Listening to Our Calling

Lech L'cha, Genesis 12:1−17:27

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar

Where might I go to find You,
Exalted, Hidden One?
Yet where would I not go to find You,
Everpresent, Eternal One?

My heart cries out to You:
Please draw near to me.
The moment I reach out to You,
I find you reaching in for me.

- Yehuda Halevi

And Adonai said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing  (Genesis 12:1-2).

There is a place about a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem. You travel south and then stray from the asphalt to a dirt road. You climb and climb the mountains of the Judea Wilderness. And just above Wadi Kelt there is an overlook with views of vast, rugged beauty. The utter silence of this place slows my breath every time.  

I like to take visitors to Israel here. We sit on the mountain’s edge several feet above the flight line of the birds. I tell the story of Abram and Sarai leaving Mesopotamia to travel to the Negev, a desert even more vast than these hills. I asked them to sit a while, quietly. Occasionally we hear the sound of a Bedouin’s dog herding sheep. Sometimes we hear the sound of a lone car from afar. I tell them. “Hear the noise and then try to listen to the quiet beyond the noise. We sit a while. And sometimes, if we are really still, our breath settles, our heartbeats slow, and we hear the quiet beyond the quiet.

I wonder what Abram heard. We know what God said, lech l’cha, you go. But what did he hear? Did he hear words, phrases, fragments of words like the whisper that sometimes comes to you when you are quiet enough to pay attention. Or perhaps it was like a tug in your heart, a sensation, an invitation to take a step, one step away. Or maybe he had a dream that was so real that he woke with a start and knew what he had to do. There was no hesitation, no conversation, no wavering. Abram said nothing, asked nothing. With clarity and faith, he was compelled into motion.

Abram was called -- called upon to leave all that he knew, to discover a new way of being in the world, to evolve into a leader, a visionary a man who hears the will of God and aligns himself with the Creator.  The 19th-century Chassidic master and biblical commentator Sfat Emet imagines that God’s call to Abram was a call toward greater and consequential purpose: Now surely [each] person was created for a particular purpose. There must be something we are set to right. We are all called to live in alignment with our life’s purpose. This is at once comforting and confounding. We want what Abram was promised, a life that is abundant with blessing. We are all called into being. There is a myriad of possibilities to self-actualize, to discover our purpose, to have a meaningful life, to impact our world, making it safer and more compassionate.

The rabbis understand lech l'cha as command to manifest the good and power within. They quote Psalm 45:12: O my daughter; look and give ear…The King desires your beauty. (Rashi quoting Bereshit Rabba). Step into the light of who you are, the psalmist says. Lech l’cha, embark on a journey of self-awareness and manifest your life’s purpose. You need only listen to discover that purpose. Within your spirit is great beauty. The Sovereign desires your beauty.

But listening is hard. It takes discernment, many moments of listening to the quiet behind the quiet. Listening is an act of courage. We must be brave to hear that we are essentially beautiful and that we are called to great things. It takes an open heart and a strong will to hear lech l’cha, journey forth to a place the I will show you.

We struggle with clarity, as the path towards self-actualization is often undecipherable. Fear and negativity distract us from hearing the quiet beyond the quiet. Go forth… to the land that I will show you. Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negeb (12:9). Stage by stage we build a life. Every moment, stage by stage, is opportunity for growth and spiritual deepening. Lech l’cha is a call to courageous living. Discernment is the practice of sorting out words and assumptions, tendencies and habits, people and surroundings.

In my book Omer: A Counting (CCAR Press), I write: “like the farmer separates wheat from stalk and grain from chaff, a discerning heart examines, scrutinizes, searches, sorts, and sifts. Living well is a process; it takes refinement and practice. That which is life-draining must fall away. And all that is life affirming is the foundation of a life well lived.”

There is a beautiful Buddhist teaching;:the word nowhere has within in it now here.  This is the human dilemma. We are now either  here --, present for the miracle of daily living -- or we are nowhere -- distracted, anxious, bored, paying little attention to the beauty of the present moment. Lech l’cha commands us to be present.

The poet Erica Jong writes,

You are there.
You have always been
there.

Even when you thought
you were climbing
you had already arrived. 

- The Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poetry, (Grayson Books, 2017)

The spiritual journey is not a destination but rather it is a manifestation of our life’s purpose. It is now and here that we can listen to the quiet beyond the quiet. Every day is an invitation to align ourselves with the blessings of life, to find the beauty and live in the truth of it. To heed what our hearts know to be true, that life is at once a struggle and magnificent. And beyond the noise of everyday living, beyond the fear and anxiety, we can hear the quiet beyond the quiet. And then we can know that we are called to be our true and beautiful selves.