God’s first words to Avram are a command, a demand, even. Avram will be sent into a wilderness of not-knowing, a future he cannot predict. He leaves Haran, a city literally named “street” — harrannu, in the Akkadian.
Avram is ivri: a Hebrew, one who crosses over thresholds, boundaries. He is become, by his crossing, an immigrant and a stranger.
Our sages point to the many ways these two words might be translated.
Lech l’cha: Go by yourself. Or, “go to yourself.” Or even: “go for yourself.”
Go by yourself, the Holy One says: Are we asked to go it alone, to wander inward to our very souls? But if we do not venture into the depths of heart and soul and mind, how are we to know who we are, much less who we might become?
Go to yourself, YHVH says. Go into a new world, a new land. There, Avram is to find his roots. Must we leave in order to come home? Do we journey in order to know where we belong? We must know the vulnerability of the new because the new – not the known – teaches us how to stretch, risk ourselves, and go forward.
Go for yourself , Rashi insists, is the message here. If you do not go you will have missed the mandate: it is for you, yourself that you must leave, and see the world.
Again and again our Torah asks us to go deep inside its words, deep inside ourselves. Go by yourself, to yourself, for yourself. The answers we seek are alone inside us, to us and part of us, for us to find.
Goethe wrote: Wonach sollen wir trachten? Die Welt zu kennen, und sie nicht verachten. What shall we strive for? To know the world and not to despise it.
This last year we have, as a nation, journeyed into the deadliest of territories. We have traveled through thickets of lies and invective. We have longed for a peace and a forgetting.
We have been caught in a city of streets that led nowhere. We must cross over and leave. We must journey away into some open territory.
What might we meet there? Who might we meet there?
We might meet other immigrants and wanderers too – those who have escaped danger and death only to find themselves described as a hateful burden. We might find those have lived in fear of rejection after decades of offering their labor and their hope to this country. We might find those who have been exiled from opportunities to settle, to find the rest they need.
We might find fellow human beings who need to know that their lives matter. Black Americans must finally be freed from entrenched systems of violence and oppression.
When we lived in Haran, did we help build walls as well as streets?
I am privileged to teach at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. Every day I go into that known territory to discover the unknown, and to discover myself.
Who can I be for Kamala, the student whose parents were immigrants, who works harder than just about any student I know because, she says, she is so privileged.
Who must I be for Caleb, a white boy from this state, who is desperately trying to escape his past as a drug dealer. The very dealers he used to work with do not let him go; they insist that he work with them again. They brought guns to his apartment this semester and gunfire was a part of their visit.
Who can I be for Alex, who lost his mother to cancer in the first weeks of the semester and who reads Lamentations for our class and asks me why God is absent in a text of the most extreme pain.
As Avram did before us, we must journey.
The Holy One tells us, too: Leave Haran, a city of streets and boundaries. Leave to find the world. Leave in order to find yourselves.
May we journey into the world this year so that we know our purpose. May our purpose nourish the peace and the safety we long for. May we fill the world with shalom by journeying into its very center, and ours.
The names of my students have been changed to assure privacy.