We all have parts of our lives in need of change: perhaps our jobs, our eating habits, where we live, how much we volunteer, or our relationships with certain others. What motivation do you need to actually make a change? What has worked in the past to help make a particular change “stick”?
We read this week the third Torah portion in Genesis, Parashat Lekh L’kha. Our Torah wastes little time in narrowing its story from the broadest sense of Creation to focusing on a very specific family–that of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. Indeed, the rest of the Torah focuses almost entirely on this, our family. The p’shat–the plain, simple meaning of our Torah text–leaves unanswered the question of why God chose Abraham of all the people on earth. Nevertheless, however inherently righteous or prone to monotheism Abraham may have been, Abraham has one characteristic in common with many of us: he is reluctant to change. “Lekh l’kha,” God says to Abraham (then known as Avram), “Go forth from your land, from the place of your birth, from the house of your father … to the land that I will show you.” God easily could have said to Abraham only, “Go forth to the land that I will show you.” God could have said to Abraham, “Leave everything you know.” But for the rabbis, the Hebrew of that key command from God to Abraham is telling.
“Lekh l’kha,” God told our patriarch, “Go forth.” In Hebrew, those first two words that God spoke to Abraham contain three syllables; the next word, “mei-artz’cha (from your land),” contains four syllables; “umimoladt’cha(and from the place of your birth) has six syllables; and “umibeit avicha(and from the house of your father),” has again six syllables. In other words, our tradition teaches that God knew that the change He was asking of Abraham (and thus Sarah as well) was dramatic, was not to be taken lightly and, in order to allow for lasting change, had to be eased into. Three syllables, four syllables, six syllables, and six syllables remind us that in order to sustain any alteration to our life path, we must go slowly–one step at a time.
For me, this parashah is very personal. Perhaps more than any other person in the Torah, I identify most with Abraham and I wonder, was it easy for Abraham to make the changes God asked of him? Did Abraham simply respond, “Okay,” and then begin to lead an observant life? Like Abraham, I succeeded in deepening my commitment to God and Torah one step at a time. I did not grow up keeping kosher, but now I find deep meaning in my kashrut. I did not grow up shomer shabbat(keeping the laws of the Sabbath), but now I find such joy in having made that decision. Enriching my Jewish life with observance of the commandments has been a relatively easy transition for me, and I regularly seek to enhance my observance of mitzvot. But not all life changes come as easily. When Rebecca and I were first married, I put on forty pounds! What can I say?! She is a very good cook, and I have always had relatively poor eating habits. I managed to lose fifty pounds about twelve years ago (through Weight Watchers, in fact), and have succeeded in keeping all but ten of those pounds off. But each and every meal for me is a challenge in terms of choosing what I put into my mouth. Watching my weight, then, as well as the quality of the food I eat will, I think, forever be part of my daily struggle. The change to healthy eating habits will be a lifetime challenge. Was it easy for Abraham to make the changes God asked of him? Was Abraham’s transition to what we now call Judaism as easy as becoming more observant is for me, or was God’s demand of Abraham more akin to my battle against poor food choices?
In our own lives, we often know which decisions are “healthy” and which are not. We know that we should eat right and many of us know what that means. We know we should maintain a healthy work-life-family balance, but it is often difficult to maintain. We know that strengthening our spiritual life by attending services, supporting our synagogue, volunteering more and giving more to tzedakah will enhance our sense of meaning and purpose, yet too often we fail to make the decision to heed what we know to be best. The path to a life of holiness and health stands before us, yet for a variety of reasons we are reluctant to make the necessary changes so that we might follow this sacred path. As we read our Torah portion, then, we ought to be reminded that “the Jewish people weren’t built in a day.” We can, like Abraham, take baby steps toward the direction we know to be right. But we must make those steps.
This Shabbat of Parashat Lekh L’kha, may God grant us the strength to make the important changes in our lives, and the wisdom to know how to do it. Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you Shabbat shalom um’vorach.
– Rabbi Aaron Starr