Henry David Thoreau never met Abram, but he had an incredible insight into a question raised by the command from God that begins Abram's journey in this week's Torah portion.
I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering: which word is beautifully derived "from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going à la Sainte Terre," to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, "There goes a Sainte-Terrer," a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander . . . Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or home, which, therefore, in good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. ("Walking," from Walden and Other Writings, 597)
Was Abram a Holy-Lander, or a man without land or home? It is an important question to consider during these literal first few steps of our foundation narrative. Like many of the richest parts of the Torah, the opening lines of Parashat Lekh Lekha are fraught with ambiguity: "The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you'" (Gen. 12:1).
What exactly was God asking of him? Did Abram know his destination? Did he realize he was beginning a journey to the Holy Land, or was he walking without any specified destination? We can imagine how either path would elicit anxiety. But there is no doubt that beginning a journey without knowing where it would lead could be met with greater apprehension and concern. Beyond the journey and the destination, though, what did Abram think of Haran? Was he happy at home? Was he content with his surroundings? Did Abram want to set off on a new path and leave his life and family behind, or was he comfortable with the life he was leading?
Our Sages have woven creative and well-known tales that give context to the scene. There are countless children who are taught these midrashim, and believe them to be authoritative through much of their schooling. (Count me as one of them.) How many of us can tell the story of Abram smashing his father's idols and, when confronted with the offense, telling his father that they destroyed themselves? This and many other myths from Genesis Rabbah paint a negative picture of the life that Abram led in developing his critique of the empty practice of idolatry. Our interpretive tradition portrays Haran as a place where Abram was a foreigner. We can only imagine that he would have been willing to leave and start a new life somewhere else, no matter what the casualties along the way.
However, returning to our parashah, we read that the Torah does not say that Haran was a harsh place; it does not describe an atmosphere consistent with the midrashim. This more literal reading of the text makes Abram's departure all the more dramatic. How much more resolve and strength of will would it take to leave a place where you actually feel at home? Even if we say that Abram's passion for God led him to realize that he had to leave Haran to begin this new chapter in his life, this must have been a difficult decision for our emerging patriarch.
So what could have motivated him to make that leap? Did he know where he was going? Did his faith and trust in God ultimately inspire his first steps out of Haran? Did Abram receive some sort of guarantee that the life he would lead would be more fulfilling than that he was leaving? What ultimately inspired Abram to not only hear God's command, but respond?
The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovski, reads the opening line of our parashah very closely, and teaches that there is a shift in how God relates to Abram from the beginning of Abram's call to the end of his journey. When we read the initial command, God addresses Abram verbally, "The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land . . . '" As much as Abram may have wanted visible proof that the destination was real and its promise true, during these first steps, Abram only gets God's word. Only when Abram arrived at "the land that I will show you" would he realize he had reached the end of his journey. Only when he was living his new reality would Abram have the ultimate proof that leaving Haran and the journey were worth it. Only then could he see that he had made the right decision to listen to God's command and leave Haran.
"Lekh lekha" (go forth). Abram had a choice when he heard that command. He could remain where he was in the comfortable, familiar life he was living in Haran. He could keep his eyes closed—not willing to venture out and see what God would show him—or he could open them and look to the future. Then he would realize that, even though he was living a comfortable life, what waited beyond the horizon—no matter how unsettling, anxiety-producing, or unknown it was—was the Promised Land.
What Parashat Lekh Lekha is teaching us is that it isn't knowing the destination that makes us take that first step, it is trusting that we will reach the Promised Land when we depart—believing in God and knowing that no matter how difficult the road ahead, no matter what struggles or complexities wait along the way, the life at the end of the journey is the only ultimate proof that the first step was worth it. The essential point is that we must take that first step, listen to the voice within us that says, "Lekh lekha," and begin the journey.
Was Abram a Holy Lander, or without land or home? He answers that only when he ultimately arrives in the Promised Land. Until then, he is sauntering . . . but either way, he is on the journey.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.