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10/28/2014 12:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Wandering and Welcoming (Lech Lecha -- Genesis 12:1-17:27)

This week's Torah reading begins with the command, "Lech lecha": Go forth. Go out from your land and from your father's house. Go.

When my husband and I first met, he told me that his family had a kind of motto: "Set yourself in motion and things will happen to you." My own family did not really have a motto, but if we did, it probably would have been something like, "Stand perfectly still and maybe, God willing, nothing will happen to you."

There is a natural tendency to stand still when we are afraid, to freeze, to hope that we can build a barrier around ourselves and be protected from the external threats swirling around us, or the internal threats swirling within us. But Parashat Lech Lecha teaches that movement -- a willingness to go beyond what is comfortable, familiar, and routine -- is essential to our growth as human beings and to our religious path as Jews.

In the words of the Hasidic master, the Sefat Emet:

The human being is called a walker, always having to go from one rung to another... That is why Scripture says, " 'Get you out of your land'" -- a person should always keep walking. 'To [that which] I will show you.' -- Always some new attainment... Whoever stands still is not renewed, for nature holds him fast. The angels above are beyond nature, they can be said to 'stand.' But the person has to keep walking. [1]

There is a restlessness, even a "dis-ease," that is part of what it means to be human, and perhaps especially part of what it means to be a Jew, a descendent of Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham.

And yet, we know that is not the whole story. There are also times and ways in which we need to stand still, not only in order to rest, but in order to grow. How do we heed the imperative to keep moving, to keep walking, while at the same time, not living out the curse of Cain that "you shall be a restless wanderer on earth"?

What makes our wandering different from Cain's? And what about our need to stand still, to put down roots, to build connections, families, communities, and homes?

One might suggest that some people are walkers by nature, while others are predisposed to stay in one place. It is probably not a coincidence that Abraham's son, Isaac (who knew intimately, from his experience on Mount Moriah, the dangers associated with Abraham's impulse to travel) had a deep inclination to settle and remain rooted in one place. We can almost hear him saying, "No more trips!" In a few weeks, in Parashat Toldot, we will read, "And Isaac sowed in that land... and the Lord blessed him and the man grew great . . ." Settled in the land, Isaac begins to dig wells -- wells that had been dug in the days of his father Abraham, and had been stopped up by the Philistines. Isaac reopened those wells, wells of living water. Abraham the walker raised Isaac the dweller, the digger of wells.

But we can't simply accept the notion that some of us are meant to be walkers and some of us are meant to throw down roots -- because, of course, we also know that we are each called upon to do both at different times in our lives. Indeed, we might ask ourselves: Is now a time for me to be walking, or is this a time for me to stay still and dig deeply into the wells of my own past? Is this a time for me to wander, or is it a time to plant roots and sow my own land?

Yet this too is not quite satisfying, because we know that sometimes we have to do both things at the same time. Part of what it means to be human is to be called to respond to competing demands in the same season -- even in the same moment.

As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai writes:

"A man in his life doesn't have time

to have time for everything.

He doesn't have seasons enough to have

A season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,

To laugh and cry with the same eyes,

With the same hands to cast away stones and to gather them,

To make love in war and war in love."[2]

What might it mean, to paraphrase Amichai, for us to walk and stand still at the same moment?

A hint lies in the image that awaits us at the very beginning of next week's parasha -- the image of Abraham and Sarah's tent. Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent, recovering from his circumcision. Three men -- angels, perhaps -- appear before him. And he runs to meet them at the tent door.

The tent of Abraham and Sarah is famous for having been open on all sides. The huppah at every Jewish wedding hearkens back to this vision of a home built by people who have not forgotten what it is like to be homeless. Perhaps the experience of being ivrim (river-crossers) taught Abraham and Sarah what it meant to create a home hospitable to ovrim -- to all those who "crossed" their path. Their own journey taught them to make room in their tent for the wanderer standing outside their door -- as well as the inner experience of homelessness that we encounter when we risk moving beyond the familiar and welcome the unknown.

As descendants of Abraham and Sarah, both wanderers and welcomers, may our individual and communal homes be open to strangers, and may our hearts be open to the possibilities that strangeness can awaken within us -- wherever we go, wherever we find ourselves.


[1] Translation by Rabbi Arthur Green, The Language of Truth: The Torah Commentary of the Sefat Emet, p. 22.

[2] Translation by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, p. 145.

Seventy Faces of Torah is a pluralistic Jewish scriptural commentary, produced by The Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College, in which thought leaders from around the world offer insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.

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