Go for Yourself, Go to Yourself

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley




In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



A.           Introduction


Most readers recognize our parasha, Parashat Lekh Lekha, as a new beginning.  For the first time, a person journeys not due to a punishment or exile, but as a response to a Divine imperative.  As Avraham takes his first steps in the direction of the land of Canaan, he begins to write the first page of the history of the Jewish people. 


However, with this beginning, there is also an ending.  Until now, Hashem’s goal was nothing less than the redemption of the entire human race.  In vain, Hashem attempted to form a lasting relationship first with Adam and then his descendants.  When all went awry, necessitating the bringing of the floodwaters upon the entire earth, Hashem did not despair, but hoped that Noach and his descendants would succeed where Adam and his descendants had failed. A new (explicit) set of rules and regulations was drawn up – but in vain.  The Tower of Babel proved that humanity’s inherent rebellious streak prevented its wholesale redemption.  Now, the Torah shifts its focus to the creation of a relationship with one individual, one family.  Through them, blessings will flow “to all the families of the earth.”


B.           Go for Whom?


Here the journey begins:


And Hashem said to Avram, “Go for yourself, from your land, from your birth-place, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”  (12:1)


Several issues demand our attention in this opening verse, beyond the peculiar order of abandonments.  The first peculiarity is the opening command - lekh lekha.  Rashi suggests that the seeming superfluous second word “lekha” implies “for yourself” - for your own good.  Apparently, Hashem’s first words to Avram were a sales pitch – follow me, it is for your own benefit.  The Ramban reacted negatively to this suggestion; instead he suggests that the word lekha is a common grammatical construct.


Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests a third interpretation of the word lekha:


Lekha also speaks of action that is not to be repeated, but is final and ultimate.  If God wanted Avraham merely to visit the land of Canaan, He would have said only lech.  But God meant for him to leave the past, to blot out his memory… In the Song of Songs, the Shulammite keeps using different excuses to not join her beloved.  Finally, he knocks on her door and says, “Rise up – kumi lach – my love and fair one. (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:10).  No more excuses, no more apologies.  The lekha emphasizes the finality of the action. In the Akeida story, God tells Avraham, “Take now your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go, lekh lekha, to the land of Moriah” (Gen. 22:2).  Lekha denotes significance and relevance: the act which is to be done is of great and terrific importance.  (Abraham’s Journey, eds. David Shatz, Joel Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler, [Jersey City, 2008], p. 50) 


More importantly, a simple question stands out in the verse: Where is Avram to go?  Hashem refers only to “the land that I will show you.” The Or Ha-Chaim suggests that this omission was deliberate, in order to increase the challenge that stood before Avraham.  Once Avraham started out, however, “it is self-understood” that Hashem then informed him of his ultimate destination. 


However, the simple understanding of the verse suggests an extended period of wanderings and travels.  Avraham alludes to this period in his complaints to Avimelech many years later: “For Hashem made me wander from my father’s house” (20:13).[1]  The Ramban explains that Avraham wandered throughout the lands, searching everywhere for the Promised Land, until finally, when he arrived in Canaan, Hashem informed him that he had arrived. The Ramban hears in Avraham’s words to Avimelech (hitu – made me wander) the echo of the following poignant verse from Sefer Tehillim (119:176): “I have strayed (ta'iti) like a lost sheep; search for your servant, for I have not forgotten your commandments!”  Not for nothing are the English words travels and travails related. 


Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik saw two lessons, almost paradoxical, contained within this understanding.  First, the very break from the past, without a glance behind and without any knowledge or certainty regarding the future, created the necessary preconditions that would allow Avraham to experience the Divine.


The hagirah (wandering) motif implies an unconditional commitment to and complete involvement with God at all times – from the initial stage of searching for God to the final stage of finding Him.  In every phase, homo absconditus, hidden man, separates himself from his ancestral environment and becomes homeless, lonely, engaged in an almost incessant flight from his country and kindred. To meet God and confront infinity implies an act of transvaluation and heroic skepticism – a reappraisal of all goods and values, a shattering critique of all accepted categories and standards, a doubt concerning anything not directly related to the particular experience. The starting points for revelation and God/man communal existence are to be found in spiritual displacement, in brokenness, in the uprootedness of the human soul, in the disruption of human solidarities and flight from conditions pleasing and familiar.  In order to behold God, one must go forth from his country and ancestral home… Man, in spite of his physical and mental participation in natural events and processes, must never deal in absolutes with regard to finite creation … He may cherish them, he may toil for their promotion, he may cultivate and guard them, he may enjoy them, and he may have pride in them.  Yet he may not consider them as the summum bonum… God wills man to probe, to explore the wider reaches of human existential experience, to deepen his self-awareness and world-awareness, and to discover for himself the incompleteness of our finite existence.  In a word, religious criticism and skepticism render a man a wanderer, homeless and displaced within the uncharted lanes of finitude.   (ibid., p. 76-8)


However, our father Avraham was not a hermit. He was more than just a social man – he was the ish chesed, the man of kindness extraordinaire.  How difficult it must have been for him to give up the ties of family and friendship!  More importantly, as a natural born teacher and leader of men, how could he bear to wander aimlessly in a manner that ensured that he would be ignored as one of society’s outcasts, to part from his live-long dream and ambition to educate the world towards the worship of the one true God?


