On the Weekly Torah Portion of Lekh Lekha

Throughout life one asks the same question in many forms. This question lies at the heart of a search for oneself, a search that begins with the first glimmer of consciousness and continues to the very last breath. For every human being it varies, and at every state of his life…. One never really extricates oneself from the context of the issue, Who am I?… Virtually all of the investigation a person ever does, whether of himself or of problems outside himself, consists for the most part of pyramids upon pyramids of answers to that basic question about the essence of his being.
(Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, The Thirteen Petalled Rose)

acorn_sproutThis week’s Torah portion, lekh lakha (Genesis 12:1 – 17:27), is the first portion that addresses the Jewish story. Previous portions, bereshit and noach, dealt with humanity as a whole; from this point on, however, the Torah deals exclusively with the Jewish people. Just as the sprouting of an acorn contains within it the entire oak tree in condensed form, and just like the first verse of the Torah is said to include the entire Torah in it, so one may expect that the opening words of this parashah express Judaism in condensed form.

Here is the first pasuk, the first verse:

לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
Go from your country and your birthplace
and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you.
(Genesis 12:1)

On the face of it, this is a straightforward travel instruction: Abraham, go from where you are now, which has been your family home for decades, and move to the land that I will show you. But if this is really the first sprouting of what we now call Judaism, there would have to be a lot more in it than that.

The first two words, lekh lekha, contain the clue. The words are a command and are often translated as “go thee”, “get thee,” or simply “go”. The Zohar, however, asks us to understand these words literally. The first word, lekh, means “go”; the second world, lekha, means “to you.” The words lekh lekha literally mean “go to you.” Go to yourself, says the Zohar, to the inside of your innermost part, to your interiority. What for? In order to find out who you really are.

The Kabbalistic interpretation of the rest of the pasuk makes it clear that this search for identity is not an attempt to locate oneself through any relative, changing notions or ideas. In fact, in order to find out who you really are, you have to do away with any such notions. This becomes clear in the next few words.

The first is me-artzekha (מֵאַרְצְךָ), from your country. Your true identity is not “an American”, “an Israeli”, “a New Yorker.” Your true self is beyond any notion of belonging to a location.

The second is mimoladetekha (מִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ), which means “your birth.” And the Zohar understands it to mean “your astrology”—i.e., all the planetary influences that you experience in your life as a result of your time and place of birth, and all the particular ways in which these influences expressed themselves in your life. Because those notions are changing, they, too, don’t define who you really are.

The third is mibeit avikha (מִבֵּית אָבִיךָ), from your father’s house. None of the notions of self that result from you being born to a particular family or race, with all the consequences of being part of a certain family or race, define who you really are. And, yes, that includes being Jewish. Your Self transcends causality and/or genetics.

Thus, when you obey lekh lekha, when you go to yourself—beyond space, beyond time, beyond culture and causality—then you get to “the land that I will show you.” But it should be emphasized that this is not a mental, intellectual exercise. As Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes:

Even though the question of the self is one that has since the beginning of time been contemplated by many profound minds, it is not really a philosophical problem.

Any notion that can be created by the mind is, by its nature, relative and, therefore, changeable. It may be true, it may be useful, it may even be holy, but when it comes to the question of who we really are, all such notions are excess ballast that needs to be shed. Even the notion of being Jewish is not who we ultimately are. And when we shed the whole thing, then we reach the Promised Land: not a land that can be defined by longitude and latitude, not one that can be grasped by the mind, but a completely transcendental one, residing in a “region” of our consciousness that transcends space and time as well as our mental capacities.

In the Passover Hagaddah, the sages of old instructed us that in each and every generation we must see ourselves as if we personally have come out of Egypt and made the journey to the Holy Land. This is not about creatively visualizing ourselves as wading in the sands of the Sinai desert. The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim (מצרים), which literally means “duality of boundaries”. Leaving mitzrayim, leaving the duality of boundaries, we shed any notions of self that are relative and changeable, that limit us to particular boundaries. Beyond those notions is who we are. We discover our divine root, the divine spark within us

The Prophet Jeremiah echoed this radical notion of self-transformation:

נָתַתִּי אֶת-תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם, וְעַל-לִבָּם אֶכְתְּבֶנָּה; וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים, וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ-לִי לְעָם. וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד, אִישׁ אֶת-רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו לֵאמֹר, דְּעוּ, אֶת-יְהוָה: כִּי-כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְּטַנָּם וְעַד-גְּדוֹלָם, נְאֻם-יְהוָה–כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲו‍ֹנָם, וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר-עוֹד.
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know Y-H-V-H’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Y-H-V-H; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
(Jeremiah 31:33-34)

Once one discovers who one really is, once one discovers the divine spark as the essence of one’s consciousness, the Torah, the divine law, ceases to be a book or a scroll that is outside oneself, but is rather realized as a spontaneous living presence that one embodies. And then one’s relationship with God is redefined.

This is the life of lekh lekha, of recognizing who one really is. The transformation that is brought about through such a journey is not only individual but collective. As the text of the parashah tells us, one of the results of Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land will be—

וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.
and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Indeed, lekh lekha, “going” to oneself, is a way to affect tikkun olam, the repair of the world. And as such, lekh lekha is the essence of Jewish life.

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Judaism is not unique in asserting that ultimate knowledge of self is the way to know and reach union with the Divine. Muhammad proclaimed in the Hadith Qudsi, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” In the Qur’an, God declares, “We are closer to [man] than his jugular vein.” Jesus stated, “I and the Father are one” and “The kingdom of God is within you.” A Shinto scripture, the Shao Yung, commands—“Do not search in distant skies for God. In man’s own heart is He found.” Confucius said: “What the undeveloped man seeks is outside; what the advanced man seeks is himself.” And in the Parinirvana Sutra, Buddha said: “It is only when all outward appearances are gone that there is left that one principle of life which exists independently of all external phenomena.”

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One does not need to be a kabbalist in order to realize that the Jewish relationship to the “Promised Land” is not about a physical territory. Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), an intellectual giant who was one of Israel’s foremost scientist, humanitarian, philosopher, religious thinker and political/social enfant terrible, had (for all appearances) no mystical bone in his body, yet he wrote the following:

Just as the realization of God by Abraham, which forms the beginning of the history of the People of Israel, occurred outside the physical boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, so also the Torah was given outside Eretz Yisrael. There is no doubt that this is a very rich point, and is aimed at telling us that the acceptance of the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom as well as the yoke of Torah and mitsvot is not a territorial issue.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)