The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country and your people. Leave your father’s family. Go to the land I will show you. ‘I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you. I will make your name great. You will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you. I will put a curse on anyone who calls down a curse on you. All nations on earth will be blessed because of you’” (Genesis 12: 1-3).
This very special text about Abraham stands right after the story of the tower of Babel in the Old Testament. We hear about this confusion in Genesis 11, where the people wanted to get to the door of God, to the “Bab El.” They wanted to get to that door in order to finally settle there, but great confusion followed. In the heart of that confusion when the people could no longer speak to each other, the nations began to scatter all over the world.
Yet, right in the midst of this darkness and confusion, God calls. He calls someone whose name was, at that time, Abram. According to Jewish tradition, as Abram was walking one evening admiring the stars, he suddenly heard a voice: “Lekh, lekha. Go!” This is the first word that our father Abraham heard on the part of God. “Go!” He didn’t hear great wisdom or sophisticated revelation. He just heard a call to go: lekh, lekha! Go from your country, from your kindred, from your father’s house, from your “birthplace.” This is the meaning of the Hebrew word moledet—from the house of your father and from your people. In other words, he had to leave everything—everything of himself. He had to leave the familiar landscape he used to see every day; he had to leave the place where he came from, his roots, his memories.
But he also had to leave the people he loved—his father and mother, his uncles and aunts, his friends—the people he had laughed and cried with so many times in the past. Abram had to leave everything; he had to leave himself. This is what God wanted from him. Go! Go out! Leave!
We like to leave our family and our surroundings when we are young, because we think this is the time to take off. But Abraham was seventy-five years old at the time! Seventy-five is the time when we like to stay—to take root. This is the time of nostalgia, when we like to remember. In fact, this is the time when we want to come back. Seventy-five! Go! How difficult to leave, to go, to abandon all that is precious—all that we love.
The call of Abraham tells us what it means to inherit the religion of Abraham. It means, first of all, go! It doesn’t mean anything else. This is what religion is all about. We are always on the go, never arrived, never there. Walking and walking, we are always going, yet we never reach the place where we can finally say, “I made it!” In fact, those who think they have made it are not of the religion of Abraham.
There is a Midrash, an old story about Abraham that talks about his call from God. According to the story, when God said to Abraham, “Lekh, lekha, Go,” he stood up and left. When he came to the first country, he saw people sitting. Their jobs were finished; they had everything done, and they were enjoying themselves. They were happy and satisfied; they had arrived. And Abraham said, “I will not stay here.”
Then, according to the Midrash, he arrived at a second country where he saw people who were happy and smiling. They said to him, “We worked hard and we studied hard; now we know everything. We know everything! We made it! Therefore, let’s rest.” Observing them, Abraham said, “This is not the place where I will settle.”
As he went from country to country it was always the same observation—satisfied people who had made it.
Go! Abraham is in the country of the go—always ready to leave, always ready to change. Abraham’s destination is the journey.
Suspended in the void, he goes. Lekh, lekha! In the entire Bible, those two words are used in only two places—here where God calls Abraham to leave everything, and at the end of his life where God again calls Abraham. But this time God calls Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, his future. Abraham hears lekh, lekha twice. First he is called to leave his past and then he is called to leave his future. Here is Abraham with no past and no future. He doesn’t know where he comes from and he doesn’t know where he is going. And right there, suspended in the void, he encounters God. In the midst of the anguish of not knowing where he is going, Abraham encounters God!
Suspended in the void, he has no control over his life. We like to have control—to foresee the future, to prepare ourselves—to know where we are going. And if we don’t know where we are going, at least we know where we came from. But Abraham is suspended in the void. He has abandoned his past as well as his future. Faith in God is his only hope of survival. To be entirely dependent upon God is to be suspended in the void in faith!
Lekh, lekha, Go! This “go” not only leads to God but it also leads to the others—those who are not ourselves. In fact, the only way to meet the others is to leave yourself. If we remain where we are comfortable and happy, we will never meet the others. Abraham was told by God that he was to be a blessing to all the families of the earth—Adamah. This was not just his country, or his tribe. Adamah has no borders; it is all the earth.
At the end of the Scripture reading in chapter 17 of the book of Genesis, Abram becomes Abraham. Before, he was Abram, which means “noble father”—a person respected by those in his society, those who knew him in the present. Now, he is Abraham—father of many nations! Suddenly you have not just the present but the future! Abraham becomes a message for the future— the father of many nations.
Likewise, the name of Sarah, his wife, encapsulates the future. Before, she was Sarai—my princess, Abraham’s princess only. But like Abraham, she becomes the princess par excellence, the princess for everyone!
Of course, there is a risk to go. In fact, there is no greater risk than to leave yourself in order to meet new people. For it is sometimes disturbing to meet new people, those who do not say the same things as you. I’m not talking about your alter ego, your photograph, your friend, your spouse, your twin brother. I’m talking about those who have a completely different world view, who are challenging you because of their perspective. It is disturbing because suddenly you realize you may be wrong and they may be right. It is very disturbing when your thinking has to change.
For this involves risk! But those who never move, those who stay at their place, will never get to the future. They will stay in the past, in the freezer. They will not discover something different, something new. Furthermore, the others will never get to know you.
It is interesting that in the text of the haftara, Isaiah 41: 8-9, God calls Abraham’s family to return. And the text says that they return from the ends of the earth, from the farthest regions, from everywhere. Originally, Abraham came from only one place. But when he returns centuries later, over a millennium later, Abraham doesn’t come just from Ur; he comes from all over the world. This is the miracle and blessing of Abraham, the prophecy in Genesis 12, that the name of God, the God of Israel, will be heard in all the nations of the earth.
And we see the fulfillment of this miracle all around us. This is the miracle which has been fulfilled through the coming of Yeshua, through the testimony of the early Jewish-Christians.
“Lekh, lekha,” God said to Abraham. “Go!” Ironically, lekh, lekha literally means go to yourself. What a paradox! Leave all that you think is yourself. And, only when you leave everything and depend upon God, will you truly find yourself!
Image: Abram's Counsel to Sarai. Watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot. Public Domain