This week’s portion, Lecḥ-L’cḥa was my Bar Mitzvah portion. While I don’t remember what I talked about then (though I’m sure a copy of it is hiding in a box somewhere) I’m glad our Shabbats have lined up to give me an opportunity to look at it 27 years later. Lecḥ-L’cḥa begins our people’s origin story. God instructs Avram and Sarai to pick up and move to Canaan, and shortly after arriving, a famine forces them to Egypt where some pretty silly misogyny occurs. Upon returning from Egypt, Avram and his nephew, Lot, part ways. Sarai’s servant Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. And God makes the covenant, renaming our mythic ancestors Sarah and Avraham, and promising them that they will be parents of nations.
The two ways I have been approaching my Judaism lately are to understand the historical underpinnings of the myth or holiday, and find the mystical link to my personal experience. The very familiar story of Avram the Idol Smasher isn’t in the Torah, but rather in the Midrash serving as a hypothetical preamble to the start of our portion this week. Avram’s father, Terah, is an idol maker. One day, Avram hears the voice of God. He realizes that no single thing can represent God, and is therefore impelled to destroy all the idols in his father’s shop. It’s a popular story to tell kids in Hebrew School, because it’s a dramatic story that seeks to explain the defining revolution Judaism proposed to the world: the importance of putting no thing in our most Sacred Space. Only one temple in the ancient world had no thing in it, which is pretty remarkable.
In ancient times, we understood idolatry simply as the worship of an object as a physical representation or embodiment of a deity. The rabbis then expanded the idea of idolatry to be any way one could complete the statement “God is…” If we can come up with something that God “is”, then we have placed some thing as being other, and of a higher order, than God. And this just serves to illustrate how limited human language is since our most sacred faith statement ends with “…God is One”. In their days, even the Kabbalists and Hasidim were called idolaters by the mainstream Judaism of their respective times.
Today, we might understand idolatry as sacrificing our children on the altar of the 2nd Amendment; sacrificing everyone in between on the altar of binary identities. We sacrifice the lives of people of color on the altar of blue lives, and the lives of those seeking safety on the altar of imaginary lines in the desert. We sacrifice our time and brain power on the altar to money, and then sacrifice that money on the altar to status and celebrity. And we sacrifice women on the altar to the reputations of men. All these understandings of idolatry are, at their core, taking some thing and making it more important than the whole. We can understand, however, from Judaism’s great revolution as illuminated through Avram’s story, that no thing is more important than the Whole. It is a bedrock principle of our people, be it in a discussion about the Divine, the world, the community, or our selves.
The self is where the “idolatrous” Kabbalists took their interpretation of the opening verse of Lecḥ-L’cḥa. First, the Torah says: The Eternal said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
The Zohar, the foundational mystical commentary on the Torah, understands from this verse that Avram takes an inward journey rather than a physical one. He realizes the part of his soul that resides inside himself, his “native land”, is linked to the part of his soul that resides with the Divine, his “father’s house”. Thus he is able to find a new journey to embark upon. He harmonizes within himself to find a connection to the Divine Whole. This idea may not be anything new to Buddhists, I’m sure, but here it is in our own tradition.
In our liturgy, when we say “Elohei Avraham” during the Amidah, the liturgist asks us to invoke Avraham’s relationship to God. We are to conjure thoughts of the initial covenant Avraham made with God mentioned in our portion, and of the blind obedience displayed by Avraham during Akedat Yitzḥak, the Binding of Isaac. In other words, we are intended to recall the entirety of Avraham’s story in these two words. In addition to the mental gymnastics required in that short span of time, some of us, are also rightly troubled by many things in Avraham’s story which can get in the way. So what if, when we say these words, we conjure this inward journey instead? The phrase “Elohei Avraham”, “God of Abraham”, can then become a meditation on striving for no thing to exist in our sacred space aside from the integration of our whole self.
In her book Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness, psychotherapist Estelle Frankel writes: “Consider for a moment the possibility that sin might refer to all actions and attitudes that lead people to become alienated from their most whole and holy self. In other words, the notion that sin is that which separates us from God can be understood as those actions and attitudes that separate us from our own true being. If so, teshuvah can then be understood as the process whereby we restore or return to our most natural state of inner wholeness and self-integration. . . .”
Take a moment and think about something that prevents you from forging a new journey with a sense of your own wholeness. Do you pay homage to this thing so that it has, perhaps, become an idol? Maybe that idol is depression, a trauma, a sour relationship, the way you view your body. How might you be able to smash it, like Avram does in the midrash? For me, every time I say to myself, “That’s not good enough” or “That was dumb” or “Don’t do that” or “OMG I’m not in good voice and everyone is going to know and I’m going to ruin their prayer experience” I make a sacrifice on the altar to the idol of anxiety. I make an offering of sweet savor with every turned down opportunity, or putting off of the bookkeeping, or self-sabotaging over-analysis. Every time I listen to the reasons something won’t work, instead of running through the possible results if it does work. All this does is to make my inner journey, and often my physical one as well, more difficult and wanting. This is the idol I’ve found. I chip away at it when I
realize I would never say to anyone else what I say to myself. When I say “Elohei Avraham” from now on, I can steer my own inner journey, like Avraham’s, toward greater wholeness.
It is by design that after nearly two months of opportunities for t’shuva, for reflection and relationship repair, from the first day of Elul to the end of Sukkot with Hoshana Raba, we are reminded of this formational journey Avraham and Sarah take. The Kabbalistic understanding of the opening line of Lecḥ-L’cḥa asks us to remain open to the connection between us and the complete Whole we yearn for. It encourages us to embark on a new journey in this state.
“Lecḥ-l’cḥa”… go to yourself. “Elohei Avraham”… no thing is more important than the whole.