Judaism: Searching Oneself on the Way Forward

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco writes of the Journey: the biblical journey of Abraham, and the inner journey of those who follow the footsteps of Abraham in faith. Abraham embarked on two journeys: one physical, to settle the land of Canaan; and the other, spiritual, to make a great nation, thus becoming the progenitor of the People Israel.


After World War II, the birthrate for Shoah survivors of childbearing age living in displaced persons camps was one of the highest ever recorded anywhere. Although these parents had witnessed Nazi atrocities, they were so imbued with optimism and an unshakable faith in the future that they began families in record numbers even before they knew how or where they would live.

My grandparents emigrated to America for the same reasons that as many as three million Eastern-European, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews came to these shores between 1880 and 1914.They journeyed here to start a new life, escape poverty and persecution, satisfy political idealism, and be reunited with family who had previously emigrated here one by one. My maternal grandfather, for example, left his village in Hungary when he was 14 years old and came came to the United States not knowing what to expect. He sold fruit to workers building the New York City subway system, and sent money home to bring his mother and siblings to New York where they prospered, raised families, and lived successful lives. He, like so many others, had heard the rumor that America was die goldene medina — the golden land. However, as one immigrant discovered, this Promised Land was not as full of promise as he had hoped. He said:

“I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold, but when I got here, I found out three things: first, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all; and third, I was expected to pave them.”

Records of immigrants starting life anew go back as far as the days of our biblical matriarchs and patriarchs, beginning with Abraham who took an enduring journey, a course that 20th century biblical commentator E. A. Speiser1 termed “The most fateful commencement in history.” In Parashat Lech L’cha, Abraham began this journey when God commanded Lech l’cha, “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation …” (Genesis 12:1-2). This journey was no routine expedition; it was a quest that began an epic search for spiritual truths, the Bible’s central theme.

A modern reader may wonder if Abraham truly understood the importance of his “fateful commencement.” Consider the two verses at the end Noach, the parashah immediately preceding this week’s portion, Lech L’cha: “Terah took his son Abram … and they all left Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan, but they got as far as Haran and settled there” (Genesis 11:31). The verse suggests that Abraham may have intended to complete his father’s unfinished migration to Canaan. In so doing, Abraham embarked on two journeys: one physical, to settle the land of Canaan; and the other, spiritual, to make a great nation, thus becoming the progenitor of the People Israel.

Millennia after Abraham’s journey to Canaan, the Rabbis expressed the tension between physical and spiritual journeys that constitute the real world in which we live and the idealized world to which we aspire, based on the allusion in Psalm 122:3: “Jerusalem built up, a city knit together.” They took the verse to mean that two Jerusalems are bound together: Y’rushalayim shel matah — a lower earthly space, and Y’rushalayim shel ma-alah — a lofty spiritual place. Rabbi Yochanan expressed the strain that this duality imposes: “I will not enter the Upper City of Jerusalem until I can enter the Lower City of Jerusalem” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 5a). A fictional account acknowledges the conundrum raised by Rabbi Yochanan:

“A man dreamed that he died and entered heaven where the greatest Sages of the Jewish past sat at a simple table, absorbed in sacred study in a shtetl-like academy. He was taken aback by a heaven that was very much like earth.

‘Is this all there is?’ the man asked. ‘I thought this was supposed to be Paradise.’

A voice responded, ‘You are correct, the Sages are not in Paradise; Paradise is in the Sages.’ “

The phrase lech l’cha, translated as “get to yourself,” can be seen as redundant. We might think of “yourself” here as both the direct and the indirect object, so that the phrase means, “get yourself to yourself.” Philologists term this construction the “ethical dative,” whereby an individual has a vested interest in the action, in this case, Abraham going into himself. While, for philologists, this is merely a technical explanation of the phrase, this interpretation is too appealing to ignore. Abraham’s going forth to Canaan, his going away from his homeland coincides with his going into himself, instructing a Bible reader to understand that a journey should lead inward and outward, to the known and the unknown, heavenward and earthbound.

The phrase lech l’cha set in motion a “fateful commencement,” not only because it launched ethical monotheism and the undying devotion of a people to a God and a Land, but also because it provided a foundation for those in personal search of the spiritual Y’rushalayim shel ma-alah. Whereas most individuals travel to planned destinations, more often than not, they do not understand where that pilgrimage may lead them, especially when called upon — lech l’cha — to go on a journey for God.

1. E. A. Speiser, “The Most Fateful Commencement in History,” a commencement address at the Hebrew Teachers College, Brookline MA: Hebrew Teachers College Press, 1959

Rabbi Stephen S. Pearce, Ph.D. is senior rabbi emeritus of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco and a faculty member of the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco and the Beyond The Walls: Spiritual Writing Program at Kenyon College. He is the author of Flash of Insight: Metaphor and Narrative in Therapy and other articles, poems, and books.



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