In the Hebrew Bible, Gen. 12: 1 begins with God’s command to Abraham to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” The text is problematic, because in the Hebrew original, the verb “go” is repeated for purposes of intensifying the command (Gesenius, #119s): lekh lekha. This unnecessary duplication gave rise to a variety of interpretations by ancient sages as well as modern commentators.
Some argue that Abraham did indeed hear the command of God to leave his native country and move to a new land (later understood as the land of Canaan). I prefer to say that Abraham, assuming he was an historical character, was impelled by an inner voice that told him to move forward.
For the early Jewish/Greek Philosophers, like Philo of Alexandria (1st cent. CE), “Go forth” meant, to escape from the body, which “the foul prison-house” that pollutes the soul (“On the Migration of Abraham,” 9). This is hardly our thinking today.
In more recent times, in his classic commentary on the Pentateuch (Soncino, 1971), Dr. J. H. Hertz generalized the instruction, and applied it to the historical fate of the Jewish people that for many centuries had to live as a minority among other nations: “A similar call comes to Abraham’s descendants themselves in every age and clime, to separate themselves from all associations and influences that are inimical to their Faith and Destiny.” In other words, Jews have to learn how to become authentic Jews, even when they live with others.
Other interpreters, like Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888), stressed the existential condition of humanity by interpreting the expression as: “Go by yourself.” That is, the journey must be taken alone, and, with some luck, with good friends and family to support us along the way. I like this interpretation.
The command to “go forth” has also been understood in a psychological sense. In his well-known book, The Lonely Crowd (1950), David Riesman, had suggested that the goal in life is to move from being an “other-directed” person, whose existence depends on reliance on others, to becoming “an inner-directed” individual who is propelled by inner motivation and strength.
Following Riesman’s line of thought, I would argue that it is necessary to be able to move from “dependence” to “independence” by learning how to take chances in life with freedom. In line with many Hasidic teachings, the biblical expression lekh lekha can therefore be understood as “Go to yourself.” This is my favorite interpretation. It says, go to your own roots, your inner being. Find your potential. Discover your own strength. Be your own person.
Fortunate are those who can accomplish this goal.
Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, Ph.D.