“The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Bereshit, 12:1)
There are certain basic necessary ingredients which comprise a typical journey; a starting point, travel companions, luggage and, of course, a destination. Parashat Lech-lecha describes Abraham’s voyage in great detail, but omits one of these key elements. Abraham’s starting point is depicted in great detail, the various constituent elements of the life he is required to leave behind are carefully listed. Abraham’s travel partners and his accompanying equipment are also recorded. Interestingly, Abraham’s ultimate destination, perhaps the most important facet of any journey, is left shrouded in uncertainty. The final stop on his voyage is yet to be revealed. Abraham is simply told rather mysteriously that he will be shown where he is to end up.
The Ramban raises the startling possibility that Abraham’s final destination was hidden for the entire duration of his voyage. The Ramban writes:
“To the land that I shall show you – he wandered aimlessly from nation to nation and kingdom to kingdom, until he reached Canaan, when God told him, “To your seed I shall give this land” (12:7)… Before that, he did not yet know that that land was the subject of the command.” (Ramban 12:1)
Abraham’s journey was a wandering expedition without a clear end goal in sight. Indeed, when Abraham retrospectively reflects upon this journey later in life, he explains that “God made me wander from my father’s house” (20:13). When reflecting back, Abraham viewed this period in his life as one of itinerant travelling, a time without a target or goal. According to the Ramban, the importance of Abraham’s journey lay in the very act of travelling, in the voyage itself, rather than the specific destination.
Developing this thought further, the Sfat Emet (1847-1905) posits that it is no surprise that God’s very first interaction with Abraham revolved around journeys. Journeying itself, the Sfat Emet writes, is a crucial part of the human experience: “Lekh Lekha – Go forth: Man is defined by his travelling, and indeed man must always travel, from one level to the next. One must always aim to extract oneself from habit, from the state of the normal.” The journey Abraham embarks upon represents the journey that all must make, a voyage that breaks free from routines to embrace new heights. In other words, the Sfat Emet believes that man is to be judged by his capacity to change and grow.
The Hasidic thinker, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner (the Ishbitzer), proposed that Abraham’s journey was so important as it ultimately led him to better understand himself. Indeed, this is the literal translation of Lech-lecha – “Go to yourself.” The very act of wandering, of uncoupling from familiar surroundings, presents the opportunity to learn more about oneself or, in the Ishbitzer’s terminology, to experience “the root of your life”. Thomas Mann, the early 20th Century German writer, also believed in the power of travelling to awaken knowledge of ourselves, journeys “engender forgetfulness by setting us physically free from our surroundings and giving us back our original, free state.”
Parashat Lech Lecha seeks to illustrate that journeys, be they physical, mental or spiritual, can be sources of great illumination and strength. The very act of movement shifts perspectives, opening up new horizons and possibilities by exposing us to undiscovered parts of ourselves. Like Abraham’s journey, often the end goal is not always so apparent from the outset. And yet, the paradoxical lesson to be learned is that we don’t always need a clear goal before embarking upon a voyage. Indeed, it is precisely the act of faith in the midst of such uncertainty which enables us to see the beauty of the journey itself. Sometimes we can put Waze to one side and we will eventually arrive, like Abraham, precisely where we need to be.