Parashat Va-yera

Genesis 18:1-22:24
November 15, 2008 / 17 Heshvan 5769

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi David Ackerman, rabbi for national outreach, JTS.

On the topic of walking, the rock 'n' roll references come fast and furious. From Lou Reed's teasing nudge to "take a walk on the wild side," to the Rolling Stones' and Peter Tosh's advice to "keep on walking and don't look back," and from the Grateful Dead's reflection on "walking around Grosvenor Square," which leads to the revelatory insight that "once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right," to James Taylor's evocation of the "walking man," who "doesn't do nothing at all," but walk, our popular culture sees the very basic human act of walking in very personal and highly symbolic terms.

In Jewish culture, Avraham Avinu is the original "walking man." Two words bespeak this central motif of Abraham's life. Lekh l'kha, "Go forth," (or as I prefer, "Go take a hike," which I'll explain in a moment) is of course the divine command that begins Abraham's saga. The same phrase recurs in Parashat Va-yera as part of the demand that Abraham offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Between those two imperatives to go take a hike, Abraham spends a lot of time on the road. Momentously, he leaves his homeland and his father's house in search of a new, and not precisely identified, land. He migrates to Egypt in response to a famine and returns only to take to the battlefield, just one of a series of adventures that keep him continually away from home. Abraham's peripatetic nature gives rise to a great deal of commentary down through the centuries, some favorable, some not.

In the midst of his encounter with Avimelech, the geographic heart of Va-yera, Abraham reflects on his life on the road with these words: "so when God made me wander from my father's house . . . " (Gen. 20:13). Rashi's rich comment traces an intriguing understanding of Abraham's journeys. "When God took me out of my father's house to be a vagrant (m'shotet), roaming (v'nad) from place to place . . . anyone who is exiled from his place and is not settled is called a wanderer (to'eh)." Rashi's description suggests a measure of discomfort with the apparent aimlessness of Abraham's wanderings, and in this respect he seems to echo Midrash Tanhuma's sharply worded question: "Is there a man who travels without knowing to what destination he travels?" (Tanhuma, Lekh L'kha 3).

Rashi concludes his comment with a series of Biblical verses that beautifully complicate the picture. Psalm 119:176 offers this plea: "I have strayed like a lost sheep; search for Your servant for I have not forgotten Your commandments." Abraham may wander like a lost sheep, but his roaming represents a reaching out to God, a plea to be noticed. And the next verse cited by Rashi pushes that notion even further. Job 38:41 reads, "they wander about without food." Abraham's life on the road is a search for sustenance, both physical and spiritual. Aviva Zornberg brilliantly describes Abraham's journeying as suggestive of "the full paradox of a vital quest, enacted in empirical randomness." He may not know exactly where he is headed, but he understands full well why he's headed there. And in this regard, Abraham is all of us; our lives in so many ways follow the same trajectory of purposeful, personal journeys, undertaken in unreliable circumstances, in search of uncertain results. And yet, we continue to walk.

Two centuries before Rashi, Saadya Gaon wrote of the benefits and appropriate purposes of travel (in a passage discovered by Dr. Moshe Zucker in JTS's genizah collection!). One travels, writes Saadya, in the name of acquiring knowledge of and familiarity with the Creator. He goes on to list such other valuable benefits to travels and wandering as knowledge of animals and learning about the Earth and its orbit along with discovering the distance of the stars from the Earth. We can easily apply Saadya Gaon's claims to Abraham's biography. Abraham walks in search of knowledge of himself, of God, and of the world around him. We too walk for similar reasons.

Cultural historian Joseph Amato begins his history of walking, On Foot, with a delicious quote from the great nineteenth-century French writer, Honore de Balzac:

Isn't it really quite extraordinary to see that, since man took his first steps, no one has asked himself why he walks, how he walks, if he has ever walked, if he could walk better, what he achieves in walking . . . questions that are tied to all the philosophical, psychological, and political systems which preoccupy the world?

Our tradition has indeed asked such questions over the course of many centuries, and the various answers are pretty interesting. Saadya Gaon has already shown us that we walk in search of knowledge and wisdom. Rashi has already taught us that we walk in search of sustenance.

The early Hasidic masters saw walking as a profoundly religious act, a sacred duty that symbolized spiritual growth in a variety of different ways. The Sefat Emet, for example, speaks of "the way of those who serve God. They are called ‘walkers . . . '" All of a person's days are a single journey. The "walk of life," to borrow another pop-music phrase, and the daily effort to serve God are one and the same. The Magid of Mezerich spells out that idea in more detail:

sometimes a person walks about and speaks with people, and as a result, he cannot study . . . he should not worry about this. For God wants the person to worship in all manners . . . the opportunity arose for him to travel in the way or to speak with people so that he would worship in an alternative manner.

Heschel's famous claim that marching for civil rights in Selma constituted "praying with his feet" is the direct descendent of this Hasidic ideal. We walk in search of opportunities to serve God, to improve the world, and thereby to worship.

Finally, Jacob Joseph of Polonnoye assigns a deep spiritual value to walking: "the matter of a person's travelling from this place to that place for the sake of a livelihood or the like is due to the fact that in the place to which he goes are found his sparks and he must release them from there and purify them." In the language of Kabbalah, the world is filled with divine sparks and each of us has the sacred opportunity to locate and "redeem" the sparks meant uniquely for us. We walk in search of our individual sparks, our unique chances to bring even small hints of redemption to a still-broken world.

We, like Abraham, don't always know where we're headed. And like Abraham, we walk in order to learn, in Aviva Zornberg's rich words, "what it means not (yet) to be shown, to be told." So keep on walking, and don't look. Who knows what's out there, waiting to be discovered.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.