The Never-ending Journey: Educating the ‘Waze’ Generation to Live with Questions – Parshat Lech Lecha 5775

For a printable PDF version click here:Lech Lecha 5775 Final

We’ve lost the ability today to live with questions. Our children do not know what it is to go and do ‘research’ in a library, to open a book, find that it doesn’t have the answer and search the next one.  I’m not even sure they know what an ‘encyclopaedia’ is, only what Wikipedia is.  I fear they won’t know the smell of the old books lining the shelves in a  library and the excitement of opening a book found buried deep at the back of row lined with cobwebs, because they will have downloaded it instead instantaneously as an E-book or on a Kindle. Information is at their fingertips, answers are immediate, life is about finding the quickest most satisfying solution. A ‘Journey’ takes on a whole new meaning with Waze, and my ETA can be predicted to the millisecond.  It is about the destination rather than the journey taken.  We are so focused on the end result that we have forgotten to look around us, soak up things along the way, be amazed at a sunset or a view, and learn from our experiences whilst travelling towards the destination.

As with all new developments there are positives and negatives. Man is fulfilling what God decreed to Adam in Gan Eden to be a ‘creator in the Image of God’.  He is advancing his cognitive capacity every day and developing the world according God’s command to Adam to ‘Fill the earth and rule over/conquer it’[1] .  Thank God for medical advancements and technological developments that allow us to live in a more dignified and fulfilling way. But with all the good, I believe we have lost something very profound and important, and if we do not take action soon, the next generation will have lost an element of the human experience that is crucial to its existence.  It is what I have written about already quite a few times, but what I believe is one of the central tenets of Judaism, Tanach, and the human condition – the notion of process.  Everything in life requires time, patience and perseverance.  Nothing is instant, besides for superficiality, or instant food.  Anything authentic, worthy, true or worthwhile will necessitate a journey and questioning.

A journey is what Avraham takes at the beginning of this week’s Parsha. It is the divine command of Lech lecha that Avraham must heed to his entire life.  He leads a life that entails constant renewal, restructuring of paradigms, reinvention of self and relationships, and reassessing the given knowledge of the world and God.  These things are part of a life journey, and on a macro level part of humanity’s unfolding reality. We are introduced to Avraham already at the end of last week’s Parsha. Following on the heels of the powerful narrative of Bavel we have a recounting of the lineage of Shem – name. As we discussed last week, the builders of Bavel tried to eliminate all individuality and identity, hence as a rectification we have the lineage of ‘shem’ – Name.  At the end of this list we meet a man called Terach who has three sons, Avraham, Nachor and Haran.  For a reason that is not made clear in the text, his son, Haran dies before him.  This coupled perhaps with his daughter in law, Sarai’s, bareness, Terach opts for a new destiny, a change of scenery, a journey to a better place.  We are told:

לא וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.  לב וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי-תֶרַח, חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וּמָאתַיִם שָׁנָה; וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח, בְּחָרָן. 

31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. 32 And the days of Terah were two hundred and five years; and Terah died in Haran. [2]

It is not Avraham who begins the Journey towards Canaan but his father Terach. For some reason that is absent in the text, they stop at Ur Casdim, and there they remain, never making it to their destination of Canaan.  At the beginning of this week’s Parsha we are told that God calls upon Avraham to embark on a new journey: An obvious question that immediately arises is how can God have commanded Avraham to leave his land, birthplace and father’s house when he already has done so? We were told in the verses preceding this that Terach leaves Haran, the land and birthplace of Avraham and journeys with his family towards Canaan stopping off in Ur Casdim.  Surely then God cannot ask Avraham to leave his land and birthplace when he has already done so.  The contradiction is stark.  The commentators attempt in many ways to solve this apparent discrepancy.[3]  Some claim the entire paragraph is not in its correct place, others claim that Avraham was originally born in Haran and then went to Ur Casdim, only to return to Haran again.  Though these commentaries answer the literal problem, I believe the apparent contradiction may be solved by viewing the entire narrative in a different way. Until this point we have seen the journey undertaken by mankind, and it has failed. Man has failed to live up to the hopes of the Creator.  A new plan is needed, a new way of educating the masses, and with this we are introduced to a different individual – Avraham.

But even Avraham needs to undergo a transformation. If he is indeed to become the father of humanity, the paradigm of a moral and ethical life, he must himself undergo a process of development, which begins with Lech Lecha.  When God commands Avraham to leave his homeland and his birth place the command need not be taken literally but rather metaphorically.  In order for Avraham to break out of the confines of his upbringing, the stability and stagnancy of his roots, the security and self satisfaction of the Bavel generation, he must begin his encounter with God ‘along the way’.  Here must walk,  breath and learn how to lead a different life to the one he has been exposed to until now.  His journey must be less about the destination and more about the path travelled.

