Lech Lecha: transformation and faith in God

This week’s Torah portion is Lech Lecha and in it we get to know Avram. At the beginning of the portion God calls out to Avram, “Lech lecha, you yourself go from your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” From that moment of divine call, a call to change oneself, a call to uproot oneself, we can see this entire portion is about personal change. Throughout this portion, Avram goes through a complete transformation.

The first transformation is his physical location, which at first glance doesn’t seem much like a personal transformation, but in reality is a trigger for one. Avram leaves his home and his family to a land he isn’t even told about before he leaves. It is a profound statement of faith in God, but it is also personally transformational because Avram is forced to be completely independent without any reliance on kinship ties that are so common in the Middle East, even to today. In Israel today, it is called protektzia or the personal connections one call rely upon to get one out of trouble or prevent it from happening in the first place. Avram was forced to forgo his family connections and learn to be strong and independent. We see Avram’s increased independence in how he interacts with his neighbors. At the beginning of the portion, he is afraid of the Egyptians and feels that he needs to resort to trickery to survive. By the end of the portion, Avram is a conquering warrior who turns the tide of battle and saves his nephew Lot during the war of the five kings against the four kings.

The second transformation is a transformation in Avram’s expectations for the future. In the beginning of the portion, Avram and Sarai are childless and Avram believes that he will have no one to inherit. By the end of the portion, he has a son, granted, with his concubine Hagar, but even more he has God’s promise that he will have an heir through Sarai. His more positive outlook is symbolized by the promise that God makes to Avram. God promises that he will have descendants and that, even though they will spend 400 years in slavery in Egypt, they will go free and become as numerous as the stars. It is a transformation of a bleak outlook, slavery in Egypt, to a limitlessly positive view of the future with innumerable descendants. Avram goes from the prospect of never having children to having more great-great-great etc. grandchildren than he could ever imagine. Avram went from a negative view of the future to a limitlessly positive view of the future.

The third transformation is Avram’s spiritual transformation. True enough: At the beginning of the portion, Avram hears God’s command, packs up and moves without even knowing where he was going. That shows a certain faith. But it takes Avram another 24 years of spiritual journey before he enters into the Covenant with God that changes him from Avram to Avraham, incorporating part of God’s name in his own name. It took 24 years of spiritual exploration before Avraham could establish with God the Covenant between God and the Jewish People.

So we see over the broad sweep of this Torah portion, that the message here is one of transformation: physical, mental and spiritual transformation. And we encounter God as a God of becoming. I am reminded of a saying attributed to Lao Tzu: “When you let go of what you are, you become what you might be.” The message I take from Lech Lecha is not to fear change, but to embrace the becoming. All that lives, grows and changes over time. Only that which was never alive remains unchanged. But God wants us to live, to be and to become, embracing the changes we encounter on our own personal journeys of transformation.

Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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