Every Friday morning I facilitate a Torah study group where the average age is 80. The zoom room is filled with a group of people who have been studying together, every Friday morning at 8am, for more that 50 years. The group was started when these men, and for a long time it was only men, were all working in downtown San Francisco and their offices were in the financial district. It is a window back in time to hang out with them and as you can understand, they are very close.
This morning we focused in on the opening words of our Torah portion “Lech Lecha.” As the portion begins,
“God said to Abram, “Go forth from your homeland to the land that I shall show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.”
How does one translate the words “Lech Lecha?” Some translate Lech Lecha as “Go!” Others as “Leave!” Deciding to go, and being told to leave, are two different things. That the words Lech Lecha is interpreted in many ways shouldn’t surprise us. It isn’t unusual for there to be multiple interpretations / translations of a phrase in the Torah.
Paraphrasing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks* who gives four interpretations, “Rashi, translates the phrase as “Journey for yourself.” According to him, God is saying “Travel for your own benefit and good. There I will make you into a great nation; here you will not have the merit of having children.” Sometimes we have to give up our past in order to acquire a future. “Go for yourself ” – believe in what you can become.
A second interpretation – “Go with yourself ” – meaning, by travelling from place to place you will extend your influence not over one land but many:…“Go with yourself” – your beliefs, your way of life, your faith.
A third interpretation: “Go by yourself.” Only a person willing to stand alone, singular and unique, can worship the God who is alone, singular and unique. Only one able to leave behind the natural sources of identity – home, family, culture and society – can encounter God who stands above and beyond nature.
Lastly some take the phrase to mean, “Go to yourself.” The Jewish journey, said R. David of Lelov, is a journey to the root of the soul. In the words of R. Zushya of Hanipol, “When I get to heaven, they will not ask me, why were you not Moses? They will ask me, Zushya, why were you not Zushya?”
In the Friday morning Torah study group, we are blessed to have a centenarian. Rabbi Ed Zerin. Rabbi Zerin was a congregational rabbi for 30 years and then switched careers and was a therapist for another 40 or 50 years. At 101 1/2, he is sharp as a tack and when he speaks, everyone listens. Sadly, last week he lost his 97-year-old his kid brother and 3 days later, his sister-in-law. Married for 70 years, they passed away within 3 days of each other.
The conversation turned to the longevity in Rabbi Zerin’s family and while clearly his family was blessed with good genes, one of the reasons for his longevity has to do with our Torah portion today. “Every morning I wake up and there are things I want to do. I have a purpose. Yes, my legs hurt, and I don’t hear so well, but there are things I want to do. There are articles I want to write, people I want to talk to.” Rabbi Zerin is like Rabbi Zushya of Hanipol. He is living life to the fullest. He is being the best Rabbi Ed Zerin he can be.
Coming to terms with who we are, with our strengths and our weaknesses is also a lesson of Lech Lecha. Lech lecha, go to yourself, turn inward, take stock, see who you are and make the most of the gifts you have been given – be the best you can be. I’ll never be a brain surgeon, and I would make a pretty terrible accountant, but I can be the best Jamie Hyams, the best Rabbi Jamie that I can be.”
And so, each morning when wake, may we be inspired to Lech Lecha, to be a blessing to those around us and to the world. May we be blessed like Rabbi Zerin with a long life and a sense of purpose to get out of bed, even when our legs hurt; and may we be the best Rav Zuzya, the best Rabbi Jamie, the best we each can be, as we live life to its fullest.
Ken yihiyeh ratzon