Going Toward the Present
Martin Buber, the great 20th-century Jewish theologian, observed a powerful literary connection between the beginning of Abraham’s life and the end. God first speaks to Abraham suddenly, seemingly without introduction, and commands: “Go forth (lekh lekha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). With these few words, God introduces God’s Self to Abraham and it is with these words that their relationship is founded. The phrase “Go forth” appears on only one other occasion in the entire Torah. Toward the end of Abraham’s life, as God begins the last conversation God will ever have with Abraham, God again commands: “Go forth.” This time God demands that Abraham “go” and take “[his] son, [his] favored one, Isaac, whom [he loves]” and give him as a burned offering (Gen. 22:2).
The words “Go forth” (lekh lekha) serve as literary bookends to Abraham’s life. As Buber dramatically describes our story, in the first instance at the beginning of Abraham’s life, Abraham is asked to separate himself from the world of his Fathers—his past, his family, and everything he knows. In the second instance, Abraham is asked to kill his son and thus separate himself from the world of his Sons—his future and the promise and the expectations of a time where his offspring would be “as numerous as the stars” (Gen. 15:5), where his progeny would be made into “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2).
In his spiritual life, Abraham has been asked to give up so much. He is asked to leave all that he knows and then surrender the very hopes and expectations that may have allowed him to have had the courage in the first place to take those first steps away from the world of his Fathers. God has demanded that Abraham walk away from both his past and the hope of a particular future that has propelled his entire life.
We can offer a reading of the repetition of this literary phrase that emphasizes the importance of sacrifice in the religious life. Transcending one’s own needs and concerns is a worthy goal of the spiritual life and the practice of being nudged beyond (sacrificing!) our parochial self-interests seems to me to be a healthy provocation.
And yet the type of sacrifice God demands of Abraham seems to exceed what might be considered creative or productive agitation. This sort of sacrifice does not feel like something that should serve as a foundational part of our relationship with God.
Perhaps the emphasis should not be placed on what God is asking Abraham to walk away from but on what God may be asking Abraham to walk toward. That is to say, God is asking Abraham not to live in his past or in the hopes for a particular future. By asking Abraham to give up both, God invites Abraham to focus on the present moment of their relationship. And there is much uncertainty in this moment. In the one instance, at the beginning of Abraham’s trials, God tells Abraham to “Go forth,” but God does not tell him where he is going. With the second command of “Go forth,” God tells Abraham to go forth to a mountain that God will identify later in the journey. In both instances, God asks Abraham to inhabit the uncertainty of the present.
This paradigm of a relationship with God serves as an important counterbalance to an alternative way the Torah conceives of our relationship with God. The Torah repeatedly reminds us of God’s role in our past, of the God who took us out of Egypt, who gave us the Torah, and led us into the Land of Israel. The Torah asks us to recount our people’s story, tell our children, and remember that we too were once slaves. And, of course, the Torah holds out God’s promise for a particular future. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you (Gen. 12:2). The promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob about a future in the Land serves as the cornerstone for our contemporary understandings of the redemption that we believe will take place for the Jewish people and for all of humanity. So much of our Jewish lives takes place in inhabiting a particular past and promise for a particular future.
However, here—with the drama of Abraham’s relationship with God—we are encouraged to separate ourselves from the potentially disruptive “noise” of our individual and even our people’s history. We are asked to set aside the hopes we harbor for a particular future. As with Abraham, God is reminding us to be actively present for God and our lives now. Our personal histories are important, as are our desires for a promised future, and yet, the divine call of “Go forth” (lekh lekha) reminds us that no stories of the past nor hopes for a certain future are more important than the steps we take into the present moment. Like Abraham, we are challenged to free ourselves from the constraints of our history and the expectations of a certain future. God, through Abraham, asks each of us to “Go forth” into our present.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.