Lech Lecha 5780 – Go.Become. The Essence of Judaism

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Lech Lecha – what does it mean? it could simply mean, “Go forth,” but look, this is Jewish scripture. It has been parsed for centuries. For rabbis, the more cryptic, the better. And also, the words are followed by such evocative phrases like, “to a land that I will show you,” and, “I will bless you.” You get the sense early on that we’re on to something BIG! So actual translation and meanings are as numerous as the stars in the heaven.

In Etz Chaim, go forth is explained as, “betake yourself,” in true biblical prose. In Stone, it is translated as,  “Go FOR yourself,” – a “favor” from Gd – presumably because, as it says in Stone, “I (Gd) will make a great nation from you. You will have children.”  (Abraham had been fatherless until this time.)

For me personally, I always have looked upon the phrase as a calling to be bold. Get out of your comfort zone. Get moving. Times a’wasting. Look at the biographies of famous or of simply successful people, and you often find a singular moment in which they heard the command, lech lecha. And to make it a bit less cosmic: have you heard the expression, “Fortune favors the bold?”

That expression may, in my way of thinking has its truth and its roots right there. After Gd tells Avram to go from what is familiar, Gd promises to bless him. These successful people have, in one sense of another, heard the command. Go from this place. Leave the familiar. Be bold. And once they hew to that command, their lives are irrevocably changed.

I’m currently reading a detailed and very interesting book about Harry Truman. Truman was a struggling farmer, having moved back to the family farm to help his father manage things. Truman had worked as a timekeeper on the railroads for several years before that. No education beyond high school. At age 29, well past the usual enlistment age, he enlisted in the military so he could help the country in World War I. While in the military, he made some contacts who would eventually be instrumental in Truman’s entering politics. Politics! His family was shocked and indignant. What did he know about politics!?!  Harry Truman’s inner voice told him, “Lech lecha, Harry!”

There’s another phrase that immediately follows lech lecha. In Chapter 12:2, it is written, “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.” “You shall be a blessing” is also the translation we find in Stone.This implies that Gd would show favoritism to the descendants of Abraham. That’s Gd’s promise. Personally, I don’t like that particular translation very much.

In this old chumash, edited by  Hertz, the translation is, “Be thou a blessing.” It is more of a challenge – a directive.

My view is that our lives take on more meaning when we in fact take this as a command. As a challenge, rather than as a promise. The same is true when we consider Gd’s statement to Abraham later in the parashah – that Abraham’s offspring shall be as numerous as the stars in the heavens.

I feel that our lives are much more enriched when we take this as a challenge. It’s largely up to us to fulfill Gd’s promise, to make Abraham’s descendants – us – as numerous as the stars in the heavens.

Well . . . here we all are. Descendants of Abraham. Not quite as numerous as the stars in the heavens, but time isn’t finished yet.

So when we combine the two simple phrases – Go forth. Be a blessing to others. Now we’re getting to a yet different place.

Lech Lecha means leaving behind that which is comfortable. Being unpredictable in taking a risk. With sufficient discipline and courage, we can rise above the usual economic and psychological forces that keep us in a particular box. It was 40 years ago this very month, in 1979, that my friend Jim Kallal told me, “You know, Joel, that can’t be done.” He was referring to my plan to leave Hartford, CT, where I was doing my cardiology fellowship, move to Dallas, and to go into solo practice at that! In those days before the internet, communication and plan-making were much, much different than they are now. Well, next July, I will celebrate my 40th year in practice – the same practice I started in Richardson, in 1980. Lucky to find an opportunity? Sure, but remember – fortune favors the bold. Put another way, I was fortunate to be young and dumb!

So be bold and be a blessing to others. Aha – the Jewish perfecta!!

Abraham was to become the forefather of an eternal people. The Jews would be willing to stand outside the then-accepted laws of nature. So what for other people was natural – land, home, family – in Judaism are the subjects of our laws and commandments. We must strive for them, and work hard to make them better. They can’t be taken for granted. They are not a given.

In an era of idolatry, we saw the universe  as the product of a single creative force. So it was not meaningless, but coherent. When power was worshipped, we created a society that cared for the powerless, for the orphan, for the widow. When other societies were insular, we are told to remember the stranger, for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

It meant in the subhuman conditions imposed on Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jews set up makeshift schoolhouses and classrooms. When war was the test of manhood in the ancient (and not-so-ancient) world, it meant striving for a peaceful society. In the materialism that we know all too well today, it means that we are known best not by what we buy, but by what we give.

All of this comes to us from outside ourselves, as it came to Abraham. We are summoned to make a contribution to the world. Lech lecha for the Jew means hearing and responding to the still, small voice of eternity. Pulling us, pushing us, to continue the journey begun by Abraham. Being a blessing to others and to the world writ large.

Last week, Nancy and I attended the annual meeting of the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation, where close to twenty “unsung heroes” were honored because of how they gave of themselves to make their particular organizations, and thus the world, better. It was so moving and inspiring to hear how people heard a calling, regarded their mission in terms of being a blessing to others, and in turn, seeing the world as something to be improved, and who have done their part to help do so.

Maya Angelo, the wonderful African American poet, who died in 2014, once said that, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues, because without courage you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Fulfilling the commandment to “lech lecha” takes conviction and a sense of mission. It takes much courage to leave one’s comfort zone and work to improve the lives of others.

But that’s what Jews do!