Commentary on Parashat Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, the third portion in the book of Genesis, God speaks for the first time to our ancestor Abraham (whose name was still Abram at the time). The first sentence of this Torah portion (Genesis 12:1) draws much attention from the commentators. “God said to Abram: ‘Go from your land (Lech lecha m’eretzcha), from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.'” Thus begins the journey that will lead Abraham to find the land of Canaan, the Land of Israel that is the destination of the Jewish people throughout the Bible and even today.
A look at the Hebrew in this sentence, however, reveals a peculiarity. The word “Lech” is the command, second person form of the word, “L’lechet“–“to go.” The next word, “l’cha,” is an article which tells us that the previous word is meant to be in the second person (for example, “Ten lecha” would mean “give to you”). Since the form of the verb “to go” the Bible uses is already in the second person form, the word “lecha” is superfluous. Commentators offer various meanings of this extra article, translating the sentence as “Go for yourself,” “Go by yourself” or “Go to yourself.”
Rabbinic tradition teaches that God’s commandment to Abraham to leave his home is one of the ten tests he is presented during his life. Some of the other tests, such as the binding of Isaac and the commandment to circumcise himself when he was 99 years old, seem to be the defining moments in Abraham’s life. However, when Abraham is referred to later in this week’s Parashah (14:13) as “Ha-Ivri” (literally, “The Hebrew”), our sages teach us that the word “Ivri” is a reference to the word “avar,” from “l’avor” – “to cross over;” the Bible is referring to Abraham as “The one who Crossed Over.”
Here, it seems Abraham’s defining characteristic is that he crossed over the Euphrates to go to Canaan as God had commanded him.
Your Torah Navigator
1. Why do you think God’s first commandment to Abraham is to leave his home? How will this help him fulfill his mission as the spiritual founder of the Jewish people?
2. How does the meaning of “lecha” in the first sentence change the sentence in each of its possible meanings (Go for yourself, Go by yourself, Go to yourself)? Can you make an argument for each of these possibilities being a “correct” reading?
3. Why would some of our sages consider this step in Abraham’s life even more defining than some of the other climactic moments he experiences later?
There are certainly enlightening and meaningful explanations for why “Go for yourself” (this was a great “career move” for Abraham) or “Go by yourself” (Abraham, his wife and nephew needed to go on this mission alone because they needed to start fresh), are viable translations of “Lech lecha.” However, my favorite of the three is “Go to yourself.”
Abraham was 75 years old when he was asked to start his life over again by leaving his homeland with a new task. Certainly, this was a difficult thing to do — it is never easy to leave one’s loved ones, or the land one has grown attached to. But Abraham’s success in his new mission depended on his ability to “re-invent” himself, and to realize the potential he had as the pivotal individual in the history of monotheism.
While Abraham had many difficult tests to overcome in his lifetime, the most important one is the first one we read about in the Torah: “Go to yourself.” Realize what your mission in life is. Recognize your potential. Become YOU. Without this, there would never have been a covenant, a circumcision, a binding of Isaac, or a founding of the Jewish people.
This wasn’t just a precursor to Abraham embarking on his tests and missions. It was a vital part of it. Part of any mission any one of us hopes to accomplish is to take a step back, look at oneself, and figure out what each of us needs to do to become the person we need to be in order to fulfill our purpose in life.
Abraham was told “Lech lecha” so that he wouldn’t just pick up his things and start running. He needed to stop and turn inward first, to introspect and reflect on his life and who he was. Only after that could he fulfill the second part of the commandment, to go to the Land which God would show him.
May we all merit to remember to “lekhu lachem,” to go to ourselves, as an integral part of all the challenges on which we embark.
Provided by Hillel’s Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning, which creates educational resources for Jewish organizations on college campuses.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.