Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Go Forth, in Jewish

This week we cannot assert that the Jewish lifelines of Torah study and prayer are irrelevant for our day. This week it is almost unnerving how much the Torah and our Jewish tradition have to say to us to guide our thoughts and decisions.

The haftarah for this Shabbat asserts:

The coastlands look on in fear,

the ends of the earth tremble. (Isaiah 41.5)

There have been those who have told me, in the past and more recently, that they prefer my messages when they do not overtly refer to politics. In that, those who have shared such a thought with me are in good company with our ancestors and with our Jewish community today; we all would like to simply go home and rest at the end of a difficult week, with no thoughts of more that we are called upon to do.

But the Jewish answer is this: you can go tell it to Jeremiah and Isaiah, to Micah and Elijah and Huldah. Our great prophets declared, for then and for always, that to be Jewish is to engage with G*d’s creation in all its forms. G*d is expressed in the world in every human breath and every planetary utterance, and it is hutzpah to assert that we will curate our response to the mitzvah to exclude that which troubles our rest.

We can feel an urgency echoing over the millennia since our ancestors first told the story of Lekh L’kha, pulling at us – and this is the sound of G*d’s voice calling, although you may prefer to call it by some other name. It does not matter what you call it, it only matters that you hear it. 

We have gathered in larger communities and with each other, feeling a new feeling of needing to answer the call of this week’s parashah: Lekh l’kha, “go out from what you know, from the “homeland” of past certainties, the “parents’ house” of assuming safety and security, the “kindred” of spending time only with those who agree.

Our earliest ancestors – from whom we are all descended, not by bloodlines but by intentional and loyal acts – were known as Ivri, “the one who crosses over”. We are called upon this week as they were with the mitzvah, the obligation, of lekh l’kha, “get going”.

And our tradition does not abandon us there but is with us, with wisdom from our past to help us figure out where we are going. The text itself does not say: it simply commands “Get up and go from your homeland, your family home and your kin, and go to a land that I will show you.” (Bereshit 12.1) 

We’ve been here before, and we know what to do and how to do it. We understand that this command speaks to us personally: Lekh l’kha, “go to yourself, for yourself” – what do you need to change in your life to be a more whole person?

We understand that this command speaks to us communally: Lekh “go to yourself” outward, into the world, in order to find what is l’kha, “for you” inside you.

And we understand that this command speaks to us holistically: Lekh l’kha, one cannot go forth without going inside. None of us is alone, and we must not allow anyone to forget that.

This Shabbat let the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah inspire you and remind you: we have been here before. As Jews, our history and our tradition support and guide us and we do know what to do, even if we do not know where we are going: we must link hands and go forward together. Without demonizing the other, without ceding the high ethical ground, without losing hope.

They draw near and come,

each one helps the other, 

saying to each other, “take courage!” 

Not only for ourselves in our Jewish community, but beyond “kindred” to communities and individuals across all lines of division, we must reach out: 

The woodworker encourages the smith,

The one who flattens with the hammer 

encourages the one who pounds the anvil.

They say to each other, “it is good!”

and they support each other’s work

that it may not fall. (Isaiah 41.5-7)

May it be for you a Shabbat of spiritual and emotional strength gained from Torah, prayer, and g’milut hasadim, acting with loving kindness, that we may not fall.


Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Be Curious, Be Brave

I recently received an email offering new Torah commentaries “for the curious and brave” – a provocative phrase that immediately makes me feel a sense of challenge. After all, I think that our Torah study is already pretty satisfying to the curious, and challenging to the brave. But I’m also excited to check out the new commentaries (see below to see for yourself) to see if there really is something that will open yet another doorway, yet another glorious trove of possible learning – and the implications thereof, which are the best part.

This week’s parashah offers us the classic role model of the curious and brave: Abraham, to whom suddenly G-d appears, with no warning and for no reason that we can discern from the text itself. The first verse of the parashah is this:

א  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.

1 Now G-d said to Abram: ‘Get yourself out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your parents’ house, to the land that I will show you.

Abram (he becomes Abraham later in this parashah) shows both curiosity and bravery in his response: he picks up household and effects, unquestioningly, and goes. He doesn’t ask where to, nor how long, nor in any other way does he demand more information.

Applying the mandate of the curious and brave student, which seems already much less demanding than the qualities of heart and soul required of Abraham, we look more closely for glimmers of meaning.

One of the most interesting aspects of this verse is the strange grammatical construct לך לך – lekh l’kha, which is here translated “get yourself going”, so to speak. But because the grammar is obscure (one can translate these two words, which look alike, as if they are alike: “to you, to you” or “go, go”, or any variation between them) there are other ways to understand it, and the mystics have a wonderful suggestion. “Go to yourself.” Abram is being told that it is precisely by leaving all with which he is familiar that he will come to some new vision in his life, and more, that he will come to himself.

By leaving himself he will come to know himself. And so, we are told, it is with us. By separating from our patterns, our familiar acquaintances, and our expected daily routines, we may hopefully expect, after some explorations without and within, to come full circle, and, as T. S. Eliot said, “know the place for the first time”. This is not a command to leave everything behind forever, only to be willing to allow some distance from our comfortable habits of thought and action in order to let in a bit more light, and to be willing to walk a new path in order to come to understand old familiar realities. What are you entirely sure of, so sure that it is like “country, kindred and parents’ house”? And what might you see if you step away from that fortress of certainty?

As with life, we know that good Torah study requires us to leave adamant conviction at the door and to be willing to entertain the possibility that there exists more wisdom even than we already possess. In this way, humility is a necessary precondition for curiosity, and, interestingly enough, for bravery as well. And the first word of the parashah calls to us that the right time is now, it is always now. Go forth into the world a little bit farther and deeper than you have until now, be curious and be brave, go forth and go to yourself. Perhaps one of the new commentaries below will help!

New JPS Torah Commentaries “for the curious and brave”:

Brave-The Bible’s Many Voices, by Michael Carasik offers a close textual study of the rich variety of literary genres that comprise the Tanakh. Spend a few sessions with each voice: the historical, theological, legal, prophetic, wisdom, women’s, poetic, and foreign. A 24-session syllabus/study guide is available on our website.

Braver-From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends, by Hebrew University professors Yair Zakovich and Avigdor Shinan. This 30-chapter bestseller from Israel will have you rethink the Bible stories you know, and startle you with the ones you don’t!

Braver-The Aura of Torah: A Kabbalistic-Hasidic Commentary to the Weekly Torah Portion, by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Many of these texts have never appeared in English before. The excerpts are brief and the commentary is lucid. These masters provoke a personal encounter with Torah.

Bravest-Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, by Louis Feldman, James Kugel and Lawrence Schiffman and seventy other scholars of Second Temple literature. Become reacquainted with the biblical family you thought you knew through the daring works that were excluded from the Hebrew canon. An 18-session syllabus/study guide is available on our website, along with a sampling of selected texts from this landmark three-volume anthology.

And just now out: The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash, by Jerry Rabow, a student of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, which is also perfect for adult education and has an accompanying syllabus.