The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Lekh-Lekha 5758 (1997)
"And to him that ordereth his way aright,
will I show the salvation of G-d"
Dr. Abraham Elkayam
Department of Philosophy
This week's reading begins with G-d rousing Abraham in the East and commanding him, "Get up and go from your country, and from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." The saga of the Israelite nation begins with the Divine command to get up and go; it begins with motion, tide, going, and a way. In Jewish and other sources one can find acute dialectical tension between the dynamic and the static, between having motion and being fixed, between the ideas of way and of place, between "when you sit in your home" and "when you walk along the way."
On one hand our sages often advocated stability, rest, being planted in one place -- like coming "to the rest and to the inheritance" (Deut. 12:9). Rashi, for example, lists the drawbacks of the way, especially of the physical way or road. On the verse, "And I will make thee a great nation," he says, "since traveling has three consequences: it reduces family size, diminishes one's wealth, and lessen's renown." In other words, stability, being rooted in a single place -- "for he saw a resting-place that is was good" (Gen. 49:15) -- brings abundance for family, economy, and society.
On the other hand, a settled life of ease in this world is specifically for the wicked. Rashi notes on Genesis 37:2, "Jacob wished to live at ease, but trouble with Joseph suddenly beset him. When the righteous wish to live at ease, the Holy one, blessed be He, says to them, 'Are not the righteous satisfied with what is destined for them in the world to come, that they wish to live at ease in this world too!'" There is no rest for the righteous, nor ease, nor even a roof over their heads in this world. Indeed, the righteous have asked about Psalms 135:19-20 -- "O house of Israel, bless ye the Lord; O house of Aaron, bless ye the Lord; O house of Levi, bless ye the Lord; Ye that fear the Lord, bless ye the Lord" -- why the word "house" does not appear with respect to the G-d-fearing, as "house of they that fear the Lord"? The answer is that they who fear the Lord have no house.
Metaphysical tension between motion and rest is also found in the medieval Aristotelian philosophical tradition. What distinguishes a road from other areas defined in space, such as a field? The quality that creates a road is that of travelling, of transiting from place to place. The concept of road assumes the concept of motion. According to Aristotle, a natural object moving from one place to another or from one condition to another in space and time indicates steresis, that the object lacks something which by nature ought to be in it. This can also be applied physiologically: the motion of drinking water indicates a lack of liquids in the body. Similarly, epistemically, the yearning for new knowledge evokes a learning process, which also expresses motion in a certain sense -- moving from the potential to its realization, from the potential for knowledge to actually having knowledge. The source of this motion is in a person lacking the knowledge desired, and therefore being incomplete.
We see that motion, according to Aristotle, indicates lack, deficiency, imperfection. Rest, in contrast, attests absolute perfection. Motion denotes the imperfection of human beings, whereas rest denotes the absolute perfection of the deity. Little wonder, therefore, that for Aristotelian philosophers the deity, the primal cause, the perfect being, is pure action without motion.
Human beings who seek to be imitate the deity (Imitatio Dei) by "walking in His ways" (Deut. 28:9), who move towards perfection --according to the Aristotelian model, perfection free of all motion --paradoxically seek to do away with their motion. Walking is ascent, motion along a scala contemplationis, to the ultimate perfection, going "from strength to strength" (Ps. 84:8), and when perfection is fully achieved, the ascent is itself annulled. The way to perfection is testimony to imperfection. In other words, "Get up and go" is the dialectical negation of "Get up and go."
The dialectic inherent in the notion of the way finds its ultimate expression in the Taoist concept of the way -- tao. According to Lao Tsu, attributed to Lao Tse, "A way which is nothing but a way, is not the way of the Constant." For Taoism, the Constant, whose phenomenological parallel in Western philosophy is the Aristotelian notion of G-d, is the source of all action, yet is itself inaction. Tension between the "way which is nothing but a way" -- between motion, birth and death, the way of the world of existence and loss -- and between "the way of the Constant," -- the source of all ways -- lies at the foundation of Taoism. This tension, however, does not find expression in mutual negation, but in mutual affirmation, for "the Constant is the great Way." In other words, lekh lekha, the notion of "Get up and go," is the dialectical affirmation of lekh lekha.
