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 in his first request of Abraham, at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion (called “Lekh-lekha”):
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)
lekh (לֶךְ) = Go!
lekha (לְךָ) = for yourself, to yourself.
lekh-lekha (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”), contains the same phrase.
And [God] 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. Yes, 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. Although he is venturing into a strange land to find himself, he has the benefit of both resources and a party of people of his choosing. He also has the reassurance of knowing his brother Nachor has remained in Charan to take care of their elderly father, Terach.
God’s final request, on the other hand, seems impossibly horrific. Abraham must cut the throat of his 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.1 But at this point in the story of Abraham, his small clan is living peacefully at Beer-sheva, with no threat in sight.
So Abraham 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. He also knows that his wife Sarah is so attached to Isaac that she will either die of shock or become his bitterest enemy. Nevertheless he leaves early in the morning with his son and three servants, without speaking to Sarah and without telling the servants what kind of offering he is planning.
God’s final request leaves Abraham without aid or comfort from anyone. At this point Abraham only has two family members at home: his wife Sarah, and their son Isaac. (He has already sent away his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael. His nephew Lot separated from him long ago.) By sacrificing Isaac, Abraham will lose the rest of his family: his wife and his remaining son.
Yet God’s two requests, one benign and one disastrous, are related. Not only do both requests use the unusual term lekh-lekha, but both of them also use a series of phrases that increase Abraham’s emotional stake in obeying. In the first request, 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 request, God asks Abraham to sacrifice not just his son, but his only child (now that Ishamel is exiled), the son he loves.
Both sentences with the phrase lekh-lekha also leave Abraham’s destination a mystery. The first time, God does not even tell Abraham that he should head 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.
Furthermore, both of God’s orders come at times when Abraham has a settled life and 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 youth 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 speak to him out of the blue. Maybe lekh lekha does mean “Get going!”, since both times Abraham responds by rousing himself and taking an action that changes his whole life.
Rashi wrote that lekh-lekha meant “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own benefit.2 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.
But surely Abraham would not benefit from sacrificing Isaac, his son and heir.
The sacrifice is not completed; an angel of God stops Abraham at the last minute, when he is holding his knife over Isaac’s throat. But Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son causes lifelong psychological trauma for Isaac. Although Abraham arranges a marriage for his younger son, there is no indication in the Torah that he and Isaac ever see one another again.
Furthermore, after the attempted sacrifice, the next story in the book of Genesis is about the death of Abraham’s wife Sarah.3 Although Abraham eventually remarries, the death of Sarah probably weighs on him.
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 a divine 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?
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?
- 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.
- Rashi is the acronym of 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is Genesis 22:1-19. Then there is a brief genealogical interlude, Genesis 22:20-24. The story of Sarah’s funeral begins with Genesis 23:1.