Parashat Lekh L’kha, Genesis 12:1–17:27
Abraham’s lifelong conversation with Hashem begins with a simple two-word phrase: “Lekh l’kha—get going!” (Gen 12:1). Before the Lord reveals anything about his character, purpose, and plans to Avraham, he sends him on a journey. My translation of Lekh l’kha here might differ from the one in your Bible. It’s one of those simple Hebrew phrases that has a variety of possible translations. Rashi takes it literally as “Go for yourself,” meaning “Go for your benefit and for your good.” I’ll take it even more literally and suggest, “Go to yourself”, that is, to find yourself as God means you to.
Abraham is our forefather, our guide, and the first thing we learn about him is that he must journey. So too his descendants Jacob and Joseph must endure long journeys to finally take on their God-given identities and fulfill the mission that God has assigned them. This journey is essential because:
- It is initiated by God’s word.
This is not the “spiritual journey” of pop culture, not an expression of what Barna.com calls the Morality of Self-Fulfillment, which says “the best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself.” On this journey finding yourself is a fruit of obeying God’s directive.
- On it you learn that you can trust God.
God doesn’t say—as we sometimes do—“just trust me.” Instead, he repeatedly proves himself to Avraham. Jacob has six dreams or visions of reassurance from God in the course of his long adventure. Joseph, toward the end of his journey, realizes that God has been behind it all. He tells his brothers, who are worried that he’s finally going to seek revenge against them: “Yes, you yourselves planned evil against me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about what it is this day—to preserve the lives of many people” (Gen 50:20).
- Out of the trust it creates you discover who you are, your identity.
The patriarchal stories of Genesis speak to us today because they trace the primal journey of identity formation. Pioneer family systems theorist Salvador Minuchin wrote, “Human experience of identity has two elements: a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate.” Individual identity is a finely tuned balance between belonging and being distinct. The journey provides separation, as Hashem told Abraham: “Go for yourself from your country and your kindred and your father’s house,” and it also brings us to where we really belong, which is sometimes our starting-point transformed through the whole experience. Again, we’re not talking about the pop spiritual journey that’s so often rooted in hyper-individualism. This journey supports belonging and community, even as it explores new horizons.
It’s a very old story, and it applies with particular immediacy today in the Age of Anxiety. Why do I use this phrase? The National Institute of Mental Health reports that in any 12-month period, 18% of the US adult population suffers from an anxiety disorder of some sort. In the counseling profession, we used to speak of depression as the “common cold” of mental illness, but now anxiety has outstripped it.
I’ve been studying Matthew with my 14-year old granddaughter and we came upon Yeshua’s instructions not to worry in Matthew 6. When I asked her how many kids at her school worried a lot, she thought for a minute and said . . . 45%! My granddaughter clarified that she wasn’t thinking of only the most severe cases, but then added that she estimated 30-35% of the kids at her school suffered from panic attacks, which is a severe case. Of course this is anecdotal evidence, but in the eyes of one observant and thoughtful kid, one out of three of her schoolmates suffers from acute anxiety.
This epidemic has many causes. One cause is the flood of options, choices, possibilities, confronting us today, coupled with a weak basis for choosing between them. We have to process three times the amount of information that we did when I was a kid, with far less basis in our skeptical, secularist age for knowing what to do with it all. The anxiety epidemic reflects our culture’s departure from a biblical world view in favor of the Morality of Self-Fulfillment.
So how does Avraham’s journey story help us find and convey a healthy, non-anxious identity?
A while back my friend Chad Holland of King of Kings Congregation, Jerusalem, posted part of the answer on his Facebook page: We should realize that God tells Moses that His name is “I Am” a few verses after Moses asked God, “Who am I?” It is more important to know who God is than who we are, as our identity is in Him.
True enough, but when we see how identity is formed in Scripture, it’s not just by adherence to a doctrine, or a vision statement. Our identity in God is a gift, but we test and embrace it through the journey, through walking with God as Avraham did. For lots of younger people that I know, the challenge is to own the identity that was given to them by parents and religious upbringing, and often they never do. That’s how someone can seem to be a strong and fired-up believer throughout childhood and adolescence, and then suddenly drop it all as a young adult.
Messiah Yeshua calls us not just to believe, sign up, show up on Shabbat, not even to do various good deeds in his name—all worthy pursuits—but to “Follow me.” This is FAITH—active trust in a God who is on the move. It’s on the journey of following, the journey launched by Lekh l’kha, that we discover and embrace an identity grounded in this trust. Here are those three qualities of journey again:
The journey is initiated by God’s word.
How does this happen in real life? I believe that the God we’re talking about can and does actually communicate directly with human beings. This communication might take us by surprise, but we can also seek it out by listening for his word through prayer, mediation, contemplation of Scripture, and quiet anticipation that God will speak (usually not audibly, but clearly enough). Hashem says Lekh l’kha twice to Avraham, once at the beginning of his journey, and again near the end (Gen 22:2). Hearing God’s directive isn’t a one-time thing, but a lifetime endeavor. Stay fresh, keep to the journey, listen for the word.
On this journey you learn that you can trust God.
We won’t overcome our anxiety and uncertainty by sitting in our rooms repeating, “I trust God; I won’t worry.” We learn to trust in God as we go forth. He says—“Go for/to yourself . . . to the land that I will show you.” The journey depends on God showing us the way, which grows our trust, which in turns grows our courage. The journey teaches us not to fear, because life is always transitional, uncertainty isn’t a monster . . . and God is always there. After some assorted mistakes and disappointments, Avraham pulls off a brilliant military rescue of his nephew Lot, and then has to worry about retaliation. God tells him, “Fear not, Avram; I am your shield. Your reward shall be very great” (Gen 15:1).
Out of this trust you learn who you are, your identity.
The journey of identity formation counters our cultural obsession with safety, security, and risk avoidance—and anxiety, which seems to be hardest on the young. An article in The New York Times Magazine (10/11/2017), “Why Are More American Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?” reports,
In its annual survey of students, the American College Health Association found a significant increase — to 62 percent in 2016 from 50 percent in 2011 — of undergraduates reporting “overwhelming anxiety” in the previous year. . . . In 1985, the Higher Education Research Institute at U.C.L.A. began asking incoming college freshmen if they “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do” during the previous year. In 1985, 18 percent said they did. By 2010, that number had increased to 29 percent. Last year, it surged to 41 percent.
There are many factors behind this mounting anxiety, as I mentioned earlier, but over-parenting, whether from real parents or institutions, doesn’t help. In the religious community, we can over-parent or we can encourage exploration and boldness, and trust God to lead the way. If a child (including an adult child), or someone you’re leading or mentoring, asks tough questions, don’t freak out, shut down, or lecture. Let them be wrong, and even fail, now and then. Be not afraid! But trust . . . and apply this to yourself as well.
When Messiah Yeshua said, “Follow me,” he didn’t mean just this once, but from now on. If we have a walk with Messiah Yeshua that is risk-averse, predictable, too secure, we might really not be walking at all. On the other hand, if life still feels a little shaky and insecure . . . this might be exactly what Hashem intends to train us in trusting Messiah.
Trust grows along the journey, as Avraham discovered. “Now he trusted in Hashem, and he counted it to him as tzedakah, righteousness” (Gen 15:6).