October 21, 1999
Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 -- 17:27)
"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."-- Mark Twain
We laugh at this quote because we can sense its truth. Each of us passes through stages of life in relation to our parents. Whether they are alive or deceased; whether we live in close proximity to them or across the country; whether we are emotionally close to them or have grown distant -- an ebb and flow often characterizes our relationship to our parents. Parental separation is necessary, but painful. God knew this when, on the second day of creation, after the division of the waters above and below, God refrained from saying "and it was good." Our struggle to separate begins at the womb and continues way beyond the grave.
At the beginning of this week's portion, Abraham is told lech lecha, often translated as to "go forth", from his native land and his father's house, to a land that God will show him. The obvious question is why would God ask Abraham to leave his native land and his father's house if the Torah teaches that Abraham had already done so at the end of the previous portion? And not only had he left his native home, but also his father had died in the process. So what was God talking about?
Separation. God was asking Abraham to psychologically leave his father's authority over his life, and lech lecha -- literally "go toward himself" -- to define himself outside of his father's control.
Separating from our parents is a lifelong process. In utero, we are literally attached to our mother's body and separation can be a deadly consequence. As an infant we continue to rely on their touch, attention and nourishment. Yet, once we become toddlers and explore the world beyond our mouth, we quickly learn that we can emotionally and physically affect our parent's behavior and feelings.
Then as a child and teenager, we separate through rebellion. We are embarrassed to be seen with them in public. We make fun of them to our friends. We give them a curt answer of "Nothing" when they ask us "What's going on?" We can't wait to run out the door of freedom when we leave for college, but then our half-hour phone calls back home prove our yearning for connection.
As adults we may marry and perhaps be blessed with children of our own, only to begin this cycle as a parent while our own parents move their attention to their grandchildren. Finally, God willing, we reach old age and stare at ourselves in the mirror, realizing that our body looks and moves just like our parents' bodies did. It's no wonder that Rashi, an 11th century commentator taught that when God said lech lecha, he meant "for your own benefit, for your own good."
Parents struggle to let go of their children. Every day I talk to parents who, on the one hand, know that holding on too tight for too long can be damaging, but on the other hand, make appointments for their adult children with the rabbi, prevent their college-bound children from leaving the state for school or control their child's choices with the power of money.
Separation is for our own benefit, and for our parent's benefit, but it is long, hard work. Only when Abraham psychologically leaves his father's house is he told veh'yay brachah, meaning "you will be a blessing." God does not say "and you will be blessed," but commands "you will be a blessing." In other words, once Abraham leaves the psychological control of his father's presence to find his own path, he will most definitely be transformed. His psychological freedom will enable him to accomplish his unique goals not in reaction to his parents, but for his own sake.
Mark Twain and Abraham are models for each of us on our lech lecha journeys.
Michelle Missaghieh is Associate Rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood