And YHVH said to Abram, “Lech Lecha (go forth, but literally go to yourself) from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
For me, the Torah reveals its deepest lessons when I read it as a spiritual guidebook rather than a physical, historical tale. Whatever historical lessons we learn from studying Torah are secondary in importance; the lives of its protagonists are meant to inform our lives here in the present, not some distant past. The word “Torah” does not translate as “history” or even “law,” but “teaching” or “guidance.”
This week’s Torah portion begins with God’s dramatic call to Abram to go on a life journey that will change him forever. But this potential transformation comes with a price: to pursue this quest Abram and his wife Sarai must leave behind their home, the habitual, and head into the unknown.
All of this is intimated in the layered phrase that gives this week’s Torah portion its name: Lech Lecha. Lech means “go”. Lecha means “to you” or “for you”. This phrase is difficult to translate, but we might say “Get thee out!” or “Get yourself going!” However, Lech lecha literally means “go to yourself”. The journey of Abraham and Sarah is a spiritual journey, an inward quest for a new way of seeing the world, a journey of perception. As our spiritual father and mother, Abraham and Sarah bequeath to us a sublime idea: that all of reality is informed by a unifying Presence, and that Presence is calling us to greater purpose and awareness. Deeply aware of the ineffability of that presence, our tradition names it YHVH, Being Itself, or Life Unfolding. Each and every one of us is a unique expression of Life Unfolding, a Child of God, we might say, and God’s greatest desire, as it were, is that we know that truth. We are finite beings who sense the presence of the Infinite moving within us and all around us. That awareness calls us to fulfill our potential as expressions of infinite life. This calling turns out to be extremely difficult and elusive, and requires of us courage, tenacity, humility and faith. In the Jewish tradition, Abraham is our spiritual father because he perceives this truth, heeds the call and embarks on the journey.
The Torah lets us know that something is stymied or incomplete for Abram and Sarai. For one, their names are incomplete, as though something is missing from their lives. They will only become their full selves, Abraham and Sarah, after many trials. We also learn that they are childless, barren. Abram and Sarai long to be generative, but something remains closed within them. For their barrenness to transform into generativity, they will need to open themselves to Life Unfolding in ways they have not yet discovered.
After many challenges, that opening presents itself at the end of Lech Lecha. YHVH places the letter ה “hey” into each of their names: Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah. The Hebrew letter ה “hey” is the sound of openness (as in “halleluyah”), the sound of breath, and a key letter in YHVH, the name of God. Inserted into their very names, Abraham and Sarah, “hey” represents an expansion of awareness, the awareness of the presence of God within them as well as all around them.
Along with this expansion, Abraham must also open himself further: He is commanded to circumcise himself. Circumcision, in the Torah, is an act of opening. Moses is said to be of “uncircumcised lips,” meaning impeded speech. In an important passage in Deuteronomy, Moses instructs us that we must circumcise our hearts, that is, remove the sheath from around our hearts, and stiffen our necks no more, so that we might uphold the cause of the powerless, and befriend the stranger. Abraham’s circumcision must be understood in this consistent Biblical context. It is the sign of his radical willingness to be generously open and deeply committed to Life, to the presence of God in everyone and everything. It is the mark of the covenant that Abraham now willingly enters with YHVH, Life Unfolding. As Abraham’s spiritual journey continues, this commitment he now makes to be vulnerable and open is going to allow himself and Sarah to conceive a child, to be vessels of life. Yes, the Torah tells us that Abraham is 100 years old, and Sarah is 90. But it is never too late to grow in awareness and love.