Parashat Lech Lecha 5779

Cantor Tamara Wolfson – 19 October 2018

“Once or twice in a lifetime
a man or woman may choose
a radical leaving, having heard
Lech Lecha — Go forth.
God disturbs us toward our destiny
by hard events and by freedom’s now urgent voice
which explode and confirm who we are.
We don’t like leaving,
but God loves becoming.”
(Mishkan Tefillah p.231)

For someone who has a lot of experience on transatlantic flights, I am a horrible flyer. I’ve always been white-knuckled on airplanes, no matter how many Fear of Flying books I’ve read or classes I’ve taken. In the last few years, I’ve begun searching for mantras and texts to comfort me as the plane taxis down the runway towards takeoff. First, it was tefillat ha’derech, the traveller’s prayer. Then, I began reciting Psalms. But before my last transatlantic flight a few months ago — the flight that made me an official UK resident — I chose to read from this week’s parashah, Lech Lecha.

“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). While it didn’t make the turbulence any less frightening, it did help me feel a bit more grounded as the plane carried me to the new land in which I hoped to settle.

Even if you’re not a fearful flyer like me, you probably have your own Lech Lecha moments of leaving the comforts of your metaphorical or literal home and journeying into the unknown. These journeys frame our collective history as well as our individual experiences, and they reoccur throughout our lives just as the Torah cycles back year after year. As we arrive at Lech Lecha this Shabbat, we encounter Abraham being called upon by God to leave everything comfortable and familiar to him, and to venture into the unknown towards the promise of countless blessing. We see this type of journey played out multiple times throughout Tanakh, but this story sets the precedent for them all.

Rashi translates the words Lech Lecha not simply as “go forth”, but rather as “go for thyself”: for your own benefit or for your own good. And it’s true, God’s promise to Abraham does sound difficult to pass up: “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. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Genesis 12: 2-3). However, while Abraham sets off into the unknown with these words of reassurance ringing in his ears, not all of us are as lucky as he was. Previous generations in our families may have immigrated to unfamiliar countries with dreams of a better life, only to find unimaginable struggle upon arrival. And we move from one job to the next or from one home to another hoping that these journeys will be for our benefit, but with no guarantees.

So how do we approach journeys that are full of vulnerability, ambiguity, and fear, with no Divine guarantee of blessing on the other side?

Underneath the vulnerability we feel around our journeys is the often unspoken sense of loss and grief we experience when we undergo monumental changes in our lives: be they personal, professional, geographical, or spiritual. The tinge of fear we may feel as our airplane soars towards our unknown destination is connected to the loss we feel as we travel further from familiarity.

We sometimes deal with loss and grief by forcing ourselves to let go of or move on from our loss, to continue living life, to not let the loss “get in the way”. But who we were in our previous chapters remains a fundamental part of who we are in the present, and our losses can sit dormant in a corner of our hearts for years. Our past does not disappear into oblivion no matter how many miles separate us from it, in much the same way that those we’ve loved and lost in life remain very much a part of us. So too with our journeys: even as we grapple with profound feelings of loss around a radical departure, we carry pieces of that loss with us and it shapes us as we readjust to newness.

Whether it’s moving house or learning a new melody to a favourite prayer, our lives are filed with these journeys both big and small. The key to making these journeys into Lech Lecha moments — journeys for our own good — is in recognizing that in all these moments, we are ever-changing, growing, and becoming. And while we may not like leaving, God loves becoming.

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