By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, 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.
I have a friend who is a Catholic priest. He is among the kindest and most scholarly ministers I know. Unlike most rabbis, who apply to different pulpits, he literally received a call that asked him to let go of everything that he was doing – to leave his family, and to serve a new community. He didn’t get to choose an intellectual pulpit near a university, so that his members are scholars. He didn’t get to choose a pulpit filled with rich members, who would pay him a lot of money. No, he is called by G-d (by the Archdiocese) to fill this pulpit at this time in this way.
My friend, like me, had to learn sign language because he received a call to minister to the Catholic deaf of Chicago. Yes, I felt inspired to learn ASL and teach Torah to the deaf, but I chose this as my life’s work. My friend Father Joe, a brilliant scholar, was called by G-d to teach Catholic prayers and Scripture to those who cannot hear. Like Abraham, Father Joe accepted the Archdiocese’s call to leave everything in the hearing world and to serve the deaf community of Chicago. The Biblical call by the Lord our G-d is as real and inspiring to Father Joe as was the call to Abraham. He, like Abraham, never doubted G-d’s call.
Recently, Father Joe told me that he understood G-d in two ways – intellectually, when he reads the different commandments in our Torah and in his Christian Scriptures. But, he also understands G-d and struggles to understand His commandments through his heart. He struggles to find out the intention of the commandments. He embraces the commandments with kavannah. He, like Abraham, embraces the call of G-d. He is a modern priest who embraces and practices the ancient call of G-d. I find this very inspiring.
In Lech Lecha, we are privileged to see two interpretations of this Divine text: 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.
On Saturday morning, at our Kabbalistic Shabbat service at Congregation Bene Shalom, we will practice meditations created by the great Hasidic masters. We will lech lecha (go forth), into ourselves. We will dig deep into our own souls. The Baal Shem Tov 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.”
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 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.
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, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary.