The words we first hear from God to Avram “lech lecha”, are given without introduction or context. Avram is to make a journey from his birthplace, leaving the security of family and settled place, and to go “lecha” – to or for himself, to a place which is described only as “the land which [God]will show you”. This journey defines Avram, who only two chapters later is called “Avram Ha’Ivri” – Avram, the one who has traversed/ crossed over. (14:13)
This designation “Ha’Ivri”, the one who has crossed from one place to another, has come down to us to describe ourselves (Hebrews) and our language of Ivrit.
The sense of movement, of travelling from one place to another, infuses Jewish history and Jewish identity. As much as we are “people of the book” we are “people of the world”, with a powerful and continuous yearning for the Land of Israel which has retained its centrality in our identity and liturgy, while mostly living in a wide and mobile diaspora.
There is a Yiddish saying “toyshen den platz, toyshen den glick” – “change your place and change your luck”, which must have acted as a comfort as communities were chased out of their villages and towns, or pre-emptively left before the coming pogrom. But the idea comes from Talmud, (Rosh Hashanah 16 b), and this first commandment to Avram is the proof text for it. We read:
|וא”ר יצחק ד’ דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם אלו הן צדקה צעקה שינוי השם ושינוי מעשה צדקה דכתיב (משלי י, ב) וצדקה תציל ממות צעקה דכתיב (תהלים קז, כח) ויצעקו אל ה’ בצר להם וממצוקותיהם יוציאם שינוי השם דכתיב (בראשית יז, טו) שרי אשתך לא תקרא את שמה שרי כי שרה שמה וכתיב וברכתי אותה וגם נתתי ממנה לך בן שינוי מעשה דכתיב (יונה ג, י) וירא האלהים את מעשיהם וכתיב (יונה ג, י) וינחם האלהים על הרעה
וי”א אף שינוי מקום דכתיב (בראשית יב, א) ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך מארצך והדר ואעשך לגוי גדול ואידך ההוא זכותא דא”י הוא דאהניא ליה
Rabbi Yitzḥak said: A person’s sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions. These are: Giving charity, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds for the better. An allusion may be found in Scripture for all of them: Giving charity, as it is written: “And charity delivers from death” (Proverbs 10:2); crying out in prayer, as it is written: “Then they cry to the Eternal in their trouble” (Psalms 107:28); a change of one’s name, as it is written: “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. ..And I will bless her, and I will also give you a son from her” (Genesis 17:15-16); a change of one’s deeds for the better, as it is written: “And God saw their deeds, and repented of the evil which God had said God would do to them, and so did not do it” (Jonah 3:10). And some say: Also, a change of one’s place of residence cancels an evil judgment, as it is written: “And the Eternal said to Abram: Go you out of your county” (Genesis 12:1), and afterward it is written: “And I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12: 2). The Gemara explains: And the other one, i.e., Rabbi Yitzḥak, who does not include a change of residence in his list, holds that in the case of Abram, it was the merit and sanctity of Eretz Yisrael that helped him become the father of a great nation. Rosh Hashanah 16b
The time honoured ways of changing your destiny – offering prayer and giving charity, changing one’s name and changing one’s actions – these are all methods of acting upon oneself in order to avert consequences of continuing down a particular path. Jewish prayer is a reflexive action, work upon oneself; the giving of charity offers an awareness of one’s own privilege and good fortune, forces us to give up some of our selfishness to help the other. Changing one’s name marks a conscious new beginning for oneself, the name often reflecting the aspiration of what one might become; changing our actions is self-explanatory – if we stop doing something we give ourselves the chance of averting the consequences of doing it. These are all things we can do as we sit in our comfort zone. But the fifth – not part of the list of Rabbi Yitzhak, is, to my mind a different category. Coming from the imperative “lech lecha”, the anonymous sages draw the lesson that changing one’s residence changes one’s life trajectory. Rabbi Yitzhak disagrees – he sees the country one goes to – specifically Israel – as changing us. Such is the power of the Holy Land in his eyes.
Yet I think there is a modern lesson to be drawn for us in this passage. There are ways of working on oneself that can improve our situation, help us become better people, and these ways will impact how our lives unfold. Whether in modern terms it is better nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, learning good habits – we all try self-improvement at different times in our lives.
But the behaviour based on lech lecha is qualitatively different. Yes, we move ourselves but then it is something external that works on us– the altered perspective of from where we view the world. There is a tradition in Judaism that a mourner changes where they usually sit in synagogue – the idea being both to signify that life has changed radically, and to signal their experience to the community, but this shift also literally gives them a different viewpoint, a different perspective on the world which they must come to be part of. Changing ones place is a radical act, leaving the familiar structures of habit and home to strike out away from ones comfort zone means we will experience the world quite differently.
When we change our place we change our perspective and we see differently. Be it by imagining ourselves in the shoes of others or by our physically leaving one place for another; be it by shifting ourselves in time or geography, by taking a long journey or simply sitting in another chair, lech lecha – we can change the route along which our life might otherwise run without our thinking about it.
Sometimes the change is because the place we move to is kinder, calmer, more supportive than the place we left, and this may be the thing that allows us to move from our earlier position. That is the theory of the sanctity of Eretz Israel in the Talmudic source. But more often I think there is interplay. The difference we have to adapt to when we change our physical or mental space forces us into an openness we didn’t allow before. The new space is something we have to grow into, as we see our past from a different perspective, as we notice what we had overlooked, and as we see new possibility.
The practise of Yom Kippur – where we deliberately move into a space where we act “as if dead” – means we see our lives quite differently. What was apparently of critical importance suddenly seems trivial; what was apparently less important suddenly seems vital.
When Avram changed his place, journeying to the land God showed him, he changed the destiny of all his descendants as well as himself. Many of us have family who came as refugees to this country in order simply to HAVE a destiny, as death and hatred stalked their lives in other countries. We Jews are historically sadly used to changing our place of residence to change our destiny. But the change of perspective does not always need such massive upheaval. Change your favourite seat, your routines and habits, the barely noticed tramlines along which your life runs. Lech lecha, go to your self, go for your self, and encounter a new destiny.