By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17:27)
The opening scripture of this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, “Go forth from your native land, from your kindred, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) has a number of different translations and meanings. In the literal translation of the text, G-d calls Abram (this takes place before his name is changed to Abraham) to drop everything, leave his family, leave his friends, leave his community and to wholeheartedly trust in G-d’s call, because G-d is leading Abram to a chosen country that G-d wishes for Abram and his descendants. The Ma’or Vashemesh reads the expression “Lech Lecha” (Go Forth) as a call addressed to every person to penetrate beyond the more external aspects of the Self to his deeper, inner self, which can be identified as an aspect of the Divine.
In this text, we are privileged to see two interpretations of this Divine verse: one that is behavioral and one that is psychological. When G-d tells Abram to “pay attention to Me for your own benefit,” G-d is teaching him that he should understand and pay attention to the way he travels and does things. Hashem loves Abram so much that He teaches him to focus on his behavior, as a father does with his son.
But. Hashem also wants Abraham to examine his spiritual state and elevate it. When we internalize G-d’s loving commands, we recognize that these two interpretations depend on one another. Our behavior, when we improve it, inspires in us a higher spiritual awareness. And a higher spiritual awareness inspires a higher spiritual behavior. When we understand the relationship between spirituality and behavior, we know that this is no ordinary text, but it is indeed a book given by G-d, inspired by G-d and even written by G-d. How blessed are the people of Israel.
This weekend, I have a perfect example of two potential meanings for “Lech Lecha” (Go Forth). On Saturday morning, at our Kabbalistic Shabbat service at Congregation Bene Shalom, we will practice meditations created by the great Hasidic master the Baal Shem Tov. We will “go forth”-into ourselves. We will dig deep into our own souls. We learn in the Zohar, Sitrei Torah 1:66b, that the Neshoma or Divine Soul is identified with Abram. The Baal Shem Tov, embracing this Zohar, taught that the Neshoma is not happy to come down to this material world of change. The Neshoma enjoys the spiritual realm, where it lives at One with G-d. In Keter Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that the Neshoma is afraid of the uncertainties of the material realm, but G-d insists that the Neshoma leave heaven to come down to perfect the body and the entire world. Therefore, G-d commands the Neshoma “Lech Lecha, Go to yourself,” which the Baal Shem Tov, teaches as “to yourself, for your own tikkun or perfection.”
And on Sunday, October 29, we wll celebrate the ordination of Tirtzah Israel from Hebrew Seminary. Our seminary is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and I am very proud to ordain Rabbi Israel. She has been an outstanding student—who has gone forth from her physical persona of an African-American hard-of-hearing woman—and she has gone forth to discover her spiritual connection to G-d and to her Jewish identity and her connection to the Jewish community. After Sunday, she will physically go forth to embrace a new life as a leader of the Jewish people.
From the second verse of this week’s parasha, we learn an even more inspiring bit of wisdom. In Genesis 12:2, G-d says, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, … and you will be a blessing.” In the first verse, G-d’s name is expressed as YHVH, which gives the connotation of a G-d of love and blessing. In the second verse, G-d’s name is expressed as VHYH. According to the great Kedushat Levi, this text proves that our actions can bring joy and great blessing to the Holy One. This gives us humans great power, since G-d’s response to our action, is the gushing forth of Divine blessing (shefa) and joy. This reciprocal blessing has greatly improved the world and the relationship between G-d and mankind. Abraham was the first person to reverse the flow of blessing from below to above, reflected in the word “VHYH” which is the inverse of YHVH. Because of Abraham’s actions, we have one of the great spiritual laws of the Universe: Our good actions necessarily cause G-d to send blessings down to us.
It took the power of Abraham’s kindness to arouse G-d’s blessings from above and to inspire the Israelites’ blessing from below; that is, the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton inspired the Israelites love from below to above. From the time that Abraham arrived as G-d’s great prophet and patriarch, there was arousal of the Shefa. This is an amazing gift that G-d gave to the Universe.
When I sit down with my class and discuss with my students the amazing texts that G-d lays before us, asking us to govern our lives with these commandments, I feel so blessed and so honored to be one of the world’s teachers of Torah.
So often students will ask me if spirituality is an integral part of our religion. I can only answer with a smile on my heart, saying that spirituality is not only an integral part of our faith, but it is the most essential part of our teachings. And we are enormously blessed to have this teaching from this Torah.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is the senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.