By: Rabbi Arthur Nemitoff, Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah, Overland Park, Kansas
“Where are you going?” It was a question I was asked by many of my friends. And each time, the answer was the same. “I don’t know. But something is compelling me. I just have to go.” Invariably, when I returned, the first question was the same as the first, “Where did you go?” My answer? “Where I was supposed to.”
This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, shares a similar tale. God calls a man – we learn his name is Abram – to go on a journey. “Lecha lecha me’artsecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha el-ha’aretz asher ar’eka. – Go, leave your land, and the place of your birth, and the house of your father, and go to the land that I will show you.” We know the how the tale continues. God promises Abram that he will be a blessing. Abram, without hesitation or fear, heeds the call.
We Jews are wanderers, challenged by God to journey. First, it was Abram. He went willingly. God understood what was in Abram’s heart and mind. He was not happy where he was. He had hopes, dreams, fears, desires. But, he was stuck in Haran. He had grown all he could. So, God challenged Abram: “Break away from the usual, the easy; go and seek your own path. And if you do, you will become a blessing.”
We are challenged to the same journey, to discover who we are and what we want to become. As liberal Jews, our road is more difficult than others. Our Jewish decisions made from study, experience, tradition. It is not enough to be told what to do. We must challenge the status quo, ask the tough questions of ourselves and others, be willing to experiment with the new and different. That is also the beauty of our liberal movement. We are free to wander, addressing those same hopes, dreams, desires, and fears that our ancestor, Abram, confronted. The result is awesome.
I was privileged to attend a children’s summer camp in Bulgaria, run by the Jewish community of that country, with the help of the JDC. One Shabbat, we unrolled a Torah scroll, having all the children and madrichim (counselors) hold the parchment as they saw their history – their communal journey – before their eyes. Most of these children had never seen a Torah scroll this close and surely none of them had held one. Afterwards, one little girl approached me and asked me a question: “You said this story belongs to me?” “Yes,” I replied. “Which half?” she asked. I did not understand her question. She explained: “One of my parents is Jewish; the other is not. I am only 1/2 Jewish. Which part of me owns this story?” I smiled and said to her, “All of you. It is your story and your journey.”
A year later, that little girl told me she had begun to light Shabbat candles each week, in order to let her “Jewish half shine through.” That is what happens when we allow ourselves and our communities to journey forth into the unknown.
Whether we live in Bulgaria, Belarus, Boston, or Beersheva, our journeys are limited only by our Jewish imaginations. Our opportunity – like Abram’s – is to go out, experience what the [Jewish] world holds, and determine what makes our lives more meaningful. Keeping kosher? Praying with tefillin? Lighting Shabbat candles? Hiking a mountain on Shabbat? Skyping with family on Rosh Hashanah? Exploring one’s Jewish roots and traveling back home? Whatever that Jewish experience is becomes authentic. And makes our journey into a blessing.
Whenever I have gone on a journey, my friends have asked, “Where are you going?” In truth, I never know where my path will lead. What I do know, though, is when I open myself up like Abram, trusting that God will lead me to where I need to go, the resulting journey will become a blessing.
Where is your Jewish journey taking you? Wherever that is, may it be – for you – a blessing.