What kind of life am I leading?

By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Parashat Lech Lecha

A number of years ago, renowned columnist David Brooks wrote a piece for The New York Times talking about the difference between “the Well-Planned Life” and “the Summoned Life.” Brooks described the former as a “well-designed project, carefully conceived in the beginning, reviewed and adjusted along the way and brought toward a well-rounded fruition” and the latter “[not as] a project to be completed, [but as] an unknowable landscape to be explored.” When we first meet our patriarch Abraham at the end of last week’s Torah portion, we find him going along for the ride on his father Terah’s “Well-Planned Life,” as Terah uproots his family from their home in Ur of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia and sets out for the land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31). The Torah doesn’t tell us why he moves his family — maybe he was looking for a change of scenery, or new business opportunities? — nor does it tell us why Terah abruptly changes his plan and decides along the way to settle his family in Haran instead of completing the journey to Canaan. Perhaps he reviewed his life goals for his family and decided that Haran had everything they needed to survive and thrive, and thus it made sense to call it a day and establish roots there, the place where he lives the remaining 60 years of his life and ultimately dies (Genesis 11:32).

The very next verse of the Torah (Genesis 12:1), the beginning of this week’s parasha Lech Lecha, introduces Abraham as an independent character. God calls upon Abram and says “Lech lecha, me-artzecha, u-mimoladetcha, u-mibeit avicha, el ha-aretz asher ar’eka,” “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” As close readers we know that Abraham already left his original homeland on account of his father Terah’s decision to do so, but God’s call here attributes that initial choice of starting the journey to Abraham and certainly asks him in any case to leave his father’s house at this critical juncture. Abraham is summoned to put his faith and trust in God and journey to, and explore, an unknowable landscape. His circumstances demanded of him to do something different from what he might have otherwise chosen in his or his father’s “Well-Planned Life.” And he responds without question and without hesitation to the call. His brave and bold response in that moment of decision ultimately leads to the birth, hundreds of years later, of our Jewish people.

How do we see the framework of our lives today? Are we exclusively focused on maintaining their well-planned nature? Or are we open to living a “Summoned Life” which responds constantly to the context we experience around us and forces us to ask ourselves the question, as David Brooks put it, “What are my circumstances asking me to do?” Whether the circumstances are a Divine call like the one Abraham experienced, or changing dynamics in our family, in our work or in the world around us, we are challenged to rethink the notion of life as a linear project that needs to be completed. Instead, or in addition, we can try to be the person we are called upon to be and make the choices we are asked to make, even if our life project takes on a different arc as a result.

What are your circumstances asking you to do?

Rabbi Ari Sunshine is senior rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel and is president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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