Destination Unknown–Lech Lecha

Over the years, I’ve read many explanations and interpretations of the three types of leaving,  מארצך “from your land”, ממולדתך “from your birthplace” and ומבית אביך “from your father’s house”.  While I’m sure that others have as well, Rabbi Twerski zt”l emphasized the final part of the command, אל הארץ אשר אראך “to a land that I will show to you.”  He points to the intentionality of the indefinite destination.  A spiritual journey, that is a journey of spiritual growth, is by its very nature unbounded.  Any preconception or expectation will limit our efforts to that “goal” and, thus, make it impossible for us to actually reach our fullest potential.  Rather than continuing to grow, we’ll fool ourselves into complacently thinking we’ve already arrived and then stop.

I’d like to add into our consideration four seemingly simple words from Derech Hashem, The Way of God, by Luzatto, the Ramchal.  Discussing the soul’s development within a person, he tells us that as we age our intellect strengthens and begins, little by little, to counterbalance and, eventually, overpower our materiality.  As the soul comes to dominate us, he uses the phrase בכל אחד כפי ענינו, every individual according to their make-up.

Judaism, in addition to being more interested in questions than answers, i.e. growth rather than acquisitions, is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all religion.  Each of us is comprised of a unique soul, or a unique complex of spiritual roots.  And each soul has its unique strengths and weaknesses, its unique path to the Creator, its unique function in the world.

This is analogous to the many individual components which must be produced and refined and conditioned to work with all the others in order to, for example, manufacture a car.  We wouldn’t have much of a vehicle if it were comprised of a thousand identical wheels or a thousand identical fan-belts or a thousand identical bolts.  Likewise, we wouldn’t amount to much of a civilization as humans or much of a society as Jews if we were identical to each other.

In the specific world of Judaism, this translates to each of us having our unique path which is optimized just for us.  We each have an individual array of mitzvot which are prioritized for who we are and continuously updated to reflect what we’ve achieved to now.  We likewise usually find one or a small group of verses or psalms or prayers or teachings that especially attract and engage us.  Some of us are drawn to study, some to prayer, some to communal and charity work (not that we can avoid entirely engaging in each general aspect, but each of us do that with quite different levels of commitment and energy).  That’s the way it’s designed.

Our entire legal/halachic/ritual system is based on the Talmud, and the structure of the Talmud is one of multiple insights.  At a basic level, we usually start with conflicting opinions.  Rashi and Tosefot generally expand this array of opinions by introducing different fragments of phenomena each authority is describing.  Later commentators further the process until what seemed a simple reality has fractalized.

Add to that the underlying principle in Torah study that up to a certain point, at least, everyone in the discussion is right.  This leads to being able to imagine a surface with many facets, each facet being accurately described by one of our sages.  Each description is part of the whole, necessary but sufficient in itself.

Likewise, each of us will have our unique facets with which to join ourselves to the overall effort.  The way I daven or the way I dress doesn’t have to look identical to what someone else is doing–in fact, if it does we can be assured that something is not right, that at least one of us is doing it wrong for their specific being.

Traditional Judaism never had central authorities and chief rabbis, but rather local rabbis, authorities not only on the basis of their text training, but on the basis of their intimate familiarity with each member of their community.  Working together they can devise, and constantly revise based on progress, a plan of how to grow and develop.  This is because each of us is unique at each moment.

There’s nothing more beautiful for me than the noisy chaos of a traditional Bet Midrash.  Rows and rows of tables with study partners sitting across from each other, yelling at the top of their lungs to explain their understandings and insights.  Usually, no two pair are working on the same subject at the same time.  There is a warmth, a fire an energy that is all constructive, all loving, all cooperative.  Together, everyone is participating in the ongoing evolution and revelation of the Oral, infinite aspect of, Torah.

There’s little that profoundly pains me as a room or a shul or a city or a nation of clones, everyone wearing an identical suit, an identical hat, an identical shtreimel, an identical beggishe.  Even worse, voicing identical opinions, identical pieties, identical outlooks.

A principle I gleaned from Complexity Theory is that there is a narrow bandwith, but a bandwidth nonetheless, where life is possible.  Too little organization and we dissipate into chaos, but too much and we’re frozen, unable to grow and adapt and evolve, in short, too inflexible to live.

The Torah gives us a definite framework.  Not everything is within the framework, not everything is part of the cooperative enterprise we call Judaism.  But within this framework there is infinite possibility, complete freedom to explore and discover exactly who we are, how we fit in, and how we can individually function together as Clal Yisrael, to best bring the Divine process of Creation to its fullest completion.

I often imagine God as a composer and us as the orchestra.  I have faith that God isn’t going to write over-simple, dumb music, but rather the richest sonic tapestry imaginable.  We each have to prepare, practice and also be able to improvise on our parts.

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2 Responses to Destination Unknown–Lech Lecha

  1. Heena Reiter says:

    ײַI enjoyed reading this. The flow of ideas reminded me of Talmud, where one starts with an idea but then travels diverse pathways of thought until reaching a conclusion which clarifies the original idea. I appreciate the message of individuality within a larger, specific structure, especially being in Israel where the prevailing, or apparently prevailing – or the loudest, anyway – definitions of Judaism and Jewish practice tend toward uniformity. Yesterday, for Shabbat morning, I went to the Israel museum and hung out with the Essenes, or at least their energy, artifacts and writings, as my morning practice. Then I visited the model of Second Temple Jerusalem. I felt myself dipping into the range of practices of our people, and left feeling more confident that I, too, do have a place in this faceted, fractal-ed religious world.

  2. Amy Gray says:

    Thanks for a wondeful post!

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