The day God pronounced two simple words — lech lecha — Abraham and Sarah’s lives changed forever. God instructs Abraham to leave his homeland, his birthplace and his father’s home, “to the land that I will show you, and there I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2). “Lech lecha,” go forth — and thus the long journey began.
In a creative reading of these two words, the 14th century Spanish Bible commentator Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher says that the two words lech lecha sound strikingly similar to the word lichluch (dirt). A lech lecha journey, says Rabbeinu Bahya, is filled with dirt, and whoever sets out on a journey goes into it knowing that the roads are not always clean and paved.
Rabbeinu Bahya’s unique reading of Lech Lecha prepares us for the “long and winding road” — filled with bumps and detours — that Abraham and Sarah were to embark upon. Abraham was promised that his journey would ultimately lead him to a new land where he would become a great nation, and where “all of the earth’s families would be blessed through him” (Genesis 12:3). The promise is inspirational, and the goal sounds like a dream. The challenge is getting there.
Abraham and Sarah indeed reach this new Promised Land, but a short 10 verses into the narrative, they hit the first bump in the journey: “And there was a famine in the land, and Abraham went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was sore in the land” (Genesis 12:10). What happens when there’s nothing to eat in the land of your promises and dreams? Abraham suddenly finds his lech lecha journey tainted with the lichluch of famine, causing his detour down to Egypt.
A stranger in Egypt, Abraham fears for his life and that of his wife. His fear represents an existential lichluch in his journey. After a brief stay in Egypt, Abraham and Sarah ultimately make their way back to the Promised Land, where they confront a new lichluch in the journey: internal family strife. Abraham’s herdsmen and his nephew Lot’s herdsmen engage in a territorial dispute. All is not so well in paradise. After Abraham’s suggestion that he and Lot separate, the journey should seemingly calm down.
Instead, it explodes into the ugly lichluch of war. A major regional war erupts in the Promised Land, and Abraham is caught in the middle of it. He learns that his nephew Lot is taken captive, prompting him to mobilize 318 men and enter the war. Abraham successfully redeems his captured nephew, thus ending the war.
Just when the external threat of war subsides, the internal challenge of survival and posterity confronts Abraham and Sarah. Will there be a next generation in the Promised Land after Abraham and Sarah? With Sarah unable to bear children, a new lichluch in the journey emerges: Who will be our descendants in this land?
No people on earth are more aware of the potential lichluch on a long journey than Abraham’s own children — the Jewish people. The twisty road of his lech lecha journey in many ways mirrors the challenging journey of the Jewish people throughout history.
The Jewish people’s long journey has indeed included hunger and famine, living in foreign countries under constant existential threat, internal strife and dispute within the Jewish people, many long, ugly and devastating wars, and the ever-present challenge of Jewish continuity. The Jewish journey of Lech Lecha is one filled with promises and dreams of a better life and a better world. Jews have continued to sojourn down the road toward a better place, only to be confronted with continuous detours.
Remarkably, from the time of Abraham and Sarah’s initial journey to the present, the Jews have never stopped the journey. They never got off of the road, and they never turned back. Jewish history has been one long, continuous march through the world, filled with some of the worst lichluch, yet never deterring the Jews from their dream and belief that this metaphoric road ultimately leads to a destination in this world where things will be better. More than any other contribution to humanity, the Jewish power of persistence is a light that helps illuminate many dark roads and journeys.
In the Odyssey, Homer writes, “The journey is the thing.” For Abraham, Sarah and their descendants, the journey — though long and challenging — is really only the beginning.
Rabbi Daniel Bouskila is the director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an international organization with its own historic campus in the Old City of Jerusalem. Follow Rabbi Bouskila’s blog, Through Sephardic Lenses, at jewishjournal.com.