There’s a lot of fanfare around the words lech lecha – go for yourself. With resolute trust in G-d, Abraham leaves his land, his hometown, and his father’s house for a place which he will be shown; a place in which, G-d promises, Abraham will have what he’s so earnestly yearning for – future generations. Though my only experience is from the 20th/21st century, I imagine that Jewish educators throughout history praised Abraham, marking this moment as the archetype for all Jews to absorb and model. This is what a Faithful Jew does! G-d speaks to him and then, he goes and does what G-d says. It’s as simple as that.
When Abraham finally arrives in Canaan, and G-d once again speaks with him, I can only imagine the immense gratitude he feels as G-d says what he has been hoping to hear, not only that he’ll be a great nation, but that he will have children. With this newfound vigor, he builds an altar to G-d, noting this place as a special place; a place that will forever hold the energy and spirit of this moment.
According to all logic, since the Faithful servant has done exactly as the Faithful Master has asked, children should follow. The days of heart-wrenching barenness should be over, and from this, all generations to come should know that even if you don’t understand why G-d asks you to do certain things, it will pay off in the end.
But that’s not what happens next. Instead, Abraham keeps going South. He keeps building his community, cultivating a culture that recognizes there is One G-d, and before you know it, there’s a famine in Canaan. No mention of children, and now, there’s no food either. G-d is silent. Abraham makes the next decision on his own.
And from there, a web of seemingly un-forefatherly events unfold. Abraham lies about his relationship with Sarah in order to attempt to save their lives, eventually ending her up in Pharaoh’s palace as a potential royal harem dweller. Meanwhile, Pharaoh throws wealth and riches at Abraham, hoping this will persuade him to become mishpacha. This continues until finally, G-d steps in and plagues Pharaoh’s house. Long story short, Abraham and Sarah are escorted out of Egypt safely and wealthier than when they had gone in. In a sense, it’s as if the Egypt episode was just a dream – they’re back in Canaan, but richer.
Now, imagine being back in this place where you were originally told that you’d finally get the only thing you really wanted. It’s been a few months, or years, and that thing still hasn’t come. After a while, most people feel burned. They lose hope, optimism, faith, and with it the gentility to lean into those moments that require them to be hopeful and optimistic. Visiting the place where the hope started, where you finally felt like this seemingly unanswered desire is about to end, and returning with that desire still unfulfilled can be painful. Was I a fool for being so hopeful, so sure that my life was about to change?
Instead of avoiding that place, Abraham goes to the “place where he first pitched his tent” and “to the site of the altar which he had erected there at first.” It would have been all too easy for him to say, “look I tried, G-d. I left everything behind and came here, but, I’m not cut out for this.” He had the wealth, he had his following. He could let the dream die. Let someone else go through the ringer of shattered dreams. I don’t know how Abraham felt – his hope and faith was surely stronger than mine – but I can understand why he went to that first altar.
It’s places like that first altar that remind us who we are, who we really are and really want to be. Sometimes we get off track, we go south, we look out for the instruction of G-d, and it’s not apparent to us. We struggle with being the person we really want to be, and slowly lose sight of how to get there. B’ezrat Hashem, we get up from that confusion, and once we do, the question becomes, where do we go next? Do we avoid the dreams and aspirations we had before struggling with hardship and disappointment, or do we pick them up, and seek them out again?
There were more tests to come for Abraham, and for Am Yisrael, but even so, there’s always been a place to go and remember who we are and who we want to be. This first altar later became the site of golden and copper altars, where Jews would go to remind themselves of the qualities, characteristics, and commitments that define us as Jews at our essence. The goal of lech lecha, isn’t only to go once, but to go back again and again; to continuously return to ourselves by returning to the place that revivifies the humility and confidence needed to stay true to who we really can be.