Lech Lecha: The Journey of The Next Chapter
by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin
Temple Israel, West Palm Beach, FL
Last year, I attended a retirement seminar. I asked the following question, “How do you know how much money you will need for retirement?”
The presenter asked me: “How long do you plan to live?”
As I began contemplating that question, I thought of how David Brooks understands the life journey in his book The Second Mountain.
There are two mountains in life. The first mountain in life is the mountain of success. Make a living. Accumulate the resume virtues; the virtues that require drive, ambition, and individualism.
But, then, we descend the mountain of success.
It is time to climb the second mountain – and that is the mountain of soul.
The second mountain of soul is about the eulogy virtues, those items do not appear on your job application. Those are the things that they will say about you at your funeral.
As I rapidly approach the season of my retirement, I find myself thinking about those two mountains. I realize that I am in the process of making the journey from one mountain to the other. The journey from one mountain to the other requires going through a valley. In that valley, there is a sense of mourning–mourning the ascents up that first mountain of success–as well as a sense of preparation: what life skills will I need to amass to climb that second mountain of soul?
This is about the journey, and it is a journey not dissimilar to the one that Abram and Sarai made; first, out of Ur, and then, out of Haran (Genesis 12: 1ff):
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth [lech lecha] from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.
It is that first phrase–the one that lends itself to the Torah portion–that grabs me. Lech lecha.
It could mean “Go–really, go!”
It could mean, as Rashi imagined, go “for your own benefit, for your own good. Here you will not merit the privilege of having children.” This place (Haran) is a mere crossroads of the ancient empires. It is a way station. It is a place of infertility; not only biological, but existential.
We note that Abram’s father, Terach, dies in Haran. The family had all left Ur together, but only got as far as Haran. It is as if they were stuck there, waiting. The last thing we read before God’s call to Abram is the announcement of Terach’s death. We can imagine Abram and Sarai making that inner resolution not to be “stuck.” We want to avoid that “stuckness.”
Moreover, Rashi continues: “Since travelling is the cause of three things–it decreases family life, it reduces one’s wealth, and lessens one’s renown, he therefore needed these three blessings: that God should promise him children, wealth and a great name.”
As I approach retirement, I know that I have as much wealth as I will ever have, as much “fame” as I will ever have; but time with family? Precious beyond words.
But, lech lecha can also mean “go to you.” Awkward, yes. But, in the words of the Hasidic master Rabbi Mordechai Yosef of Isbitza, in his commentary the Mei HaShiloach, it can only mean to go “to yourself.”
In that sense, every journey that the Torah describes is not only a geographical journey of an individual, and of the people, it is an inner journey that we must make within ourselves, as well.
Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, an early nineteenth century Hasidic teacher, taught: “Every Jew must go to himself, to his source, to his place of tachlit.” “Sic” to all those pronouns and possessives; his spiritual descendants would affirm that it is his/her–that every person needs to make that journey to the hidden place of tachlit, of inner purpose. Tachlit/tachlis: let’s get down to business, the hard business of mountain descending and mountain climbing. Every journey is a journey of an inner tikkun.
We leave the last word to Hillel Zeitlin, the Yiddish and Hebrew writer and poet, the teacher of what would become neo-Hasidism, the martyred teacher of the Warsaw Ghetto. “Please leave and go forth in search of your higher soul.” (Sifran shel Yichidim, Warsaw, 1928).
Do I believe that the search for the higher soul can only happen when we contemplate retirement? No.
But I do believe that the road map to that journey is not only about how much you will have to live on. It is also about how much, and whom, you will have to live with–what your map will look like, and what the terrain of that second mountain might be.
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin serves as the rabbi of Temple Israel in West Palm Beach, Florida. A prolific author, his award-winning column Martini Judaism appears regularly on Religion News Service. https://religionnews.