Lekh Lekha: The Journey

Genesis 12:1-17:27

Lekh Lekha is the story of a journey. Plotwise, it’s about Abraham’s journey from Ur to founding a nation. Metaphorically it’s about a journey to one of my favorite names for God, to Echad, to oneness.

It is a story about both leaving a past and embarking towards a future. Abraham is instructed by HaShem to leave the land of his father’s house, of his birthplace, and of his people and region of origin. Abraham sets out for a new land that HaShem says he will he shown. But Abraham has to leave there because of famine. He goes into Egypt, where, to save his life, he lies about being married to Sarah, though it endangers her.

Lekh Lekha is also the story of HaShem’s promise to make a great nation of Abraham’s descendants, and of Abraham’s covenant with HaShem, through his b’rit. BTW, he’s Avram before, and Abraham after the b’rit. HaShem adds the letter hey to his name. Hey is often associated with words like hineini, I am here, concepts about being present, a proof text in itself to show the impacts of transition. Also, by implication, Lekh Lekha is the story of the Israelites’ birth as a people, the people of the covenant.

What’s the point of Abraham’s journey, of Lekh Lekha? Rabbi Shefa Gold calls this parshah “go to yourself.” What does that mean?

Most of us traverse our lives in the day to day: Go to work; stop at the store; kiss the spouse; ask about everyone’s day. We’re immersed in the immediacy of what we’re doing. And we’re usually moving towards what we’re supposed to do next.

On those days like any other, we may hope something more elevated will happen to us. Or that some change we might aspire to will present itself, preferably as a fait accomplis. That’s change for the good, btw. Most of us don’t lust for crises or extreme challenges. There’s exceptions, of course: folks who invite their futures, who set out on adventures the rest of us read about. Most of us set the bar lower, keeping our challenges in scale to what we know.

What would happen, if, instead of rushing from moment to moment, we yearned for our futures? If we listened for and answered the calls for change that are all around us? If we set out, like Avram, on a journey to our deeper and highest self, a journey to HaShem? A journey to Echad, to integration, to oneness?

There’s the intuitive cautious response: Eeek, don’t tempt HaShem. You’ll just be tested, or disappointed, or somehow swatted just for asking. Better to live in gratitude for what you already have.

But what if the reverse is true? What if the idea that mystics and new age physicists keep telling us is deeply real: that our thoughts create energy, and energy creates form. Like aleph, the first letter, silent, but with that poised breath that precedes and initiates all bereishit, all beginningness. The first of the twenty-two, the code from which a universe was formed.

What if the absence of conscious co-creation is an abdication of free will? A mushy, beigy acquiescence to the status quo? Clinging to the land of our parents, our place of origin. To the ways we were taught to do things, not yet ready for the journey.

There’s a story that circuits the internet about the mother teaching her daughter to trim the ends off the pot roast before she puts it in the pan. Why? Because that’s how her mother taught her. And back and back generations. When it turns out the great-great-great grandmother trimmed her roast only because she had too small a pan.

Such habits become entrenched. We become resistant to change. When HaShem instructs Abraham to go out from his native land, part of the message is: Look at your closely held beliefs. Look at your reflexive behaviors and the parts of yourself that are so much a part of who you are that you no longer question them.

One question implicit in Lekh Lekha: How will you sustain the sense of t’shuvah that you created during Elul and the High Holidays? You worked so hard to get closer to HaShem. Are you ready to uproot yourself, or at least reorganize your life a little, if that’s what it takes to reach Echad?

We’re by nature a searching people. People who ask questions. People who’re rarely content with what we have, even when it’s manna from heaven. But we also have a history of staying in mitzrayim, of keeping ourselves hostage to the known.

Each year at Yom Kippur I’m struck in very personal way by one line in the Vidui, asking for atonement for a sin not against others, but against self: Kishinu oref, we have kept ourselves from change.

One of my favorite names for HaShem is L’Chai Ha’olamim, the Life of All the Worlds. Which worlds are those? I’m a great believer (in faith, if not knowledge) in ideas like string theory and parallel universes. We all inhabit many different worlds each day. There are worlds in which we’re gentle, loving, and compassionate. And others in which we’re stern and competitive, even ruthless. Our p’nim, our faces, and the openness of our hearts, change so often throughout each day.

