[JOI Word of Torah] Big Tent Judaism: Lech Lecha
Kerry M. Olitzky
kolitzky at joi.org
Sat Oct 13 03:00:33 GMT 2007
"Big Tent Judaism" Word of Torah
October 20, 2007 / 8 Cheshvan, 5768
[Published simultaneously in the New York Jewish Week, 10/18/07]
Lekh Lekha. Go for yourself, for your own sake. Not for the sake of the
community, not for the sake of others. The Torah uses the emphatic form as
the lead in this week's Torah portion in order to make sure that Abraham
understands the force of the directive. One command (lekh) is not enough. It
has to be repeated in such a way so as to make sure that Abraham-and we, by
extension, as those who engage the Torah-fully comprehend the thrust of the
Torah's instruction. Lehka, for you, for your own well-being. Get out of
this place. It is the only way that you can grow spiritually. If you remain
here, you will stagnate. You will never reach the heights you seek. Even
with its emphasis, the phrase is only written once, but the intention is
that it should be repeated often as a kavannah, a sacred mantra, so that we
shouldn't forget this spiritual impetus wherever our life's journey takes
us. Whenever we forget, we are asked to remember that the journey forward is
indeed for our own benefit, our own good.
I realize that this understanding may be contrary to what many classical
commentators suggest-for they say that it was Abraham's faith in Gd that
drew him forward from his complacency. Teachers like Rabbi Menachem Mendl of
Kotzk put it this way: Faith is clearer than vision.
Such Abrahamic journeys are difficult to undertake, especially because when
we leave, we think that we leave behind a piece of who we are-or what we
once perceived our identity to be. And that is indeed true, because that is
also how we influence those around us. Why else would there be signs of
hometown heroes throughout North America?
When we feel pushed out, we think that we have been forced to leave part of
our selves behind and are therefore no longer whole. But who we are includes
where we came from until we are able to transcend such a place in what we
have become and where we have come to.
All journeys include two steps: from and toward. For a journey to be
complete, both are necessary. Abraham knew what he was leaving behind but it
would only be in the course of his journey that his would discover what he
was going toward. But he also realized-as we learn elsewhere in the
Torah-that the journey is in fact an important part of his spiritual growth.
He came to realize that the Torah repeats throughout its narrative in one
way or another this idea: the joy is in the journey.
In this Torah reading, Abraham offers us insight into the question that is
on the minds of so many communal leaders and of so many parents-"why be
Jewish?"-by suggesting that the answer can be found in the context of his
journey. Some suggest that a reading of the initial text of this portion
would yield "go into yourself." Dig deeply into the self not before starting
out on the road but while you are on it. That is part of its purpose. And
while there, go beyond the self, beyond one's level of comfort, beyond what
is familiar. Because it is only there that you will find the answers you
While many talk about the collective future of the Jewish community against
a background of a generation of individual entitlement, it is important to
note that the Torah directs us to make decisions for our own sake, as steps
along our own journey. Parents, perhaps, understand this notion best. When
making decisions regarding their children, they don't make decisions about
what is best for the community. Rather, they make decisions about what is
best for their children. And if we want those parents to include in those
decisions "Why be Jewish?" or "Why be part of the Jewish community?" then
we'd better provide them with substantive answers, irrespective of the
religious backgrounds of these parents.
One reason might be so that we can continue the journey of Abraham in order
to find the self.
Rabbi Kerry Olitzky is the author of many inspiring books that bring the
Jewish wisdom tradition into everyday life, and is most recently the
co-author of 20 Things for Grandparents of Interfaith Grandchildren to Do
(And Not Do) to Nurture Jewish Identity in Their Grandchildren and Jewish
Holidays: A Brief Introduction for Christians.
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You are welcome to use these ideas in your own work and writings as long as
you would be so kind as to credit Rabbi Kerry Olitzky and the Jewish
Outreach Institute, thank you.
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