Lech Lecha: Go Forth to an Unknown Place
This Dvar Torah was written by Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn is a Board Certified Chaplain at New York-Presbyterian Columbia University Irving Medical Center where she specializes in Palliative Care, Critical Care, and Emergency Psychiatric Care, and she is the current president- elect of NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). Rabbanit Alissa is also the Devorah Scholar at Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, N.J. This article was first published in ejewishphilanthropy.com.
This week’s parsha begins with God telling Avram to leave everything he knows for a place that is unknown.
God uses the phrase “lech lecha / go forth…”
Let’s look at this phrase in its wider context: The words “lech lecha” appear as bookends on either side of Avram’s spiritual journey.
The first appears in our text, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house” (Bereshit 12:1) as his travels begin.
And the second comes from the instruction that Avram — now Avraham — take his son to the land of Moriah to be sacrificed, where it again says “lech lecha,” “Go away to the land of Moriah.”
Why does God use the words “lech lecha” specifically in these two instances?
The first is a call to go out and leave the familiar – his family, his comfort zone, and his sense of stability.
This is in order to leave behind whatever may hold him back and face the unknown potential and blessings that can come from following God’s path.
As the commentator Or HaChayim teaches, “lecha” refers to the call to go to our best self, or as the Zohar says, it’s the challenge to get to know and fix ourselves.
The second “lech lecha” is a call to sacrifice, to turn everything, even his child’s life, over to God. It’s a test of faith against instinct, a leap into the unknown, even into terror.
What’s the common thread? Both instances of “lech lecha” require that Avraham proactively face whatever comes next and make something meaningful out of it, even if he must transcend himself and his circumstances.
As readers of these texts, we can relate: we know that it can be daunting to put one foot in front of the other when we don’t know what’s coming next.
Whether it’s when we feel trepidation and anticipation (as in the first use of the phrase) or when we are afraid of what we may lose (as in the second).
But in that space lies the greatest opportunity to transform fear into meaning.
This is the process of turning chaos into order, the profane into the holy, a process that God asked for our partnership in from the beginning of Bereshit / Genesis.
It’s no coincidence that much of what happens between the “lech lecha” bookends of Avraham’s life can be characterized by generosity and compassion.
Whether giving food to guests passing his tent or giving the benefit of the doubt to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham is known in our tradition as a paragon of generosity.
When connected to these “lech lechas,” Avraham’s capacity to be generous becomes all the more profound and instructive.
Giving comes more easily when we feel secure, when we have abundance. But Avraham’s generosity is the kind we give when we face the unknown and even scarcity.
It’s an act of faith and selflessness. To give when we don’t feel stable requires that we transcend our nature and in doing so, actualize our dignity and holiness.
It’s for this reason that our rabbinic tradition requires even the poor to give charity, within their means.
Through the lens of generosity, I would suggest we read “lech lecha” with a new interpretation: as a moral imperative to give at times of insecurity, specifically when we are not guaranteed stability.
To read “lech lecha” as “go beyond you,” namely go to the place where you are able to see beyond yourself and into the hearts and needs of others.
May we each personally reflect on these words and make them our mantra.
Through them, God challenges us to choose to make life good, to create connection and meaning when they are lacking.
This is a legacy of Avraham that defines us as Jews today – that we strive to be people who take a step forward with generous and open hearts specifically when we don’t yet know where our feet will land.