How do we ever really know who we are? Why we do the things we do? Why we make the decisions we make? As children, we are raised in an environment where choices are made for us, and our specific circumstances and surroundings often determine how our lives are lived. As we grow older, we gain more independence and freedom. We are given more responsibility; we have more say in different matters. And at a certain age we leave our homes, where we are finally on our own and we determine how we will live. Yet there is always a question as to how we come to these decisions.
A Rebel With a Cause
If we follow in the way that we were raised, then we have to wonder if we really chose this for ourselves, or if we are doing this because it is all we know and what we are comfortable with. On the other hand, if we rebel against our upbringing and do the opposite, then the question still remains. Are we doing what we feel is right, or are we just not doing things the way we were taught?
The lifelong process of figuring out who we are and who we want to be is what this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is all about. There is a concept in Chassidic philosophy that we should “live with the times,” meaning that as each Torah portion is read, we need to find ourselves—our lives—in the words. The Torah, when properly learned, should unveil our personal autobiography.
So, what do we learn from Abraham? From a very young age, Abraham is a rebel. But a rebel with a cause. The commentaries teach us that as a small child he was sent to a cave, to solitary confinement, where he spent three years. When he emerged, he knew Hebrew and knew that there was a Creator of the world. He came out knowing who he was and what he believed, and began a lifelong process of breaking the idols in the world around him.
How did he learn when there was no one to teach him? He looked within. He read his soul.
It is said that when the whole world was on one side, on eiver echad, Abraham was on the other side, eiver sheni. It is this very word eiver that the term for the Hebrews, Ivri, comes from. He did what he needed to do and what needed to be done, even when he was the only one doing it.
Every single person must look at him or herself and ask the question, “Who am I? What do I believe?” For we are not intended to be robots; we must do, but we also must know and understand. This is necessary to connect to ourselves, and to connect to the world around us.
We need to meet ourselves all over again
The Torah portion begins, “Go for yourself, from your land, from the place where you were born and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). According to the mystical teachings in the foundational work of the Zohar, the words lech lecha, (the name of the Torah portion and some of its opening words), do not only mean “go for yourself,” but simultaneously mean “go to yourself.” And how do we go to ourselves, discover who we truly are? We need to leave our land, our birthplace and our father’s home.
This teaches us that in order to really know ourselves, we must temporarily distance ourselves from the influences of those around us. This doesn’t mean that we need to physically move or go anywhere (though for some that may be part of the process); but spiritually and emotionally, we need to meet ourselves all over again.
So, we must leave our land, society at large, American culture, the socioeconomic pressures. We need to stop worrying about what the world wants from us, and start looking within, to our soul, to know what we want from ourselves, and what is our purpose for why we were created in the first place.
But that is not enough.
We must go from where we were born. From our more direct surroundings. From those whom we were raised with, our school systems, our communities, our friends and extended family. We must not allow their influences to get in the way of learning who we are truly meant to be.
And then, hardest but just as essential, we must go from our father’s home. We must recognize that as much as we may want to live in the very path that we were raised (ideally, this is the case), we must choose it for ourselves. We must take ownership of this direction.
It is then, and only then, that the new land is shown to us—our potential, our possibilities, and the world that awaits us. It is only then that we can progress, for we cannot move forward until we truly know who we are. This is how we lech lecha, go from ourselves, back to ourselves.
Even a fish that is dead will move with the current
We must be willing to stand on “the other side,” and do the right thing, even if it is not the popular thing. The more we break those idols in our own world and the world around us, the stronger we can become.
This is what Abraham teaches us. That we need to swim against the current and reveal our divine soul and our unique mission in this world. But to do this we must go from ourselves and then return to ourselves. As through this process, our true essence will be unleashed.
(A version of this article was originally published on Chabad.org.)