of the Sabbath has taught us that rest and reflection, we may even call it patience, indispensably help us get there.
Saul Golubcow writes from Potomac.