By Rabbi David Stern
This week brings us to the great Torah portion known as Lech Lecha, and its fundamental paradox — that Judaism, so ostensibly rooted in family and tradition, begins with a radical rupture of both: “And Adonai said to Avram, ‘Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” (Genesis 12:1)
Notice how brilliantly this single verse operates: The mounting phrases drive home the familiarity that Avram will leave behind (your native land, your birthplace, your father’s house), and they contrast that with what is utterly unknown — not a specific or recognized destination, but only the indeterminate “land that I will show you.”
Avram will eventually become Avraham, and this journey upon which he embarks is the beginning of our journey as a people in covenant with God. And while an earlier verse of Torah (Genesis 11:31) indicates that Avram’s father Terach had already begun to travel from the family home in Ur toward the land of Canaan, Terach ends up settling in Haran, and this journey is Avram and Sarai’s own.
That is the Lech Lecha launch pad for our tradition-loving Judaism of zealously preserved family customs, bubbies and zaydies, coming home for the holidays, and honoring thy father and thy mother: Leave the security of family, leave the familiar, and with God’s help, make your way in uncharted territory.
Make your way in uncharted territory: It’s easy to see Lech Lecha as an ancient prescription for coping with a pandemic and its challenges. But Lech Lecha’s wisdom is wisdom for all time. Avram gives us a model of Jewish daring and religious risk that we sometime lose sight of in our emphasis on religion as a source of comfort. Judaism does not ask us to choose between daring and comfort — instead, it challenges us to keep both in play. To ask: If my family or community gives me strength, to what end do I use that strength? To ask: When was the last time I understood my Jewish commitment as something that pushed me out of the comfortable, out of the familiar, toward growth?
To ask as modern Jews: Does the challenge of reconciling Judaism with modernity simply mean finding the comfortable overlap between the two, or does it also mean exploring the ways in which my Jewish identity distinguishes me from the materialistic, fast-paced, unreflective emphases of secular culture?
What familiar comforts am I willing to leave behind (Saturday morning coffee with friends, Friday night at the movies, Sunday afternoon in front of a football game, safe conversations about inconsequential things) in order to pursue a deeper, more challenging God-called Jewish walk in the world, even when the payoff is not perfectly packaged or guaranteed?
Our answers will vary: For some the risk will be in prayer, or a deeper exploration of Shabbat observance; for some in looking honestly at racism within and beyond the Jewish community; for some in ladling soup to a homeless person; for some in deepening our commitment to Israel as it is and Israel as it can be; for some in taking the next steps into Jewish study, even while feeling that “the whole world knows more than I do.”
Our Jewish security blankets — whether our families, communities, friends or just the smell of some good chicken soup — serve us best when they give us the strength and courage to set out on Jewish paths of discovery we had not dared before. The home that Avram leaves behind is not a Jewish home, but his leap toward faith still instructs us. His journey toward Judaism is one we can make within it. The Hasidic master the Sefat Emet comments on our verse: “Whoever stands still is not renewed.” God’s voice calls to Avram, and to us: Go forth from the familiar, and so become a blessing.
Rabbi David Stern is senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.