Parashat Lech Lecha / Hearing Voices Is Dangerous

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'God speaks to Abraham,' image from 'The Wolverton Bible,' by Basil Wolverton (2009).Credit: Courtesy
Yair Caspi

The Bible bestowed the future to the world. Before the narrative we now read became known, most ancients believed that the world moved in a pattern that repeated itself cyclically: summer, fall, winter, spring; birth, childhood, adulthood, old age, death. Today, many people believe that one’s development is determined by genetic tendencies; believe there are traumas from the past that one can never get rid of; believe in an ancient tradition considered to be halakha, or Jewish law, that is unchanging.

“Get thee out of thy country” – the first words of Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) – is a revolt against reality. Nothing is fixed, and no authority is permanent. The future is influenced, not controlled, by the past and present. The present moment does not determine the next. This is the essence of how the Bible views liberty: the possibility that at any time, I can do something that is not a necessary product of my environment, culture or genetic background.

The first Hebrew individual is not a product of the wounds of his childhood, the customs of his parents or the laws of his nation: “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham’s future is not a product of his past. Nothing that Abraham saw, learned or heard in Haran prepares him for his new mission.

Judging from Abraham’s life up to that moment, nobody could have predicted that he would simply get up one day and abandon everything he ever knew. Although he is certainly influenced by his environment and although there are times when he acts in conformity with it – he can at any moment choose to hear a voice that is not controlled by his familial, social or cultural context, to exercise his own free will and to abandon all the worlds he ever knew.

The Bible’s challenge, which we still find it hard to meet, proposes that this possibility for liberty is not the exclusive province of the prophet, but is rather given to each of us. Our past, which we use to hypothesize what we can expect in future, often foretells our actions in the present. One day, a man or woman who has been imprisoned for decades in an internal or external prison, will suddenly get up and leave it as if personal history, biology, perhaps even physics’ law of inertia, do not apply to him or her.

The commandment “lech lecha” (Get thee out) is the moment of the creation of the free man – a moment that no intelligence agency predicted, when, within only a few short years, an the Soviet empire liberated itself from the totalitarian ideology that controlled it for nearly a century.

In a unique turning point, Zionism underwent something that historians who study all the precedents insist on calling impossible: A nation condemned to perpetual wandering that had grown accustomed to being dependent on others chose to abandon its survival program and to reinvent itself. This is the moment that professors of political science know nothing about: A series of absolute failures in peace negotiations does not dictate that peace will not ever be attained, someday.

This is the exciting moment, when we leap to our feet as we see the divine center forward, freeing himself of those defending against him, suddenly turning around, in the middle of his run, as if he has discovered his own space in time, lifting the ball in the air with his feet, as if he is alone on the soccer field and is not subject to physics’ laws, and scoring the unbelievable goal.

The forward of this moment is not doing what his coaches trained him to do. All players know the tactics of all coaches. This forward does not do anything done by forwards who preceded him, because all defenders already know what all forwards can potentially do. This forward is the product of a new moment in whose creation he is a partner. Thus, we justifiably stand up and cheer him from our seats in the stadium: “There is a God!”

Future forwards will study his brilliant move and will try to copy it. Defenders will learn how to protect their team from such a move – until the emergence of the next genius who hears a voice others are deaf to and will create the moment that the books know nothing about. This is the moment that makes us, year after year, attend games where nothing happens. In this moment, all our suffering is shown not to have been in vain.

This is the moment that exhilarates us when we read a book or watch a movie about a man who for years has passed a particular woman in the corridors of an utterly boring office. Then one day, without any warning, he expresses his longing for her, a longing that is completely illogical and which takes no account of the nature of things, of the rules of etiquette, or of the question as to whether they are compatible or even free of any other binding relationship.

The woman, loyal to her family’s values, has always conformed to her society’s conventions, has never done anything unpredictable in her life. Yet, without any warning, she responds passionately to his longing because she hears in that longing the same voice that spoke to Abraham.

Just as we cannot predict anything, we have no idea whether she will respond positively – or slap him in the face. Hearing voices can be dangerous.

This is the legacy of the founder of our method: Never do anything simply because others do it. Never trust anyone who imprisons the divine voice in never-changing customs. Never believe those who say they have seen God and have discovered the secret of how to control one’s life. Never trust anyone who always acts logically. Request a conversation with a hidden authority that exists beyond the totality of things.

This is the reason Jews reread this story every year at the same season. They are hoping that they will suddenly hear the voice that spoke to Abraham, a voice that exists in space unheard by anyone.

This is the hidden hope that exhilarates the heart – the hope that we will also hear that voice and that we will suddenly know what we must do, what the next stage holds for us, what our role here is.