Though the midrashim abound with reasons for Avraham obeying God’s voice, the text remains silent. We do not know why Avraham is chosen, and we know neither why he obeys.  What we do know however is what he must do – he must journey, and this is the message we as the readers of the text must heed.  Any encounter with the Divine entails a journey.  To change the world, requires time, and ambition.  To be a Jew, in the guise of Avraham, means to leave behind all we are familiar with and start afresh.  Every Jew, every person must ask himself why? We are compelled to delve into the innermost part of our souls and ask the hardest and deepest questions.  If we simply live a life based on what our parents tell us, if we follow others and conform to ideas, we have neither heard the Lech lecha call nor have we fulfilled our destiny as the ancestors of Avraham. Until God calls to him, Avraham had simply followed the path of his father, he had unwittingly, maybe even unwillingly travelled a journey that was not his, that perhaps he himself did not wholly believe in, or most certainly had not initiated. What God asks of Avraham, is for him to make the journey his own. God tells Avraham to leave everything behind, his land, birthplace, father’s household. In a less literal and more metaphorical reading, what God is saying to Avraham is ‘leave behind the yoke of your childhood, the preconceived ideas and beliefs you have grown up with, the journey your father began and begin a journey of your own’.  In order to be a father of a nation Avraham has to begin with a journey to self.  He needs to create himself anew, to imagine a future that is his alone and not that of his father.  In the end Avraham does continue his father’s journey, his destination is that of Canaan too, however the journey is now his, to follow the values and principles of his past is now a choice and not simply assenting.  It is the moment of Lech Lecha that transforms everything. Avivah Zornberg in her book The Murmuring Deep brings the reading of the Zohar on this verse, she writes:

The Zohar brings us back to the lekha, offering an alternative translation: “Travel in order to transform yourself, create yourself anew’.  As its simplest, lekh lekha translates: “Travel – to yourself”. Not to the present, resident self, but to the self of aspiration, the perhaps unimagined self.  On one level, it is Abraham’s difference from other that God invokes and provokes; but mostly, it is his difference from himself. God mobilizes an aversion in Abraham to the conformity.  An uncanny process is underway; drawn beyond himself, he is to transfigure that self.[4]

The journey of Avraham has two elements to it, an existential journeying and a literal journeying, and one cannot take place without the other. We see these two elements clearly in the text:

 א וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.  ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.  ג וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.  ד וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו ה, וַיֵּלֶךְ אִתּוֹ, לוֹט; וְאַבְרָם, בֶּן-חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וְשִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה, בְּצֵאתוֹ, מֵחָרָן.  ה וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-אָחִיו, וְאֶת-כָּל-רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ, וְאֶת-הַנֶּפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן; וַיֵּצְאוּ, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ, אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן.  ו וַיַּעֲבֹר אַבְרָם, בָּאָרֶץ, עַד מְקוֹם שְׁכֶם, עַד אֵלוֹן מוֹרֶה; וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי, אָז בָּאָרֶץ.  ז וַיֵּרָא ה, אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר, לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת; וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ, לַה הַנִּרְאֶה אֵלָיו.  ח וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם הָהָרָה, מִקֶּדֶם לְבֵית-אֵל–וַיֵּט אָהֳלֹה; בֵּית-אֵל מִיָּם, וְהָעַי מִקֶּדֶם, וַיִּבֶן-שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַה, וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם ה.  ט וַיִּסַּע אַבְרָם, הָלוֹךְ וְנָסוֹעַ הַנֶּגְבָּה. 

1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. 2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing. 3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him; and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. 5 And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. 6 And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land. 7 And the LORD appeared unto Abram, and said: ‘Unto thy seed will I give this land’; and he builded there an altar unto the LORD, who appeared unto him. 8 And he removed from thence unto the mountain on the east of Beth-el, and pitched his tent, having Beth-el on the west, and Ai on the east; and he builded there an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD. 9 And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South.[5] Avraham receives a command and a promise in verses 1,2 and 3. In verse 4 and 5 Avraham responds to the command ”And Avraham went as The Lord had spoken to him.  Although surprisingly the verse does not tell us where he goes to.  Only in verse 5 do we see “5. And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.”

There are two journeys that take place, two responses to Gods command of Lech Lecha. In verse 4 Avraham is alone and there is no destination. It is not a geographical or physical journey, but a more spiritual introspective one, that has to be done in solitude (even though Lot seems to try and tag along – see the end of the verse)[6].  In verse 5, Avraham gathers up his family and possessions and embarks on a geographical journey with a specified destination. From this reading I suggest, God’s command has two components and Avraham’s response encompasses both. Only once Avraham has journeyed to self, solidified his beliefs and imagined a new reality that is his alone,  only once he has acquiesced to the life destined to him of continual change, development and growth,  can he begin his geographical journey accompanied by his family to a new land and a new future. What he chooses in the end however, is not novel; he continues the journey his father started towards Cannan.  Never explicitly told in the text where to go by God, Avraham seems to choose the destination of Cannan, or in other words, Terach chooses Cannan.

