Rabbi David Walk
The verb 'to wander' is defined as 'walk or move in a leisurely, casual, or aimless way.' Thank you, Dictionary.com. Merriam-Webster adds 'without a fixed course, aim, or goal'. To me that all sounds very negative or, at least, not very constructive. But we Jews have a different take on the phenomenon. Many stories about the Ba'al Shem Tov begin with him sitting on a wagon, and the driver, reasonably asks, 'Where to?' Then the founder of Chasidut replies, 'Wherever the horses go.' How's that for a definition of wandering? However, the point of the story is always that there is an aim and a goal, but the wanderer just didn't know it yet. The fact that I'm wandering about doesn't necessarily mean that I have no purpose or project. I think that this week's Torah reading can give us some guidance on wandering.
A few words of introduction before we begin our journey. The importance of wandering in the parsha is based on one interpretation of a very famous verse. In our annual Seder we quote the verse, 'Arami oved avi (Deuteronomy 25:5). Which we translate as 'an Aramean (wanted to) destroy my ancestor,' and said Aramean was our great-uncle, Lavan. That's according to Rashi and the Midrash. Rashi's grandson, the Rashbam (R. Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1158) disagreed. He translated the verse, 'My father was a wandering Aramean,' because the root oved (with an aleph) can mean be destroyed or lost. He then assumes that the father is father Avraham, because he was told to go forth with no road map or GPS. I will stick with the Rashbam, but just be aware that the Ibn Ezra agrees with the translation but differs over the 'father'. He claims it refers to Ya'akov, because he eventually wandered down to Egypt, which is referenced at the end of the verse. Maybe that will be another article in the future, but this year I'm tracking Avraham.
In the series of books by Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik put out by the OU Press, one is called Abraham's Journey. I will be quoting from it as we go along, and I will supply page numbers for the curious. Here's how the Rav introduces our topic: The narrative about Abraham's life begins with the hagirah commandment to go forth from his land and paternal home to parts unknown. This departure from an indigenous environment and ancestral home to a strange land marks the turning point in Abraham's career, his election to head the paradoxical covenantal community, the bestowal upon him of charismatic uniqueness (P. 73).
In other words, the command of lech licha begins Avraham's story. That's good because the Torah doesn't really inform us of anything in his life before that. All those stories about breaking idols and fiery furnaces appear in the Midrash. To a certain extent he is like the Ba'al Shem Tov sitting on the wagon. He doesn't know where he's going, but he's sure that it's significant. The significance will become apparent along the way. Part of the plan was not knowing where he was going. 'Abraham was as perplexed as straying sheep. God did not guide Abraham. He bewildered him; He completely mystifies and confounded him (P. 74).' The only information he's given is that, 'If you do this, I will cause you to become the father of a great nation; I will bless you and make your name famous, and you will be a blessing to many others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you; and the entire world will be blessed because of you (Genesis 12:2-3, The Living Translation).' So, he embarks.
'The hagira motif implies an unconditional commitment to and complete involvement with God (p. 76)' The success of the mission depends on a total reliance on God. There is no Jewish nation without this journey, which is a passage away from the idolatry of Aram and towards the monotheism of the Torah. One might call this a 'leap of faith', but the Rav sees it more as research into one's mind and exploration of one's soul. You don't have to necessarily go anywhere. He observes that 'there is an inner and outer galut' or passage. The Rav sees the inner voyage of discovery is the greater. Lech licha can, therefore, mean 'go to yourself'; find yourself. Avraham didn't observe the sights and stop for photo ops at scenic overlooks. He discovered himself.
There's another crucial detail about this journey. God goes with us. Before his death, Yehoshua explained this aspect of Avraham's hagira: Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan (Joshua 24). This is, of course, similar to the assurance given to Ya'akov before he went down to Egypt: I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up (Genesis 46:4). Yes, God tested our ancestors, but God was part of the bargain. As we see in the blessings at the end of Leviticus that our most intimate and personal religious experience finds expression in the idea of God walking with man. We are not alone in this world and on this voyage. Remember this adventure doesn't necessarily require leaving home. Our very presence in this world is strange because our true essence is stuff from another realm. God, too, is a stranger in this physical environ.
As we prepare for the new year, it's important to have designs and goals, but it's okay to not yet know what they are if we are vigilant and observant in looking for them. The new year is a tabula rasa, just waiting for us to etch our experiences upon it. I know we spend a lot energy in the Ten Days of Repentance reviewing and repairing what went before. But it must also be a time for vision and expectation of new vistas to experience. May we be open to climbing onto the wagon, and letting God be our driver.