Parshah Summary – P’shat
The parshah opens with God telling Avram to leave his birthplace and travel to a land where his descendants will become a great nation. So, Avram and his wife Sarai, accompanied by their nephew Lot, journey to the land of Canaan. Avram builds an altar there, but a famine forces them to flee to Egypt, where Avram and Sarai present themselves as brother and sister, out of fear that Avram would be killed on account of Sarai’s great beauty. Sarai is taken to Pharaoh’s palace, but a plague prevents the Egyptian king from touching her. Pharaoh then understands that Sarai is Avram’s wife, and he reunites her with Avram, giving them gold, silver and cattle.
When they return to the land of Canaan, Lot separates from Avram and settles in the evil city of Sodom, where he falls captive when the mighty armies of King Kedarla’omer and his three allies conquer the five cities of the Sodom Valley. Avram sets out with a small band to rescue his nephew, defeats the four kings, and is blessed by Malkitzedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem).
Avram seals a strange covenant with God involving a vision of fire descending and moving between severed animal pieces, in which the exile and persecution (galut) of Avram’s descendants is foretold, and their eventual return to the Holy Land is affirmed.
Still childless ten years after their arrival in the land of Canaan, Sarai tells Avram to marry her maidservant Hagar. Hagar conceives, but becomes insolent toward her mistress, and then flees when Sarai treats her harshly. An angel convinces her to return, and tells her that her son will also become a great nation. Ishmael is born in Avram’s eighty-sixth year.
Thirteen years later, God changes Avram’s name to Avraham (Abraham, meaning “father of multitudes”), and Sarai’s name to Sarah (“princess”). A child is promised to them whom they should call Yitzhak (Isaac, “will laugh”). Abraham is instructed to circumcise himself and his descendants as a sign of the covenant. Abraham does so for himself and all the males of his household.
Torah of Awakening
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
Hashem said to Avram, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you…”
- Bereisheet (Genesis) 12:1
There is a story that a dead man once appeared to Rabbi Yisakhar. The rabbi had known this man when he was alive; he was prominent in the community, but now his apparition came to the rabbi, begging him for help. He explained that his wife had passed away, and he needed money to arrange a marriage with someone else.
“Don’t you know,” the tzaddik asked him, “that you are no longer among the living, that you are in the World of Confusion?” When the man refused to believe him, he lifted the tails of the dead man’s coat and showed him that he was dressed in a shroud. Later, Rabbi Yisakhar’s son asked, “Well, if that is so, perhaps I too am in the World of Confusion!” His father answered, “Once you know that there is a World of Confusion, you are no longer in it.”
When we examine our present-moment experience, we often find ourselves involved with thoughts and feelings that derive from the past, that are not directly related to what is immediately present. Like the dead man in the story, we tend to live through the issues and concerns of yesterday, “dead” to the living present; this too is a kind of “World of Confusion.” On the personal level, this can keep us oblivious to the brightness of the Living Present; on the cultural and societal level, it can keep us embroiled in prejudice and conflict, infused with false meaning.
Why are we so resistant to the Living Present, so oblivious to the Living Presence?
Ironically, it is because we want to feel alive; we want to feel that something is happening. But, because we are conditioned to live primarily through our minds, through our tasks and responsibilities in time, we forget where true life is. We become insensitive to the bright aliveness and wonder of the moment, and instead seek it in the dramas of time. This is also why many people become restless with routine, wanting to break the monotony of life with travel or doing new things. Other people are just the opposite, clinging to the familiar, and feeling insecure and even frightened by change, which is of course inevitable. The first is fear of the past; the second is fear of the future.
But these two poles of experience – craving something new and novel, on one hand, and being afraid of change, on the other, are both symptoms of living through the conditioned mind. For example, if you’ve had a strong emotional experience with another person – either positive or negative, it doesn’t matter – then when you see that person again, some of those old emotions are bound to reemerge. And those old emotions will influence your experience of that person in the present. Sometimes we call that “having baggage” with somebody. It’s like if you’re traveling and seeing new places for the first time, but you can’t fully appreciate them because you’re lugging around too many suitcases. That’s how relationships and other parts of life can often become, so long as we’re stuck in time, in the “World of Confusion.”
