Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice

November 1, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha, Vayeira | 1 Comment

The phrase lekh-lekha appears only twice in the Torah. Both times God is telling Abraham to do something radical.

The first time God says Lekh-lekha is at the beginning of the Torah portion by the same name:

God said to Abraham: Lekh-lekha , away from your land, and away from your birthplace, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.  (Genesis/Bereishit 12:1) 

from Michelangelo

from Michelangelo

lekh (לֶךְ) = Go! 

lekha (לְךָ) =  for yourself, to yourself.

lekh-lecha (לְךְ־לְךָ) = Go for yourself!  Go to yourself!  Go, yourself!  Get going!  

God’s final request to Abraham, in the Torah portion Vayeira (And he appeared), also contains that phrase.

And he said:  Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac; and lekh-lekha to the land of the Moriyah, and bring him up there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains, which I will tell to you. (Genesis 22:2)

God’s first request seems difficult but relatively benign.  Abraham leaves his father and his familiar life, but he takes along his wife Sarah, his nephew Lot, a lot of personal property, and a number of servants or followers.  He is venturing into a strange land to find himself, but he has company and resources, and the reassurance of knowing his brother Nachor has remained in Charan to take care of their elderly father, Terach.

God’s last request seems impossibly horrific; Abraham must cut the throat of his only son and heir, and burn him up as an offering to God.  In dire circumstances, chieftains in the Middle East did sacrifice their own sons to prevent national disaster.  (For example, in 2 Kings 3:27, when the king of Moab is losing to the invading armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom, he sacrifices his son and heir as a burnt offering, and the invaders retreat.)  But at this point in the story of Abraham, his clan is living peacefully at Beer-sheva, with no threat in sight.

So Abraham knows that nobody will understand his sacrifice of Isaac.  He leaves early in the morning with his son and three servants, and does not tell them what kind of offering he is planning.  He knows that although he will prove something to God and himself by sacrificing Isaac, his own people and his neighbors will probably think he is a lunatic, and his wife will either die or become a bitter enemy.  God’s request this time is not only devastating to Abraham himself, but he also knows that, unlike the first time he responded to lekh-lekha, he will have no aid or comfort from anyone.

Yet God’s two requests, one benign and one disastrous, are obviously related.  Not only do both sentences use the odd term lekh-lekha, but both also use a series of phrases that increase the emotional stake for Abraham.  In the first test, God asks Abraham to leave not just his country, but also the culture he grew up with, and even his own birth family.  In the final test, God asks Abraham to sacrifice not just his son, but his only child (now that Ishamel is exiled), the son he loves.

Both sentences also leave Abraham’s destination a mystery.  The first time, God does not even tell Abraham he is heading for Canaan; he must blindly go to “the land that I will show you”.  The second time, God tells Abraham to go to the land of Moriyah (a place name that may be related to the word marah,  “something shown”) and promises to point out the right mountain to Abraham when he arrives.  Both times, Abraham must start out on his mission trusting God to reveal where it will end.

Both of God’s orders come at times when there is no emergency.  When Abraham first hears God say lekh-lekha, he is simply living in Charan with his extended family.  (Later commentary invented stories about his dramatic life there as an idol-smasher, but the Torah itself says nothing.)  And when Abraham hears God say lekh-lekha again, he and his people have been living at Beer-sheva for “many years”.

Both times, when nothing in particular is happening, Abraham hears God speaking to him out of the blue.  Maybe lekh lekha does mean “Get going!”, because both times Abraham responds by rousing himself and taking an action that changes his whole life.

In the 11th century, Rashi wrote that lekh-lekha meant “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own benefit. He pointed out that God promised Abraham many descendants, a famous name, and blessing in return for leaving Charan and going to God’s undisclosed destination.

It’s harder to argue that the call to sacrifice his son was for Abraham’s own benefit.  God’s angel does stop Abraham at the last minute.  But the knowledge that Abraham proves willing to sacrifice his own son causes psychological trauma that affects the rest of the book of Genesis, and influences those who wrestle with religion to the present day.  Is this dark story for our ultimate benefit?

The Zohar, a mystical 13th-century text, proposed that God meant “Go to yourself”, telling Abraham to perfect himself or to recreate himself as a new individual, distinct from the culture of his past.  The Zohar also said that God is always telling every human being “Go to yourself!”  But few of us listen.

Breaking from your past and from your society to go your own way is hard, almost impossible.  And how do you know whether the apparently divine voice in your head is summoning you to an adventure, or to a nightmare?  How do you know whether it is ethical to follow that call?

Maybe you experience the call as an urgent need to change your life, even though you do not know where the need comes from, or where you will end up if you act on it.  Suppose you ignore this inner voice, this inner god.  Will you feel ashamed for the rest of your life that you did not rise to the challenge?  Or will you go into denial and lose an important part of your soul?

Suppose you do heed the call.  Will you become a revered leader and the founder of a new way of life, like Abraham?  Or will you become a crazy person ready to sacrifice his own child—like  Abraham?

Listen carefully.

 

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  1. […] God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac, then rescinds the order at the last second. (See my post Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  After that, Sarah dies, and Abraham decides it is time for their son Isaac to marry.  He […]


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