I’ve always found it interesting that Jewish days begin at sundown, at a time when we enter unknown lands. Because the truth is we enact Lekh Lekha in miniature every day. Every evening and every morning. When we go to sleep we leave the worlds of our days, and when we awaken we leave the worlds of our dreams.

Surely something changes in us during the night. Dreams are as unpredictable as any journey could be. We leave “reality” for a land where everything gets scrambled up. Whether it’s by our subconscious, by our internalized parent, by aspects of our homegrown selves, or by unseen teachers, we’re given new perspective on our daily lives.

Sometimes those perspectives balance us and strengthen us. Sometimes they challenge or frighten us. But each dream is a journey into a land where we’re asked to look at things differently.

When we awaken–hopefully on the right side of the bed–we thank HaShem in our morning prayers. We’ve been given refreshed beingness. Another opportunity for awareness. A new world, a new day, a new journey.

And in that moment of gratitude, we have another chance to do what Lekh Lekha is asking of us. To go forth, to do better, to make our lives a journey of goodness, of joy, of creativity and learning and sharing and serving.

Lekh Lekha teaches about the continual evolution of your journey. How each day you carry with you aspects of the self you have been, and the self you have become. How each day you journey to become yet a newer self. And how each day you guide the coming self who has yet to emerge.

The trick is to keep the journey challenging and revitalizing. To be willing to make b’rits, covanents, to keep yourself changing and growing.

When you embrace Lekh Lekha, the challenge is to leave room in your life for new stories, whether that’s friendships, travel, achievement, love, even learning a language. Whenever you feed yourself new stimuli, something powerful happens inside you.

I heard a great story on NPR a few months ago, about how zoos changed from cement and steel cages into small but more realistic mirrors of natural habitats. When scientists studied the animals in their new domains, they were amazed at a massive and rapid explosion of what they called “dendritic branching.” Literally, blossoming new neural networks in their brains that I imaged as new etz chaim, new trees of life, opening inside and teaching them.

Each choice you make and each step you take on your journey is another branch on that tree. Another chance to open up, to receive, to see or feel something new, and to give gratitude for being alive and aware.

When you set out in Lekh Lekha, your life expands. There’s more you available for the covenant. And when you make that commitment, you open your life each day like a new Aleph-Tav, with new bereishit, with new beginningness.

The point of the journey is to make that covenant, that b’rit. And there will come a time when the commitment, the kavvanah, with which we make that covenant purifies us. On the other side of that b’rit we will be different. But the only way to make that happen is to take the first step.

It’s not always easy and rarely linear. We encounter famine. We stumble and fall. Like Avram, we may rely on old patterns and bad habits. We may lie out of fear, or use other of our less noble aspects. Learned behaviors from our family of origin, from the land of our birth, or from our own wounded past. Whatever we’ve used to create an illusion of safety and protection, to get by through and around, but not to face our issues. That’s what the journey will teach us how to face, and ultimately how to shed.

In fact, one of Lekh Lekha’s lessons is that the only real protection comes from being as open and vulnerable as possible.

Sometimes we think that making a covenant means giving up something we treasure. We think of it as a tangible sacrifice. But in fact, to make our b’rit, to be exposed in the most intimate and personal way before our own souls and before HaShem, we’re really being asked to give up our fear of the unknown. To cut away old ways of being that hold us too fixed. To circumcise our hearts and excise whatever we’ve used to protect our fragile inner self from its most important journey.

When that fear is cut away, and when we are completely open to our futures, that’s when the journey really begins.

If you make a covenant in each of your worlds, you will find L’Chai Haolomin in each of them. Each will offer another chance to move forward into your life.

Because who could you not become if you set out on that journey. If you made that covenant, with yourself and with HaShem. To show up. To say Yes. To begin the journey that leads to the Promised Land. To Echad. To oneness.

You just have to take the next step.

Shabbat shalom

Dvar delivered at TBI Eugene, Nov 11, 2011