A Call for Constant Motion and Perpetual Progress
Moriah Dayan is an attorney and rabbinical court advocate at OTS’s Yad La’isha: The Monica Dennis Goldberg Legal Aid Center and Hotline for Agunot
The Torah portion Lech Lecha opens with the famous call to Avraham – “Go for yourself, out of your land, away from your relatives, and your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”
At the end of Parshat Noach, we are told that Avraham and his family are already on their way to the Land of Canaan (Bereshit 11, 31). If that is the case, why is this request of Avraham necessary? What does it add?
Furthermore, in what way was Avraham exceptional, so much so that he merited such a Divine call and calling? The Torah doesn’t elaborate on Avraham’s deeds or character traits, nor does it divulge any other information that might explain why God chose him in particular. When God turns to Noach directly, the Torah explains that “Noah was a man righteous in his generation”; the same goes for Chanoch, of whom the Torah tells us: “And Chanoch walked with God…” However, with regard to Avraham, apart from giving a technical account of the family’s history and their decision to leave Ur Kasdim for Canaan, we are told nothing of Avraham’s character traits or conduct that might explain why he, of all people, was approached directly by God. The question must therefore be asked: Why did Avraham merit this Divine call?
The Sefat Emet on Bereshit 21 gives a wonderful explanation based on the Zohar: “It appears that this [call to Avraham] is praise in itself, in that Avraham heard the Divine call of Lech Lecha – Hashem’s perpetual call to all people – but was the only one who acted upon it.”
In other words, the call of Lech Lecha is meant for every man and every woman and was not directed at Avraham exclusively; God calls out to each and every one of us. Avraham was unique in that he not only heard the call, but decided to act upon it. This explanation answers two questions. We now understand why there was a call from God despite the fact that Avraham and his family were already on the way to the Land of Canaan; we also understand Avraham’s singularity in that he was attentive to this call.
But what is the significance of this call, which, according to the Zohar, is actually meant for every person? And what does this call try to evoke?
Maybe if we are better able to understand Avraham Avinu‘s conduct and uniqueness, we will have a deeper understanding of the nature of this call.
A perusal of the Torah verses pertaining to Avraham shows that words such as walking, running, travelling, haste, and rising early appear often. The common denominator is that all of the above reflect motion. Avraham is constantly on the go; always advancing; never ceasing to move forward.
When Avraham is commanded to take his son and offer him as a sacrifice, we once again find the words Lech Lecha (Bereshit 22, 2). In that same portion (22, 3), Avraham “rises early” (mashkim), the same way he did when Sodom was destroyed (Bereshit 19, 27). In the portion of Vayera (Bereshit 18, 2), Avraham runs to the messengers (angels) and later on (verse 8) runs to his herd. In the very same section, he also hastens to Sarah and says to her – “Make haste and knead dough for cakes” (verse 8); he then tells his servant to hurry and prepare the meat (verse 6).
This is the quality that characterizes Avraham more than any other, and it was also the lesson he taught the world. We are told in Bereshit Rabbah 42: “The whole world was on one side, and Avraham was on the other.” Avraham was not fixed to one idea or place, nor did he adhere to the conventions of his time; rather, he was on a perpetual search, always aspiring to grow and change. Our Sages in Bereshit Rabbah (39, 1) compare Avraham Avinu to a man who travels from place to place and sees a palace in flames, and wonders whether the palace has no owner who watches over it. The owner of the palace then looks out and says – ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ Similarly, because Avraham Avinu wondered – ‘Is it possible that this world is without a leader?’ – the Holy One blessed be He, looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the world.’ The fact that Avraham is always in motion leads him to constantly search for the very essence of all things. In keeping with this, our Sages (Bereshit Rabbah 39, 2) also compare Avraham to a flask filled with fragrant herbs. As long as the flask is not moved, its fragrance cannot escape. But when it is carried from place to place, its fragrance wafts out and fills the world with a sweet scent.
The Sefat Emet on Bereshit 29 expands on this quality: “Take yourself and go out of your country – lech lecha. A human being is called a mehalech, one who goes and moves, because man has to always be moving forward, elevating himself, transcending habit and nature. And even if one is able to achieve a higher level in one’s worship of God, this, too, will become habit after a time. Hence, one must always find new internal pathways through which to serve God…”
In our portion of Lech Lecha (Bereshit 12, 9), we encounter Avraham’s mobility most intensively. Rashi gives the following explanation on the verse “And Avraham journeyed, going forward and travelling southward”: ‘Going forward and travelling – sometimes he would stop somewhere for a month or more, and then set forth again and go to a different place…’ Avraham was constantly on the move, never stopping.
Later in the parsha (Bereshit 17, 1), as a backdrop to the commandment of circumcision, God says to Avraham: “I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted.” Once again, God turns to Avraham and commands him to walk, to be in motion.
The Malbim (Hebrew acronym for Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michel) offers a fascinating commentary: “Walk before me – be my partner in the creation by mending and making whole what is unfinished and imperfect.”
Being in motion and moving forward represents being a partner in the Creation and engaging in Tikkun Olam.
The Divine call to all mankind is the call that Avraham heard and heeded – the call to walk, to advance and to be partners with God himself in the Creation of the world.
It is not by chance that the path of life every Jew must follow is called halakha (Jewish law), which is derived from the same root as the Hebrew word for “walk/go”. This path of halakha is one in which a person is always advancing and evolving, never standing in one place nor bound by social norms. This is a way of life that compels us to listen to the call heard by Avraham; to go out and seek; to be in motion and to always move forward.