My friend Jill Gardner gave this d’var on Lech Lecha in 2006 and offered to let me share it with you here. She’s giving a new d’var on the same portion this month and exploring how her life has changed and how this Torah portion now is something completely different. But for now, I’m sharing her 2006 d’var.
D’var Torah • Lech Lecha
So, here we are again in Genesis. The verses we read tonight offer a story of great drama. Previously we heard about the genesis of the world and then the genesis of humankind, but here we have the genesis of the Jewish people as a people, a nation, with Abraham as our forefather. Lech lecha tells the beginning of that journey.
In the age of the internet, personal computers, and high speed connections, it is possible, in a matter of seconds, to access dozens and dozens if not hundreds of commentaries on any given portion of torah. The variety of directions they go is seemingly endless. Some portions are easier to elaborate on than others. From that point of view, lech lecha is kind of a slam dunk in terms of the richness and relevance of the themes it offers for us to consider.
So in thinking about what I should talk about tonight in a d’var related to this particular parasha, I found myself going back to a more general feeling I have about how torah is so eternal. We have been reading the same book, year after year, our entire lives. And people in temples and synagogues all over the world, across every place, every situation, every culture and language are also reading this same book, year in and year out. And this has been going on for hundreds of generations. Certainly we regard this as a sacred text. Nevertheless, I don’t think there is any way we could keep this up unless we found in this text a continual source of renewal and personal meaning. In other words, these stories need to reflect more than ancient history; they need to offer inspiration, guidance, relevance and meaning for our lives today.
So with that in mind, I thought the most apt way to enter these verses would be by talking about change. Change is something we all struggle with at many points in our lives. The developmental tasks and challenges we face are different in different phases of the life cycle, but they all involve change – whether you’re four and going off to school or ninety four and feel your world shrinking.
Change is also my work. In my job I see people who come because they are anxious or depressed, they have problems with their families, their jobs, their relationships, or their purpose in life, and they want to change. Last weekend I spent three days at a psychotherapy conference which took as its central concern how do people change. We traveled a path that started more or less with Freud and continued all the way through contemporary psychoanalytic thought, but we never talked about Abraham. What does Abraham’s story tell us about change? In parasha lech lecha, Abraham embarks on massive change. What does this entail and what is it that makes it possible for him to do it? What might we understand from the story that might help make it possible for us to do it?
The story starts with a call: Abraham hears God speak to him and tell him to leave. So the first point is that change requires an impetus – a motive, a longing, a need, a call, something. Sometimes the impetus is external – it’s time to start school, we lose a job, a relationship ends, an opportunity arises. Sometimes the impetus is internal, we’re impelled by desire to seek or search for something – knowledge, friends, adventure, love. Or we’re impelled to escape something – boredom, loneliness, conflict, dread.
For Abraham, it’s not just a case of going to something new; the parasha is also quite specific about what must be left behind and it’s a lot: his country, his birthplace, his land, his father’s house — in short, his home, all that is familiar to him and all that he holds dear. Herein lies the most powerful resistance to change we all have: to change, to become something different, even if it’s something ostensibly better, we have to give up what is known and familiar and move into territory that is unknown and unfamiliar — vague, ambiguous, uncertain, perhaps exciting, but also frightening. God is very specific in telling Abraham what’s to be left, but very vague in telling Abraham where he’s going – it’s “to the place I’ll show you.” So in my mind this begs the next question: what enables us to tolerate such ambiguity, to leave what we know to set sail on such uncertain seas? I find in Abraham’s story three things that speak to this question.
The first and perhaps most obvious is the promise of rewards. Here the rewards seem quite lavish: fame, fortune, power, land, legacy, blessings. Which of these things that God promises Abraham would motivate you to leave home? Would any of them? Motivation is important. However we define those rewards, they have to be personally meaningful in order to get us off the dime. So again, the question becomes, what motivates you to change your life, to take the risk of leaving the known shore for the place that’s not yet seen? We can all name endless ways we’d like to change or think we should change – that’s what new year’s resolutions are all about – but what allows us to actually follow through?
That brings me to the second thing I see in Abraham’s story. Abraham may be leaving what is known to him, but he is not going alone. God is with him, behind him, ahead of him, alongside him. To change we need the help and support of others. We need a connection to someone or something outside ourselves – spurring us on, cheering us on, holding us up, calming our fears. Where do we find that? I think we find it in each other — in our friends, our families, our coworkers, our congregation. Rabbi Zedek talks about letting God shine in us and through us. We may not hear the voice of God as Abram did in this parasha, but we need to find that spark of divinity in those around us who can be our guides, those who help us believe in ourselves and who give us the strength and confidence to try new things, to change. So who is that for you? Who in your life helps you to believe in yourself and to have the courage to face the unknown, whatever that particular unknown is for you at the moment? Where does each of us turn for that? Is it to partners? to parents? to God? to the rabbi? to the shrink?
And finally, in addition to the promise of rewards and the promise of company on his journey, the company of a powerful and benevolent God, Abraham goes, and is able to go, because he has faith in his God. Abraham believes in God and trusts him. God chooses Abraham to form and to lead God’s people. In this story, God needs Abraham, and Abraham needs God. And here, I think, is the true covenantal relationship that is ushered in with this story. It is a partnership, a co-created relationship between God and humanity. To embark on our own journeys of change, we, too, need faith. To change we have to have at least some faith, some hope that the unknown place we’re moving towards will be better than the known place we’re in now, that the journey will be worth the effort. We need the courage to believe in this possibility, as Abraham does when he puts his faith in God.
The anticipation of meaningful rewards, confidence in the possibility of reaching them, and the reassuring comfort of feeling accompanied and assisted by another on the journey are the things that allowed Abraham to change and I think they are what allow us to change in our own lives as well.
But there’s one last point. God’s promise to guide Abraham to a good place, a place of great rewards, comes with a rider, a responsibility. It’s stated as a command, a charge to Abraham: Vehyay b’racha – be a blessing. This reminds me of Rabbi Hillel’s very familiar words: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” God enjoins Abraham to leave and reap great rewards, but to not be for himself alone, to give back instead – in short, to be a blessing to others. So here we have the final challenge. Not only must we find the motivation, the faith, and the support to change our own lives, we must also find the way to help change the lives of others who are in need of us. The mission stated here is nothing short of tikkun olom, the repair of the world.
So on this Shabbat of lech lecha, may it be our hope and may it be our prayer that we will find the courage, the commitment, and the confidence, in ourselves and in each other, to go out, to change, and to make of our lives a blessing, this week and every week.
Kayn yehi ratzon.
November 3, 2006