Is this not what we all must do? Plant the seeds of our rich legacy into the hearts of our children, fill them with tapestry that is our Jewish heritage and yet beckon them to discover it all afresh, the passion, the struggles, the challenges, with the hope that they will choose to cultivate and rejuvenate the seeds themselves. There is a powerful Midrash that comes to explain how Avraham ‘finds’ God. The midrash explains as follows: 

Hashem said to Abram: Go forth from your native land . . . ” (Gen. 12:1). Said R’ Isaac: “This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a castle aflame. ‘Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it?’ he wondered. The owner of the building looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the building.’ Similarly, because Abraham said, ‘Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him ‘I am the Sovereign of the Universe…’ Hence, “And Hashem spoke to Abram…“ [7]

This is a difficult midrash that leads to many different readings. Classic interpretations include the argument from design, if the world exists there must be a God that designed it. This parallels Rambam’s reading of Avraham as finding God through rational and logical calculations.[8] The Ichbitza[9] talks about the idea that Avraham was the one searching and so God comes down to him and says the very fact of your asking is the answer i.e. the questioning is itself  the answer, because you are aware of what is going on around you and the answer is in the action that you will take. A more modern interpretation that follows along the lines of the Ichbitza is presented by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book ‘Radical then Radical now’, where he explains that Avraham shows us through this midrash that faith is born not in the answer but in the question. The birah ‘doleket’ in this interpretation is a ‘burning palace’ that represents the evil in the world. Avraham sees this evil and asks where is the creator of the palace/world and therefore why he is not stopping the palace/world burning.  God’s response is not an answer but a statement – I am here – it is a call to Avraham to put out the flames because no one else will. In this interpretation, God does not offer answers, the answer of the problem of evil will never be solved. The palace or world is aflame, evil permeates its existence and yet God doesn’t offer an answer, He simply states that He is there within the burning palace.  Despite our doubts we are told God is amongst us, He sees the evil.  And yet the responsibility lies not with Him, but with us.

The message is profound, powerful, and quite honestly terrifying.  The sheer weight of responsibility on man to remedy the suffering, evil and injustice in the world is overwhelming, and to do so without answers is near impossible, but that is part of following in the footsteps of Avraham. The other motif that transpires in this midrash is the notion of ‘journeying’ that we have been developing. According to the midrash Avraham’s encounter with God comes as a result of a journey that he has undertaken.  The journey is one in which for him, the destination is less important than the ‘things’ he sees along the way.  There is purposeful parallel inbuilt in the text between Avraham and Moshe.  We know that Moshe’s encounter with God comes from him ‘stopping and going out of his way’ to see the burning bush.  Only when he notices something unusual in his journey, when he is attuned to learning along the way, to questioning the given of his reality’ מדוע לא יבער הסנה – why is the bush not being consumed?’ [10] does God initiate their encounter.[11]  So too with Avraham – he sees a palace aflame, much like the burning bush, and he stops, takes time out from his journey, to investigate this phenomenon.  It is the act of stopping and asking that again initiates the encounter with the divine.  Likewise, as with Moshe at the Burning Bush, God does not provide answers, rather He hands the baton back to the questioner and says – search for yourself, act as you believe is right and in that way you will find your own answers.

The Sefat Emet writes extensively on this Midrash, emphasising the role of man in this world to be constantly moving, searching and striving, not resting.  He reads the word דולקת – as being constantly aflame with the search for proximity to God and perfection of world.[12] Transition is never easy, change can be daunting, it is often simpler to simply follow along the path familiar to us and not to think about why we do what we do, because to challenge may not always lead to favourable conclusions. However if we want to be true to ourselves, to God and to those around us there comes a time when we all need to embark on our own Lech Lecha. We all need to  travel to self, to ask ourselves the fundamental questions, to seek out a path that is ours and not that of others.  We need to learn to live with questions, let them sit, ripen, develop and not always search for an immediate answer.