Our lonely father was a loving man with a sincere affection for people.  He was lonesome for companionship, the warmth and coziness of a life together.  How could he be satisfied with his secluded life, with a hermit-like existence, with loneliness and emotional withdrawal, when he was burdened with a great message which he had to deliver?  He wanted to build a new society and establish a new ethical order.  All this cannot be accomplished by a hermit … Avraham was eager to step out of his private and intimate heritage into the public world of action and word.  The hidden knowledge in Avraham was pressing for manifestation.  The Avraham who had at the outset renounced his kin, deserted society, and intentionally displaced himself, who had chosen homelessness in preference to a together existence, now reversed his course and began to move in the opposite direction, toward society.  He could no longer endure loneliness … Avraham did not cry out when God told him to move on from his ancestral home, from the land of his birth, to parts unknown, because he was engaged then in the movement of recoil and withdrawal.  He understood that in order to achieve, he must choose loneliness.  But when the message ripened in Avraham, when the new world vision matured in him and the prophecy that he had to deliver was pressing for manifestation, he understood that he could not accomplish this task in solitude; he had to return to society. (ibid., p.84-5)


Other authorities, however, preferred the Ramban’s second approach.  According to this interpretation, Canaan had already acquired a reputation among the people as a place of special sanctity.  Instinctively, Avraham understood where his journey led and headed to Canaan without directions. 


The question of whether or not Avraham knew where to go prompted the Seforno to suggest that the words “that I will show you” refer not to the land of Canaan but specifically Elonei Mamre, where Avraham ended his journey.  It also encouraged the Ibn Ezra to suggest that this command was given to Avraham earlier, and preceded the description at the end of Chapter 11 in which Avraham (lead by Terach) begins the process of left his homeland, Ur Kasdim, and set out for Canaan.  The Ramban rejected this approach vehemently:


But this is not correct, for if so, it would follow that Avram was the central figure in the journey from his father’s house by command of God, while Terach his father voluntarily went with him.  Yet the Torah states that “And Terach took Avram his son” (11:31), which teaches us that Avram followed his father and that it was by his counsel that Avram went forth from Ur of the Chaldees. (Commentary to 12:1)


Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests that this issue should not bother us; instead, we can understand from the text that Avraham ultimately won over his biggest convert – his father.  The midrashic tradition teaches us that Terach was the one who informed King Nimrod of Avraham’s abusive and blasphemous treatment of the hallowed images and idols (Gen. Rabbah 38:13).  The father desired the son dead.  Somehow, Terach saw the light; his past was a sham, and his iconoclastic son, who destroyed both the literal and figurative idols of his life, was right.  Suddenly, Terach became a ba’al teshuva (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot 18).  Terach’s emigration from Ur of the Chaldees was then Avram’s first victory.



C.           Chassidic Introspection


We will conclude with several insights from the Chassidic school of thought regarding the first instruction that Hashem gave to Avraham.  The Chassidic methodology of interpreting the Torah involves the mining of each verse for whatever contemporary message and relevance it has for the present day reader, irrespective of the original literary context. 


First, let us consider a fascinating insight from the Sefat Emet.  In one of his addresses to his flock of Gerrer Hasidim at the third Shabbat meal, the Sefat Emet made the following suggestion:


Know that the call of lekh lekha was not a one-time call; nor was it directed towards Avraham alone.  Instead, towards every person, at every moment, Hashem calls out, “Lekh lekha!  Go forward!”


Through the Sefat Emet’s insight, we view Avraham’s first test no longer as a onetime historical event, but as the paradigm of a constant spiritual challenge and struggle that stands before each and every person. Each person has a Promised Land that he or she is bidden to search for, even at the cost of personal sacrifices and losses.  Only through a process of abandoning previously valued ideas that have become our possessions will true spiritual growth occur. 


Perhaps even more fascinating is the insight of Rabbi Mordechai Leiner, more commonly known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe.  Like Rashi and the Ramban cited above, the apparently superfluous wording at the beginning of the Divine command of lekh lekha troubled R. Leiner.  R. Leiner provided a captivating interpretation for the extra lekha as "for yourself" that differs from that of Rashi:


When Avraham our Father began to search and inquire after the source of his life, after he realized that all the pleasures of This World cannot be considered true life, for the pleasure of these pleasures is to remove the burdens and difficulties of daily existence … then Hashem appeared to him and told him, “Lekh lekha – go to yourself.” (Mei Shiloach, vol. 2, p. 21)


The Ishbitzer makes two interesting suggestions.  Unlike many other sources that reject the joys of this world entirely, R. Leiner finds an allowance for the enjoyment of this world.   More important, however, is his interpretation of lekh lekha.  Many spiritual journeys are not, in fact, journeys – they are flights from sufferings and difficulties that comprise daily existence.  Unable to cope, many turn to religion for comfort and solace, as an escape.  From the beginning, it is imperative that God not frame Avraham’s spiritual quest from a negative perspective alone, as abandonment of family, friends, and society.  He must proceed on his journey looking forward, not backwards.  The true destination of Avraham’s journey is Avraham himself.  Through his travels, he will achieve a level of self-realization and actualization that would not have been possible had he chosen to remain in his old environs.  This was the lesson that Hashem wished to convey.

[1] Apparently, Rashi also understood Avraham’s travels in this manner: "Anyone who is exiled from his place and is not settled is a wanderer.” (Commentary to 20:13)