The Wandering Jew: A drash for Parshat Lech Lecha

By: Rabbi Alissa Wise

The Lord said unto Abram: Get yourself out of your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, unto the land that I will show you.

Breishit/Genesis 12:1

And with that, Abram packs up his life and his people in Haran and heads into the land of Canaan-what is now Israel/Palestine.

On this verse is a popular midrash:

Rabbi Yitzhak said there is a parable about one that wandered from place to place, and saw a certain palace that was all lit up/on fire. He said, “could it be that this palace is without an owner?”. The owner of the palace looked out at him, and said, “I am the owner of the palace”. So it was with Abraham our father that he said, “could it be that this world is without a master?”. The Holy Blessed One looked out at him and said, “I am the master of the world”…

Breisheit Rabbah 39:1

So how do we get from God demanding Abraham leave his land to a palace burning? Of this parable, and of this week’s Torah portion, the Sefas Emes, a great Hasidic teacher says:

“Get you out of your land”—a person should always keep walking. “To [that which] I will show you”—always some new attainment. This is why the person is called a walker. Whomever stands still is not renewed, for nature holds him fast. The angels above are beyond nature; they can be said to “stand”(Isaiah 6:2). But the person has to keep walking.” (translation by Arthur Green, The Language of Truth  pp.22-23)

Abraham is the wanderer, wandering to a place he does not know, a place God will show him. Abraham is the first Jew, and, from him, we learn what it means to be a Jew.

So, instead of seeing this week’s Torah portion as some sort of real estate contract, where God gives the land of historic Palestine to the Jewish people, we instead see the entire story as a metaphor for being Jews. We learn that to be a Jew is to be a seeker, to not stand still or idly by. To be a Jew is to ask and to seek and to wander and to yearn.  To be a Jew is to be in diaspora, spiritually and physically. The biggest mistake one could make is to think we are home and done with our seeking because of the establishment of the modern day nation state of Israel. To confuse Israel for “the land that I will show you” is what allows some to let Israel off the hook for displacement, occupation and oppression. The existence of Israel must not signal the end of our seeking, which is the centerpiece of Jewish spirituality and Jewish culture. The wandering and seeking of diaspora is what has inspired the liturgy, the songs, the poems, the novels, the midrash, the food, the comedy, the ethics and the complexity of Jewishness.

The Sefas Emes also taught that God gets more satisfaction from our desire to come close to God and to understand God’s Torah than in our actually reaching our goal.  It is not about reaching the land; it is about striving to get there. May we all be blessed with the desire and the chutzpah to seek and to ask, and may we all be held safely in our wanderings.

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