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ ... אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ – “Go for yourself … to the land that I will show you.”
This is the Divine call to Avram: “Don’t be stuck in the past! Don’t be afraid of the future! Let go of the way you experienced things yesterday, and come to the land that I am now showing you.” This is not just a story, it’s an instruction: Reality as it is being revealed in this moment is completely unique. Even when things seem totally familiar, even monotonous perhaps, keep in mind that the familiarity comes from your conditioned mind – from memory, from the past.
And that’s a good thing; we don’t want to get rid of our memories, but rather, simply recognize the truth that this is a new moment. Just like a river that seems to stay the same, but the actual flowing water is always new, so too this moment is also completely fresh and new, when we allow our conditioned mind to subside and simply come to this moment as it is, el ha’aretz asher arekha. In this way, we need not be tricked into the World of Confusion; we can awaken into the Living Present.
But what if we become overwhelmed by our thoughts and feelings? How do we stay present when our conditioning can seem so powerful, even traumatic? Again, the main thing is recognizing our conditioning. And to do that, it is helpful to see that there are three main levels:
לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house…”
מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ mei’artz’kha – “from your land” – refers to the situation-scape of your life; your responsibilities, your aspirations or lack thereof, your current challenges and so on. This is often the most common distraction; you try to meditate, and your mind starts going through your to do list, or starts trying to solve problems, and so on. But again, don’t try to get rid of those thoughts or judge yourself for having them. Take it as a good sign that your mind works, and that it is there when you need it, barukh Hashem. Then, simply recognize – there is my mind, doing what it does – and bring yourself back to the revelation of this moment: אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ – el ha’aretz asher arekha – to Reality as it is now being revealed.
וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ – from your relatives… These are our relationships; this level tends to be more emotionally charged than the first level. Once, someone who made a mistake at work told me that she was so distraught about how upset her coworkers would be, how much suffering she probably caused them, and so on. But the next day, when she told a coworker how she got no sleep with all her worrying, the coworker said, “Get a life!”
We are social beings; we are wired to care about others and care what others think about us. And in the right dosage, this is also good and necessary. But again, we must recognize: “There is my mind, creating all this drama, hiding the brightness of the moment.” Just recognizing it loosens its tyranny, and we can begin our journey (again). Lekh lekha – go for yourself out from the past, and into this bright newness. Or, it can also be translated, go to yourself – meaning, go to your true self, beneath your conditioning, to the boundless and bright field which sees the conditioning.
וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ – from your father’s house… This is the deep-seated conditioning that comes from how we were programmed in childhood, and can be the most emotionally charged, because it tends to be what we are most identified with. What are you trying to get out of life? What are you most afraid of? What is most important to you? This is the deepest strata of ego identification. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having desires and fears and values, as long as you know that they not the whole you; they too are parts of our conditioning.
Then, after we recognize all our conditioning for what it is, we can choose to shift from involvement with thoughts and feelings, powerful as they may be, into whatever is present now, including whatever feeling residue persists from our conditioning. Again, the conditioned mind will be there when you need it, but by shifting into Presence, all that conditioning becomes more like a lucid dream. You might still be in the dream, but you know that it’s a dream, rather than thinking it’s real, as Rabbi Yisakhar said: “Once you know that there is a World of Confusion, you are no longer in it.”
Practice this, and you will begin to notice: behind the conditioning, beyond the World of Confusion, you are the fire of awareness that perceives the conditioning. Then you can meet ha’aretz asher arekha – the fullness of Reality as it is revealed in this moment, the ever-shifting content of experience. But That which is experiencing, that radiant fire of awareness within which all experience comes and goes, that is the deepest level of who we are; and through that fire of alertness, represented by the letter ש shin, we are “saved,” from all Worlds of Confusion and can enter (again) the Brightness of Being…
Read past teachings on Lekh L’kha HERE.
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