Abraham as an Iconic Model: Lech L’Cha Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

I am surprised often by the interpretations of many rabbis of Torah texts. Lech L’Cha is particularly open to being treated as a Rorschach test in at least three ways. First, some rabbis believe that we have to have a clear purpose in life so that our decisions and skills, our aptitudes and interests, our talents and the benefits bestowed to us by our parents, are put to best use. These attributes are treated as resources that must be exploited with maximum efficiency. We are commanded to determine in advance and as soon as possible what really matters to us so that our blood, sweat and tears can be utilized to best achieve what we aspire to become.

That means that we must not only clarify and articulate our goals in life in advance of the decisions we make, but we must develop a methodology that allows us to determine which decisions are most in accord with our goals of self-development. For some, that means trusting our gut instincts. For others it means allowing ourselves to be guided by our conscience. For still others it means listening to the message God has for us. I could go on. Each rabbi who opts for instructing us to define the person we want to be in advance may offer a different methodology or mixture of methods.

For example, discernment can be named as the magic key. “Discernment is clarity. It is fine-tuning. It is guidance. It is trusting intuition over fear, listening to the gentle fluttering of longing and to the whispers of the soul. It is self-reliance. It is the utter denial of negativity and the commitment to positive thinking.” Simply put, it is a continuous sorting out of our priorities and our decisions, in this case, by means of our intuition. Instead of reliance on God’s word and God’s instructions, self-reliance is advertised. The surprise comes when this process of self-actualization is equated with making the world a better place, “safer and more compassionate,” even though ego-centric methods have often been criticized for failing to recognize our responsibility for mending the world.

Who is chosen as the exemplar of this dialectic process of discernment and decision-making, of self-reflection and reaffirmation, of self-examination and self-definition but Abraham. Yes, Abraham, even though there is not a single clue in the Torah that Abraham is the epitome of introspection and has given himself over to self-examination in order to acquire the power of positive thinking. In any case, why should the means of self-examination be equated with some duty to “know thyself.” And where do we read in the text, Lech L’Cha that we have such a duty, presuming, of course, that we know what such a duty means.

In the American Protestant tradition, know thyself is equated with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea that knowing thyself is getting in touch with the God within. In fact, Emerson wrote a poem named by the Greek phrase, “Know Thyself.”  In this belief, knowing oneself is knowing the God who lives within each of us and takes a unique form and expression. The one God has an infinite number of variations in articulating the truth and we express that truth when we are true to ourselves, true to who we are meant to be.

However, the least acquaintance with Greek philosophy and literature instructs us that know thyself has as many interpretations as the phrase is meant to have expressions. For example, know thyself might be equated with moderation in all things rather than trusting our instincts because our instincts and passions might lead us to excess. When Oceanus advised Prometheus in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, knowing thyself meant knowing one’s limitations, recognizing boundaries and locating oneself in the world’s great order.

Socrates, of course, is the one most identified with the advice to adopt discernment with the slogan, “Know thyself.” But even for Socrates, the phrase was viewed as equivocal even by Plato, his foremost interpreter. In the dialogue Charmides, for Critias, it meant moderation and knowing your place in the world. In Phaedrus, however, the message is “don’t waste your time.” Concentrate on what is of value and do not get caught up in playing video games. In Protagoras, the maxim suggests spending one’s life in self-examination rather than in deeds and actions, that is, figuring out what “know thyself” means. In Philebus it seems to mean that in order to understand another, which is the goal, one needs to first understand oneself.

Know thyself may mean do not be intimidated by parents or peers to doing what is not best for you and your self-development. Especially, do not be a slave of the opinions of the mob. In contrast, Thomas Hobbes thought that knowing the other, knowing how all humans fundamentally behaved, was the best route to knowing oneself.  In Alexander Pope’s words, the proper study of oneself is to study mankind.

If one is a contemporary member of the Republican Party, “Know thyself” may mean knowing the group to which you belong and the group to which you must appeal to win their votes and get elected. Business, fiscal and social conservatives, white male working class former Democrats, iconoclastic anarchists, and then whom you need to add on to get a majority. Knowing thyself and being true to oneself is simply knowing the best vehicle to achieve victory.

The problem is that even if we could settle on one of those meanings, Abraham seems to be least identifiable with any of them. His is a journey into the unknown. He is not one who defines his destiny and works out the best route to achieve it. How are you to become a father, not of one nation, but of nations? How are you as a man married to a barren woman to become the father of multitudes? But there is not even an indication that Abraham is even capable of articulating such questions let alone answer them. He may be called to a greater purpose, but this result is seen as a result of God’s efforts and following God’s instructions rather than determining in advance by yourself who you want to be and how you must become the person.

Is heeding your call knowing yourself? I suggest not in this case. For Abraham, whether in dealing with threats to himself and to Sarah, whether in relationship with his nephew Lot, whether handling or mishandling the relationship between his concubine and his wife, and then, most of all, in following the instructions by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac, there may be, as Kierkegaard claimed, an expression of absolute faith, but there is little if anything to indicate self-critical acumen.

Further, even if the lesson is heeding one’s call as a stretch in the interpretation of knowing thyself, his is not a hero’s journey, for Abraham seems to exhibit more cowardice than bravery. There is not even an indication that he did or even could calculate the route from Ur to Canaan because scholars cannot even figure out the route he traveled, certainly not if that route was to be as direct as possible.

Finally, if the lesson of Lech L’Cha is to know thyself, who is the self one is to know, that of Abram or Abraham? The very change of name seems to indicate that there is no essence to Abraham but that, through God’s dubbing him with a new name, he is to be resurrected as a different person. Abraham isn’t someone who becomes what he truly in essence was, but one who becomes who he shall be. He has the essence of divinity, if that can be called an essence without contradiction, for he, like God, shall be who he shall be. His journey is not only a trip into the unknown but the journey is made to discover who he should be and is not taken because he knows who he must become. It is a voyage of self-discovery.

Further, for a religion that insists we must remain in touch with our past, the lesson of Abraham is that one realizes oneself by jettisoning all connections to that past and charting a new course. It is finding a new home in a new place with all the perils that entails. And unlike the voyage of Ulysses, it is not one from which he will return in ten years. There is no return.

That also may mean that the Torah itself is not a guide to the perplexed but itself a voyage of discovery, a voyage that reveals a God, not of perfection, not an all-knowing God, not an all-powerful God, but a God who reinvents Himself as He responds to what He does and what He learns. Meaning and purpose are not predefined but defined by the voyage itself. For a religion that teaches us to honour thy father and thy mother, the story of our foremost forefather is a tale of a man who abandons his father and trades him in for a new, a non-earthly father who lacks any material substance. God says, “Go forth,” and Abraham and Sarah go forth without questioning the choice of location or the reason that they should become refugees from the land of their father whom they will never set eyes upon again. There is no indication that Abraham’s father supported him in taking the trip and every reason to believe he would have opposed it.

Abraham is promised that he will become a father of many nations and, more significantly, that he will have many children. But why would Abraham accept either wild proposition as true, especially the latter when his wife was barren and seemingly very unlikely to bear a child? Is that simple acceptance a sign of being governed by the maxim, “Know thyself”?

Abraham and his progeny should become a nation. That is the promise and the imperative however incredible it is. However, what that means is that Abraham does not have a national identity. Identity is not a given but a discovery, initially with Abraham as a person, and subsequently a discovery of who we are as a nation and a debate over what that identity is and should be. Does the narrative even teach us that we ought to listen to our call even when we do not define our purpose but discover and refine it as we go along? It is not as if we were “meant to be” something, but that the meaning and destiny are discoveries and not points of departure.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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