In The Fires of Spring, the late, prolific American author, James Michener, wrote:
“For this is the journey that humans make: to find themselves. If they fail in this, it doesn’t matter much what else they find. But if a person happens to find oneself — if they know what they can be depended upon to do, the limits of courage, the positions from which they will no longer retreat, the degree to which they can surrender their inner life to someone, the secret reservoirs of their determination, the extent of their dedication, the depth of their feelings for beauty, their honest and un-postured goals — then they have found a mansion which they can inhabit with dignity all the days of their life.” (James Michener, The Fires of Spring [NY: Random House, 1949], p. 488)
Michener’s second novel, The Fires of Spring was published in 1949, after the close of World War II. We can surmise that he wrote to a generation of soldiers, now back from war, and to those who toiled on the home front in factories and offices at jobs they might never have imagined. He revealed the voice inside each of them, and each of us; the voice we can hear, if we listen, which suggests at seminal moments in our lives, “you can be more than this.”
In this week’s parashah, Lech L’cha, we read a similar imperative to find purpose in life, to listen to and live — as your true self. The command to Abram, lech l’cha, comes from the voice of God — a voice that Abram, like many of us, hears in his conscience. It’s not a voice that can only be experienced on a mountain top or coming from a ray of light descending from the heavens. It’s a voice that echoes in the corners of our minds and is loudest when we stop to listen, but is always there as background music. The voice challenges each one of us to consider: Is this who I am meant to be? Is this what I am called to do? Is this the purpose for which I was created?
In the parashah, we read:
"The Eternal One said to Abram, Go, forth [find yourself] from your land, your birthplace, 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 it shall be a blessing." (Gen. 12:1-2)
A footnote: Though the Torah gives Abram’s age as 75 at the time he leaves his father’s house (Gen.12:4), age in the Torah is a literary device. Later, the Torah records that Abraham is 175 years old when he dies. Thus, one can place Abraham’s relative age in Lech L’cha as late teens or early 20s — the traditional time of self-discovery.
This idea is emphasized by the change in Abram’s name to Abraham shortly after he sets out on his journey and makes a covenant with God. Both Abram and his wife Sarai have the letter hei added to their names, becoming Abraham and Sarah, respectively (Gen. 17:1-16). The letter hei is connected to the name of God.
The word (or name) God means something different to each of us. In my experience, the word is like a fingerprint: no two people share the exact same working definition of God. For those of us who struggle with the idea of an omnipotent, intervening, miracle-making being, here’s an explanation I learned years ago while working with those in recovery from addiction: G-O-D can be an acronym for the source of “good orderly direction.” God is a lodestar, a compass point toward which we, like the biblical Abram, can direct our lives.
The hei is added to Abram and Sarai’s names when they accept life direction and purpose from God as they understand that heavenly voice to be. Without a sense of purpose, their names, and therefore their lives, are incomplete.
The 19th-century, orthodox leader, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, observed:
“ ... every individual is directly responsible to God for his/her personal conduct. If it becomes necessary, if the values practiced by the majority are not ones that the individual believes are proper, then the individual must go alone, his own way, with God.” (Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times: Genesis [NY: UAHC Press, 1990] p. 39-40)
How could we have survived until this day as a people had we not received from Abram the courage to free ourselves from the self-imposed slavery of self-limiting expectations and harnessed dreams? Abram couldn’t be Abraham living in his father’s house, among familiar surroundings, conducting the life that had been chosen for him.
In finding himself, Abraham found what we are all looking for: a purpose, a reason to get up in the morning that is internally motivated.
In his book, How Will You Measure Your Life? Clayton M. Christenson, a professor at the Harvard School of Business, offers a model of how to make that “should I stay or should I go” decision that confronted Abram, Michener, and all of us, by applying business theory to this eternal dilemma. Christenson explains:
“ ... in life, like in business we each have limited resources: time, energy, talent and wealth. With every moment of our time, every decision about how we spend our energy, our talent and our money, we are making a statement about what really matters to us.
