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I just returned from a family wedding in Boston, where my sister-in-law was married in a beautiful ceremony, feted in a gorgeous room filled with oranges, greens, and tropical flowers arranged in fall bouquets, and gave one of the more extraordinary toasts anyone present had ever heard. During the ceremony, the rabbi talked about this week’s torah portion, Lech Lecha, from Genesis 12, when Abraham is called to leave his native land and his father’s house for the land that God will show him. The rabbi linked the portion with the marriage vow to bind yourself to a fellow person and go forth on a journey, promising to be with that person, even as you don’t know where you are going.
Coincidentally, a friend in Israel forwarded me over the weekend a copy of the sermon that the great Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of England, gave in honor of Lech Lecha this weekend. You can read about Rabbi Sacks and check out his other sermons this website, which I just learned about today. It seems to have copies of his sermons going back several years. What a great resource!
Meanwhile, here’s a sample of what he had to say.
If we were to define Judaism in Abrahamic terms it would be the heroism of ordinary life being willing to live by one’s convictions though all the world thinks otherwise, being true to the call of eternity, not the noise of now. Which brings us to the key phrase, the first words of G-d to the bearer of a new covenant: Lekh Lekha. Is there, already in these two words, a hint of what was to come?
Rashi, following an ancient exegetical tradition, translates the phrase as “Journey for yourself.” According to him what G-d meant was “Travel for your own benefit and good. There I will make you into a great nation; here you will not have the merit of having children.” Sometimes we have to give up our past in order to acquire a future. G-d was already intimating to Abraham that what seems like a sacrifice is, in the long run, not so. Abraham was about to say goodbye to the things that mean most to us –land, birthplace and parent’s home, the places where we belong. It was a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, a leap into the unknown. To be able to make that leap involves trust – in Abraham’s case, trust not in visible power but in the voice of the invisible G-d. At the end of it, however, Abraham would discover that he had achieved something he could not have done otherwise. He would give birth to a new nation whose greatness consisted precisely in the ability to live by that voice and create something new in
the history of mankind. “Go for yourself.”
Another interpretation, more midrashic, takes the phrase to mean “Go with yourself” – meaning, by travelling from place to place you will extend your influence not over one land but many: When the Holy One said to Abraham, “Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house . . .” what did Abraham resemble? A jar of scent with a tight fitting lid put away in a corner so that its fragrance could not go forth. As soon as it was moved from that place and opened, its fragrance began to spread. So the Holy One said to Abraham, “Abraham, many good deeds are in you. Travel about from place to place, so that the greatness of your name will go forth in My world.”
Abraham was commanded to leave his place in order to testify to the existence of a G-d not bounded by place – Creator and Sovereign of the entire universe. Abraham and Sarah were to be like perfume, leaving a trace of their presence wherever they went. Implicit in this midrash is the idea that the fate of the first Jews already prefigured that of their descendants. They were scattered throughout the world in order to spread knowledge of G-d throughout the world. Unusually, exile is seen here not as punishment but as a necessary corollary of a faith that sees G-d everywhere. Lekh lekha means “Go with yourself” – your beliefs, your way of life, your
I love the idea of perfume. That’s one I’d not heard before. But Sacks goes on to push the envelope of these traditional definitions.
He points out that the Abrahamic act of going forth is more radical, as he breaks with the past and with everything comfortable and pushes to create something new. For me, I find this interpretation appealing, and it’s an important note in the context of interfaith relations. First, here’s how Sacks ends his remarks.
Lekh Lekha in this sense means being prepared to take an often lonely journey: “Go by yourself.” To be a child of Abraham is to have the courage to be different, to challenge the idols of the age, whatever the idols and whichever the age. In an era of polytheism, that meant seeing the universe as the product of a single creative will – and therefore not meaningless but coherent, meaningful. In an era of slavery it meant refusing to accept the status quo in the name of G-d, but instead challenging it in the name of G-d. When power was worshipped, it meant constructing a society that cared for the powerless, the widow, orphan and stranger. During centuries in which the mass of mankind was sunk in ignorance, it meant honouring education as the key to human dignity and creating schools to provide universal literacy. When war was the test of manhood, it meant striving for peace. In ages of radical individualism like today, it means knowing that we are not what we own but what we share; not what we buy but what we give; that there is something higher than appetite and desire – namely the call that comes to us, as it came to Abraham, from outside ourselves, summoning us to make a contribution to the world.
Jews, wrote the non-Jewish journalist Andrew Marr, “really have been different; they have enriched the world and challenged it.” It is that courage to travel alone if necessary, to be different, to swim against the tide, to speak in an age of relativism of the absolutes of human dignity under the sovereignty of G-d, that was born in the words Lekh Lekha. To be a Jew is to be willing to hear the still, small voice of eternity urging us to travel, move, go on ahead, continuing Abraham’s journey toward that unknown destination at the far horizon of hope.
Fair enough. But it’s important to note that this interpretation would be at odds with how Christians and Muslims would interpret the same passage. Traditional Christians, like Paul, would emphasize, as Paul did, that Abraham showed faith in going when called him to go, not radical separation. Traditional Muslims would go even further to point out that Abraham submitted to God, since a Muslim is one who submits. To my taste, both of these interpretations perhaps minimize the boldness of Abraham, and the choice he made in opting to take the risks associated with following God’s bargain. But the point is that even as all three traditions hold this moment holy, they have different views of what this moment means.
As a result, the grandest act of creation of all may be to take this shared moment and accept that it means different things to different people, and to different faiths, and that Abraham’s legacy may be to suggest that difference is God’s will — and our choice. This view may be the grandest going forth of all.