- Adonai said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. . . ." Abram went forth as Adonai had commanded him. . . . (Genesis 12:1, 4)
- And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham. . . ." (Genesis 17:5)
- And God said to Abraham, "As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah." (Genesis 17:15)
Parashat Lech L'cha defines the ultimate journey of humanity. Within each of us there is a search for meaning. Lech L'cha defines this search as one that is deeply spiritual. In these few words, the Torah teaches us a great deal about our relationship with God and how God speaks to us.
The words "Adonai said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land . . .'" are remarkable in how little Abram reacted to them. Most of us, upon hearing a voice asking us to leave all that is dear to us to go to a foreign land, would wonder if we were indeed sane. At the very least we would experience some fright, some resistance, and some form of acknowledgment that the request presents a great challenge—a life-altering change.
But Abram was chosen because he was different from us, or perhaps more precisely because he was like all of us, only more so. He was gifted with the ability to hear God's voice in a way that most of us think is impossible, but all of us are able to do. When he heard God's voice, he did not shake or tremble. It was a voice that was familiar to him. It was a voice that he somehow knew was true and pure and good.
The Rabbis sought to explain this by telling the midrash of Abraham as a young boy of three. In the midrash, Abraham went out and observed the world, wondering in his heart who created it and all its creatures. During the day he prayed to the sun. But when the sun set, he decided that the moon was much more powerful. When the moon sank in the west and the sun rose once again in the east, he realized that neither of them could be the Creator. Abraham realized that there was a higher God to which he would pray.
The Rabbis told this story as a way of explaining why Abraham was different. He was in essence a spiritual genius. He had an ability that we all have—namely, to hear God's voice—but in Abraham it was more finely developed.
In heeding God's words, Abram set off on a journey. But it was more than just a geographic journey in which he traveled from one place to another; it was a spiritual journey in which he would find his life and his beliefs challenged and changed forever. This journey required that Abraham break from his father Terah's teachings. The midrash tells a story of Abraham as a little boy left in charge of Terah's idol-making shop. While his father was away, Abraham destroyed the idols with a hammer. When Terah returned, Abraham told him that the idols fought among themselves. When his father challenged him, saying, "That's ridiculous, idols cannot move!" Abraham replied, "Then why do you worship them?"
That midrash explains the turmoil that Abraham's journey caused within his own family. And it also displays Abraham's deep-seated conviction of belief in one God&mdsh;a God that has no form that can be seen.
Toward the end of Lech L'cha we learn that Abram's name is changed to Abraham. In Genesis17:5 the Torah recounts, "And you name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham. . ." Likewise, in Genesis 17:15 his wife Sarai, who accompanied him on his journey, also had her name changed from Sarai to Sarah. Like Jacob's name change to Israel, which takes place later in Genesis, Abram's and Sarai's name changes indicate spiritual transformation. It serves as a reminder that when we truly encounter God, our lives, our very beings and our very sense of self, are changed in ways we could not have previously imagined.
Abraham may be the paradigmatic journeyman in Judaism. And as the first Jew perhaps he sets us on a path toward our own spiritual development. These are some of his lessons:
- In a world that is so filled with the noise of the every day, find time to truly LISTEN.
- A spiritual journey is just that—a journey. We are not meant to encounter God and remain passive. We must not fear change or avoid the challenge of change.
- Life is meant to be lived. We are not to hide from life or allow life to pass us by untouched and unappreciated. The tradition reminds us that when we are called before the heavenly court, we will be held accountable for all of life's joys in which we did not partake.
- Deep within each of us is the potential to hear God's voice, to hear God's challenge. Someone once said, prayer is our reaching out to God; study is God's way of reaching out to us. Through prayer and through study, through the performance of mitzvot, we embark on dialogues with God that will lead us through our own spiritual journeys. The challenge is finding the time, the courage, and the commitment to begin.
By the Way
"Once, a young man whose wife died in a car accident came to speak to me. He had a strong and burly build, but his eyes were soft and sad. He told me that he couldn't pray now, when he needed God most, because he felt like a hypocrite. He had never prayed before, and he didn't think he had the right to start a relationship with God when he had no history with God. I said to him, 'God is already in a relationship with you. You don't need to introduce yourself. God already knows you and already loves you. God suffers with you and is longing to hear your voice.'" We are in a relationship with God every day whether we notice it or not. God is waiting for our response. (Naomi Levy, Talking to God [New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2002], p. 21)
- Have you ever sensed God's presence? Describe what that felt like. How was that experience different from your experience of other relationships?
- Oftentimes God speaks to biblical figures in the desert. Do you think that location influences our ability to hear God?
- In reflecting upon your own life, how would you describe your life's journey? Do you recall a moment or two in which that journey was set? When did you determine your life goal? Who and what influenced you to make that choice?
- Abram broke with his father Terah in embracing his spiritual journey. Judaism teaches us the importance of kibud av va-eim , the importance of "honoring father and mother." How do we choose our own path when it could mean living a life different from the one our parents dreamt for us?
At the time of this writing in 2003, Sanford Akselrad was the senior rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid in Las Vegas, Nevada.