Lekh-Lekha (and Bereishit): Giving Directions

October 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Posted in Bereishit, Lekh Lekha, Noach | 2 Comments
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For me, every story in the book of Genesis/Bereishit is another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And the God who speaks to individual people, from Adam to Jacob, is like a human teacher trying to prod people into making conscious choices and moral judgments.

Like other animals, we humans make most of our decisions automatically, out of instinct and habit. Sometimes we stop to solve a practical problem or an intellectual puzzle. But only rarely do we stop to solve a moral problem. When we do become aware of a moral issue, and of our ability to choose between good and evil actions, I think we are tasting another fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The anthropomorphic God in Genesis often talks to Himself, debating what to do next. He also talks to human characters, asking them questions, telling them His plans, blessing and cursing them, making covenants with them, and giving them directions.

“God” tries out several methods for giving directions. In the second creation story, “God” makes a single human out of dirt and breathes life into it. After placing the human (ha-adam) in the garden of Eden, the God character gives it an instruction.

figGod tzivah the human, saying: From every tree of the garden, certainly tokheil. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad, not tokhal; for on the day you eat from it, you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)

tzivah = commanded, ordered, directed.

tokheil, tokhal = you will eat, you shall eat, you should eat, you could eat, you may eat, you can eat, you are going to eat, you must eat.

It is impossible to translate this passage literally, because biblical Hebrew has only one verb form for action that has not yet happened. Is “God” telling the human “you must not eat” from the tree of knowledge, and if you do, you will be punished with death? Or is “God” saying “you could not eat” from it without becoming mortal?  Either translation is correct.

The God character’s motivation in giving this order is also open to interpretation. Classical commentary assumes “God” wants the human to stay in the garden, in a state of moral ignorance, and therefore after the female and male humans eat the fruit, they are punished for disobeying orders. I think “God” points out the Tree of Knowledge in order to show the adam, the solo and sexless human, that it can act of its own free will, and gain knowledge. But the adam passively follows orders, and nothing changes. I can imagine the God character wondering what it will take to get the humans to make a choice and acquire a sense of good and evil, so He can remove them from Eden and place them in the real world! “God” solves the problem by splitting the human it into male and female persons, and inventing the snake to make the female human think.

The next person in the Torah to get moral training is Cain, who gets upset when God shows a preference for Abel’s offering over his. Perhaps because reverse psychology did not work well with Adam, “God” avoids anything that sounds like an order when He first addresses Cain.

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

Cain, by Henri Vidal, detail

 

And God said to Cain: Why are you making yourself angry, and why has your face fallen? Is it not so: if you do good, [there is] uplifting; but if you do not do good, wrongdoing waits at the door, and its desire is for you. Yet you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)

Cain does not get the hint, and in a fit of rage kills his brother Abel.

In the story of Noah, the God character tries a different approach.

God said to Noah: The end of all flesh is coming before Me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, and here I am, the one Who destroys the earth.  Make for yourself a floating-container of gofer wood; you shall make the floating-container compartmented, and you shall cover it inside and outside with caulking. (Genesis 6:13-14)

If what “God” wants is for Noah to obey orders, His new style works. Noah simply follows orders, and makes no independent decisions until after the flood. But commentators have wondered for millennia whether Noah’s mechanical obedience is actually what “God” wants. (See my post last week, Noach: Righteous Choices.) What if “God” is hoping that Noah will propose an alternative, the way Abraham does later when “God” announces He will destroy Sodom and Gommorah?

abraham-looks-at-starsThis week’s Torah portion, Lekh-lekha, begins with the God character’s first direction to Abraham.

God said to Abraham: Lekh-lekha, away from your land, and away from your home, and away from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great people, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, so it will become a blessing. (Genesis 12:1-2)

Lekh = Go!

-lekha = yourself, for yourself, to yourself.

Here the God character’s order specifies what Abraham should leave behind, but gives no details about the future he is walking into. What “God” does communicate is that this move is important for Abraham, not just for God. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) interpreted Lekh-lekha as “Go for yourself”, i.e. for your own sake. The Zohar (a 13th-century kabbalistic text) interpreted it as “Go to yourself”, i.e. recreate yourself as a new individual, separate from your past.

All the promises of blessing, while non-specific, also serve to let Abraham know that going to the new land will be for his own benefit. This is the first time in the Torah that “God” promises a reward for obeying His directions.

Abraham responds to the divine direction by leaving home for good, as instructed. But he takes some initiative and prepares for his own future by bringing along his wife, nephew, servants, and livestock.

Since the voice of God does not even tell him which way to head when he leaves his father’s house in Charan, Abraham chooses to travel west into Canaan. Only after he has reached Shechem, well inside Canaan, does “God” appear to him and say: To your offspring I will give this land. (Genesis 12:7)

The God character’s method of giving partial directions, promising an eventual reward, and leaving the rest up to the human being seems to be the most successful approach so far. Abraham responds by leaving his old familiar habits behind, and making new choices.

Today, few people hear God giving them direct instructions in Biblical Hebrew. But I can imagine the God character in these stories as an inner voice from the human subconscious, struggling to be heard properly.

There are many ways for a human being to get stuck and wait passively for change, instead of looking for a good action and bravely doing it. At times in my life I have been like the adam, obeying orders without raising questions, avoiding any potential conflict. I had to reach a certain level of misery before an inner voice from God’s snake reminded me that it would not kill me to pick the fruit and liberate myself, to choose my own course and act.

At times in my life I have been like Cain, feeling as though I am at the mercy of a bad desire. Yet eventually I hear the divine hint that I can master the desire, and choose to do good.

Other times, I feel overwhelmed, drowned, by the demands of other people and by the way the world works. I want to make my own little floating container and hide in it. But my conscience nags at me, reminding me that I cannot hide in an ark without bringing my family and hordes of hungry animals with me. God wants engagement with the world.

And yes, periodically I have heard an inner call to leave my familiar but not-so-good life, and set out for an unknown destination and destiny, like Abraham. So far, responding to that voice has led to blessings.

May we all be blessed to listen to our inner “God” voice, and never lose the taste of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

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 the 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.  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 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.  (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 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 knows that his wife Sarah is so attached to Isaac that she will either die of shock or become his bitterest enemy.  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 is devastating to Abraham himself, and also leaves him 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.

 

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 speak 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 Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his own son causes psychological trauma for Isaac, which 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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