The element of Redemption in Lekh Lekha thus is founded on the dialectical unity of opposites: where you rest, there you move; and where you move, there you rest. This metaphysical idea can be illustrated by a scene from the Book of Jonah (1:4-5): all of existence is in constant flux -- a mighty wind stirs up a great tempest at sea, the ship sails over stormy waves, the sailors and Jonah are carried over a watery way. Jonah, flowing with nature's stormy path, at that moment is deeply at rest, sleeping in the ship's hull. Jonah flows along with Nature and rests with its motion at the same time. In other words, there is not only "rest in change," as Heraclitus believed, but also change in rest. In other words, to go (Lekh lekha) is not only to go, but also not to go.
A dialectical approach to the way can also be found in the Kabbalah, as manifest in the mythical identification of the snake with the way. Indeed, we read in the Zohar, "'Snake along the way': Just as there is a way upwards, so too there is a way downwards ... for what is 'along the way' but a snake" (Zohar I, 243b). Just as the snake is perceived in two opposing modes -- sanctity above and impurity below -- each complementing the other, likewise is the essence of the way.
Further developing the idea in the Zohar, we can say that the act of walking along the way is seductive, it opens our eyes, just as the snake opened the eyes of Adam and Eve. But this opening of eyes, according to the Zohar, pertained only to impurity: "To know the evil of the world that they had not known hitherto" (Zohar I, 36b); "the stench of this world, which did not exist previously, when they looked upwards" (Zohar III, 262b). Moreover, just as a snake bites and kills, so too, being on the way destroys a person's inner world. Lekh Lekha makes us encounter the world of the snake, symbolically representing impurity and evil, the way that destroys and undoes mankind.
The snake, however, also has another aspect -- the "sacred snake." In the Zohar the snake also stands for holy forces in the world of the spheres (e.g., Zohar I, 243b). R. Isaac ben Jacob Ha-Cohen, a leading thirteenth-century kabbalist from Castile, Spain, associated the snake with the Messiah, "when the Messiah, likened to the snake, shall come" (S. Ta'amei ha-ta'amim, G. Scholem ed., Jewish Studies, II (1927), p. 273), perhaps attempting to identify the snake with the Messiah also by means of gematria. We may deduce from R. Isaac Ha-Cohen that the way brings redemption. Through fundamental motion, through going, man experiences personal salvation. The act of going, i.e., the bite of the snake, puts to death our former inner world, but also gives it rebirth, as in the legend of the Sages on the gazelle that gives birth by a snake's bite (Bava Batra 16b). Lekh lekha denotes symbolic death of the old and rebirth of a new personality.
Perceiving the way in terms of the snake myth is akin to the anthropological view presented by Turner, who claims that pilgrimage provides a focal point for blending opposites, structure and anti-structure (V. Turner, "Pilgrimages as Social Processes," in Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors, London, 1974, pp. 171-207). The pilgrim dismantles his orderly world, breaking out of its boundaries, and reaches a new focus that provides a broader perspective on the world. Like the teenager who goes through a rite of passage, so too, the pilgrim undergoes symbolic death and rebirth as a result of abandoning the structured way of life and becoming exposed to new options in life. This process, which Turner calls liminality, points out the similarity between pilgrimage and rites of passage -- both are liminal experiences.
Lekh lekha, in conclusion, is a liminal experience in which our patriarch Abraham, the prototypical Jew, left his former world, a place of idolatry, broke through its boundaries and was born anew into a world of monotheism. Lekh lekha is an occult message of Redemption, both for the individual and the community, as it is written in Psalms (50:23): "And to him that ordereth his way aright, will I show the salvation of G-d."
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.