In the words of an iconic Jewish thinker Avraham Joshua Heschel:

Faith is not a state of passivity of quiet acceptance; to join others in assenting to certain principles will not suffice. Faith requires action, a leap.  It is an enterprise, not inertia.   It requires bold initiative rather than continuity.  Faith is forever contingent on the courage of the believer…..Our hearts must be embedded in faith.  We should expect nothing less than to face the truth through deep insight.  We cannot be satisfied with half learned views, half baked truths. [13] 

To follow the path of our parents, grandparents and forefathers is imperative, but to do it without having taken a journey to reach those conclusions ourselves, is blasphemy.  One is the path of Avraham, the other is the path of Lot. God’s words Lecha Lecha began with Avraham, but resonate with each and every Jew in each and every generation.   The call to journey is one that is imperative today.  We must teach the next generation, that not every answer is found through Google, that not every journey has a destination and ETA according to Waze.  We must shake them at their very core and force them ask the deepest and hardest question, whilst simultaneously ensuring that they understand the true, authentic answers only come through a long hard process, and sometimes never at all. . We must educate them to shatter the idols of the time, as did their forefather Avraham, to be iconoclasts, non conformists, and equally we must line their souls with a deep and rich appreciation for the legacy that is theirs so that when they ask the questions and when they embark on the journey, they choose to carry with them the jewels of their tradition, and to shine them anew in their own way.

I finish with the emphatic words of one of the greatest Jewish thinkers, Martin Buber from an essay entitled ‘Jewish Religiosity’ where he differentiates between religion and religiosity, and shows how we must install in our youth a balance between both elements:

Thus religiosity is the creative, religion the organising principle. Religiosity starts anew with every young person, shaken to his very core by the mystery; religion wants to force him into a system stabilised for all time. Religiosity means activity-the elemental entering-into-relation with the absolute; religion means passivity – an acceptance if the handed down command. Religiosity has only one goal: religion several. Religiosity induces sins, who want to find their own God, to rebel against their fathers; religion induces fathers to reject their sons, who will not let their fathers’ God be forced upon them. Religion means preservation; religiosity, renewal. But whatever the way another people may find its salvation, to the Jewish people it will be disclosed only in the living force to which its people-hood was ever bound, and through which it had its existence: not in its religion but in its religiosity. The Baal Shem says: ‘We say ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob’; we do not say ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’, so that you may be told: Isaac ad Jacob did not rely on Abraham’s tradition, but they themselves searched of the Divine.[14]

Shabbat Shalom    

Some More Thoughts: A while ago when i gave over this idea to a group of teenagers, one girl came up to me and said that she didn’t understand the idea of constant searching. Surely it would lead to despair and despondency. In many ways the tension between searching and stagnancy, new ideas and appreciation of the old, continual striving and resting is the cornerstone of a religious Jew.  The girl who asked was right.  Searching without necessarily arriving at definitive answers or conclusions can lead to despair.  One need only look at the movement of Romanticism in the nineteenth century (described by Isaiah Berlin in this way: “a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”) and the numerous suicides resulting from it to see how search without a framework can lead to catastrophic results.  However the answer is in the very text of the Parsha.  There is a search, a constant movement. But equally there is a practical fulfilment and expression of this search – for Avraham it was educating the masses and journeying to Cannan, for us it is Halakha and creating a modern Jewish State.  The dialectic must always exist, we must constantly feel the tension between old and new, adhering to the voice of our ancestors and their legacy but bringing ‘Chiddush’ – novelty to the expression of Judaism today. If we can make our search meaningful and the journey one that is tied to the journey that came before, we will be as the pasuk tell us fulfilled in our search and not despondent: ‘ הִתְהַלְלוּ בְּשֵׁם קָדְשׁוֹ יִשְׂמַח לֵב מְבַקְשֵׁי ה.’[15] – Praise to the name of the Holy One, happy hearted are those who seek Him

[1] Bereshit 1:28

[2] Bereshit 11

[3] Ibn Ezra (Bereshit 11:29) says that this paragraph is not in chronological order and comes before the verses preceding it. Rashi answers (12:2) that  he is being asked to go even further than Haran and to leave his ‘fathers house’. Ramban (11:28) answers the problem by understanding the terms metaphorically i.e. your land, your birthplace etc is what Haran has become to him, not what is was literally.

[4] Avivah Zornberg: The Murmuring Deep p139

[5] Bereshit 12

[6] Fascinatingly Lot seems to represent this lifestyle of immediacy. He chooses Egypt over Cannan – the easy lifestyle of quick profit through the Nile rather than the challenge of a land without a natural water source.  Avraham is a man whose entire life is one of developing, learning changing, Lot fails to learn this from his Uncle.

[7] Bereshit Raba 38

[8] Rambam Hilchot Avodat Kochavim Chapter 1:2-3

[9] Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner: Nineteenth century Hasidic thinker. Wrote the Mei Shlioach

[10] Shemot 3:3

[11] I will, God willing, discuss this in depth in Parshat Shemot. Heschel notion of ‘radical amazement as the key to revelation today can find its roots in Moshe at the burning bush, as well as this midrash of Avraham.

[12] Sefat Emet Al Hatorah Parshat Lech Lecha תרל”ד תרמ”ע

[13] A.J. Heschel: A Passion for Truth 192

[14] Martin Buber: On Judaism p80

[15] Tehillim 105

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