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Lech L’cha: Genesis 12:1 – 17:27

“What We Are Called Upon To Do”


Ramban, Rabbi Moses Nachmanides (13th century Spain), comments at length on a verse in the Torah that at first glance does not seem to hold much importance in the early unfolding of our Patriarch’s story. Abram leaves Haran as God called him to do and journeys to the land of Canaan. There, the text continues:

               Abram traversed the land as far as the site of Shechem, as far as Eilon Moreh. The Canaanites were then present in the land. (Genesis 12:6)

Why does the Torah record so precisely all of Abram’s stops as he wanders through Canaan? According to Ramban, there is a critical principle in reading Torah to be learned from this verse. He writes: “Everything that occurred to the Patriarchs is a sign (omen) for their descendants.” Shechem is mentioned, he explains, because it will be conquered not only by Jacob’s sons in retaliation for Dinah’s defilement, but also by Joshua later on. Eilon Moreh is the region where Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal are located, atop which the Israelites will later pronounce blessings and curses at Moses’ command (Deut. 11:29) as they begin the conquest of Canaan (Joshua 8:30-35). The mention of the presence of the Canaanites refers to the four-generation delay in the conquest of Canaan because, Ramban interprets, the Canaanites had not yet sinned gravely enough as a people in the eyes of God.

How much of this intergenerational principle holds true for the myth—the Torah—of our own lives? What is the weight our elders, our patriarchs, hold in our lives? How many generations of repeated “sinning” will it take before the Universe removes us from the play? This is a conversation that has been at the forefront of our national and global debate. The international ecological disaster and the legacy of financial irresponsibility we are leaving to future generations have been caused by behaviors we have inherited from our elders, from truths we have learned, habits of over-consumption and greed we have formed in an era that was still mostly unconscious of the long-term consequences of such behaviors.

This is also true at the personal level. What were the patterns of being that our parents inherited from their parents, which we continue to express through our own lives? What are the “truths” our parents and grandparents inculcated in us that we have integrated without questioning?  Are we aware of the ways we resemble our parents? Do we care to even admit it? Part of the process of spiritual evolution begins with making conscious choices about how we show up in our lives, the ways we act out our conditioning. One avenue available to us to become aware of that conditioning is to see, reflected in our parents’ ways of being, our own character traits. For Abraham, lech lecha was about leaving his own family narrative altogether, breaking away from polytheistic theology and idolatrous worship practices. If Ramban is correct and “Everything that occurred to the [p]atriarchs is a sign for their descendants,” then we owe it to ourselves to be able to read these signs in the Torah of our own family narrative, for it points to critical aspects of who we are. We can transcend and heal our hurtful patterns only if we are aware of them. If we heed Ramban’s principle, we begin to take seriously our interconnectedness and responsibility; it then becomes clear what our own lech lecha is—what we are called upon to do.

PS: I am starting an “Introduction to Kabbalah” course on November 22nd. It is free and open to everyone both in person (if you are in the Seattle area) and on Zoom (if you are not). We ask everyone to register so that we can email you the private Zoom link for the course. For more information click here. Thanks!