“You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose in your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with your purpose. If the decisions you make about where to invest your blood, sweat and tears are not consistent with the person you aspire to be, you’ll never become that person.” (Clayton M. Christensen, James Allworth, Karen Dillon, How Will You Measure Your Life? [NY: Harper Business, 2012], p. 67)
Abraham’s journey and our quest to know ourselves are one and the same. In truth, it’s not a journey we take only in our formative years as teens or young professionals; it’s a journey we take time and time again. We are on that journey right now, all of us.
To leave your father’s house, physically and metaphorically, and go to find your purpose in life is truly to live a life of meaning. Sometimes, as for Abraham and Michener, it means we have to jettison all connections to our past and chart a new course. But other times, our journey of self-discovery is a return home to the source of who we are — a place we may have moved away from over time.
For either journey, Torah is our guide and our road map to a life of meaning and purpose, our good orderly direction. May it be so in our lives and may it lengthen our days.
In this week’s parashah, Lech L’cha, I have always been more mystified by the call and response rather than the journey itself. God says to Abram, in the imperative, “you go” (Gen. 12:1). And what do Abram and Sarai reply to such a dramatic and life altering command? Nothing. Nothing is said. They simply go and embark upon the journey. What follows is defining — it is the hero’s journey to discover the meaning of personal and national identity. With all its complexity, and yet with ultimate simplicity, this journey turns Abram and Sarai from anonymous tribal leaders into our ancestors of origin: from this moment we will, eventually, become the Jewish people.
Call and response. This narrative teaches us three powerful lessons: we are called to a greater purpose, we can discern that purpose, and when we answer the call, we live a life of meaning and consequence. This is the spiritual principle of discernment. From depths of our being we can discern a tug, pulling and pushing us to become who we are always meant to be. It is no less than a calling to manifest the beauty and power with which we were born. And when we are brave and faithful, we respond to that calling. What unfolds is a purposeful and meaningful life. All who are in our orb are affected and urged to do the same.
This is not a simple task. Abram and Sarai make it seem simple by their clarity and actions. But we, their descendants, don’t find this to be so easy. Inside us, there is a choir of voices telling us not to be brave and faithful. We are riddled with doubt and fear. And in fact, we aren’t really sure that we’ve been called to greatness. A calling? We don’t know what that means. This is why a spiritually grounded life is a life of practice. It takes commitment and practice to discern, to decide to listen to that discernment, and to choose, every day, the actions and attitudes that will propel us on our path.
Discernment is clarity. It is fine-tuning. It is guidance. It is trusting intuition over fear, listening to the gentle fluttering of longing and to the whispers of the soul. It is self-reliance. It is the utter denial of negativity and the commitment to positive thinking. And yet, discernment is not dogmatic. There are a myriad of possibilities to self-actualize, to discover purpose, to have a meaningful life, and to impact our world, making it safer and more compassionate.
We go back and forth between choice and discernment, reaffirming our decisions, reexamining everything. The spiritual path is a zigzag, a switchback up a mountain. It is exhausting, riddled with doubt and setbacks. There are so many ways to get us where we need to go.
Discernment is the practice of sorting out the words and assumptions, tendencies and habits, people and surroundings. It is a primary principle of our spiritual life. That which is life-draining must fall away. And all that is life-affirming becomes the foundation of a life well lived.
Sometimes, we are called to a life of real and true suffering. This week, we remember Kristallnacht, the night when the decimation of the Jewish communities in Germany and Austria was so profound that we remember the pogrom by the sound it made: “The Night of Broken Glass.” The psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, bears witness to the destructive forces of the Holocaust and still commands us not to give in to cynicism and despair:
"We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a person tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement." (Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, newly revised, third addition, p. 118)
It is true that life can be filled with suffering; as human beings we have the capacity for evil and destruction; and, our own particular circumstance can be riddled with tragic and difficult events. Paradoxically, it is also true that life at its core is precious, and filled with sparks of light and beauty and blessing. And it is true that we are being called to a greater purpose than our own circumstance. We are called to live a life of grace and kindness and compassion, even within unimaginable suffering. And when we heed that call, we follow the example of Abram and Sarai, we come closer to living a hero’s journey.
Note: Excerpts were adapted for this essay from Omer: A Counting by Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar.
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1−17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91–117; Revised Edition, pp. 88–117
The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, pp. 59–84
Haftarah, Isaiah 40:27–41:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 330−333; Revised Edition, pp. 118−120