Our faith begins with the singular journey of a man called by God to rebel against his parents, and journey to an unknown land. In this week's parasha, God gives Avram a personal directive that changes the course of history:
|1. And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.||א. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:|
|RASHI:Go forth: Heb. לֶךְ לְךָ, lit. go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation, but here, you will not merit to have children. Moreover, I will make your character known in the world. — [from Rosh Hashanah 16b, Tan.]||לך לך: להנאתך ולטובתך, ושם אעשך לגוי גדול, וכאן אי אתה זוכה לבנים. ועוד שאודיע טבעך בעולם:|
God's instruction to Avram raises many important questions. One of the most provocative God's demands is that Avram leave home in order to fulfill his destiny. Why couldn't Avram think globally and act locally? Why did he need to separate himself from his family of origin to fulfill the will of a God who demands that every individual honor his parents?
Rashi provides an interesting answer to these questions: Avram must journey in order to provide a personal example to the peoples of the world. While God first assures Avram that he will not have to sacrifice financial stability or a future family in order to go on this great journey, God also then tells Avram that he needs to "make his character/nature known in the world." As the first Jew, Avram assumes the profound responsibility to showcasing a life of ethical monotheism and a new kind of religious leadership. Lech L'cha is the story of a personal journey of faith with public, global, historic implications.
The interplay between personal journeys of faith and public responsibility is one that shapes the contours of our tradition and practice. This week, I was studying the laws of Hanukkah and came across a beautiful and profound halacha related to when we light hanukkah candles. We are required to light the hanukkah candles as the sun is setting because it is the time when folks are returning home from work, and can see the candles lit in the doorways of their neighbors (O.H. 672). When we light the candles in our personal homes to bring light and joy to our families, we must also take into account when our neighbors can see this light. It is our obligation to ensure that as many people as possible in the community can recall the hanukkah miracle. Our personal household practice of the holiday is inextricably linked to the mitzvah of persumei nisah (the publication of the miracle.)
Avram had to take a personal journey (which soon became a joint journey with Sarai) to become the leader that the Israelites needed. But Avram's journey was not exclusively or even primarily a journey of personal growth and exploration -- it was about providing a new type of role model in the world. It was about showcasing a new kind of life in relationship with a singular God who demanded high standards for behavior and leadership. Avram was a man who undertook a personal trek to show a public example, and as his children, we should emulate his example: recalling always that we do not live lives only for personal growth and joy, but also to shine the light of Torah for as many people as possible.