There is a story told of a man who was captured behind enemy lines during war. To his horror, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. However, the captain gave the man another option. He told him, “You can go to the firing squad tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., or you can choose to walk through this door.” Feeling hopeful, the man asked: “What’s on the other side of that door?” The captain answered: “No one knows. All I can tell you is that there is some unknown power behind that door.” The man thought it over, and the next morning, when it came time to choose his fate, he selected the firing squad. After the shots rang out, the captain’s secretary asked him: “You’ve offered so many people the other option, and every time they choose the firing squad. What’s beyond that door?” With a look of dismay on his face, the captain answered: “Freedom! But people would rather face a known death than journey into the unknown.”
Walking into the Unknown
When Hashem commands Avraham to leave his home and embark on a journey, Avraham is told “Lech l’cha mei’artz’cha...–Go for yourself, from your land…” (B’reishis 12). This directive is quite strange. Avraham is told from where to leave, but he is not told his destination. What kind of journey lacks a destination? Generally, the destination, not the starting point, is most important. For example, imagine being invited to a wedding, but instead of being told where the wedding will take place, you are told only where to leave from. Good luck getting to that wedding.
The fact that Avraham is not told his destination is not merely a practical issue; it is a fundamental challenge to the idea of a meaningful venture. In order to accomplish anything great, we must first identify a clear target and then determine the path required to get there. One does not accidentally achieve spiritual greatness; it requires extreme focus and dedication. A great journey must begin with a clear goal and destination. As we say every Friday evening in L’cha Dodi, “sof maaseh b’machashavah t’chilah” – the physical result originates first within the mind. Only when we first lay out the steps and create a clear destination can we achieve the extraordinary. If so, why wasn’t Avraham given a clear destination for his journey?
Lech L’cha: No Simple Journey
The answer to this question lies within the words “Lech l’cha.” While this phrase is often translated as “Go for yourself,” they can also be translated as “Go to yourself.” Avraham was commanded to embark on a journey towards “himself,” towards his true and ultimate self. In a genuine journey to the self, we don’t know the destination; we don’t know where it will take us. All we know is where we’re leaving from, where we are right now. Only once we arrive, will we retroactively see where the journey was taking us all along. Of course we have goals, destinations, and proposed directions; but anyone who has achieved anything of substance knows that the vision he once had is nothing like the actual journey he took. The goals create the process, but the actual journey transcends the limited goals that were used to start the journey.
This concept – the inability to fully understand one’s own trajectory of growth – can be compared to a child’s inability to grasp a complex scientific or spiritual concept. Imagine explaining to a young child the relationship between quantum mechanics and general relativity, or the unique connection between the physical and spiritual world, or the different approaches to a complex sugya (topic) you are learning in Gemara (the Talmud). The concepts would be completely beyond the child’s comprehension, as his limited intellect cannot grasp such sophisticated and abstract ideas. The same is true for each of us: Imagine meeting a younger version of yourself and explaining all the things you will eventually accomplish, all the ideas you will learn, and all the experiences you will have. Your younger self would simply be unable to grasp the full meaning of this conversation. Now imagine, instead, that your older self does the same to your present self; the same would happen: You would not even begin to understand all that you will eventually become. You can have great goals and a clear direction, but that simply creates the journey. What will actually happen is a mystery; therefore, to genuinely venture on the path towards your true self requires a leap of faith into the unknown, ready to embrace whatever future Hashem has in store for you.
This is why Hashem didn’t give Avraham a clear destination: In a journey to the self, all that we know is the starting point. The destination requires a courageous journey into the unknown. You don’t know what you’ll find, the challenges you’ll face, what people will think, or if you will even succeed. So many people refuse to step outside their comfort zone, to embrace challenge, to take the unpaved and uncharted path, the path towards greatness. Greatness, therefore, requires us to be courageous enough to journey into the unknown, to embark on the lech l’cha journey to our true and ultimate selves.
Finding Your Unique Self
As we embark on this journey into the unknown, to our true selves, we must be willing to find our unique self that lies in wait. Each one of us has a unique purpose and mission in this world. This is why life can be compared to a journey at sea. Unlike dry land, where paths and roads can be paved, water has no pathways; the journey is a voyage through the unknown. While traveling on dry land, we can follow the path that others have paved. While traveling at sea, we must create our own path. There are no landmarks on the ocean; there is just endless sameness. We can use the sky and constellations as guides, but the water itself gives no hint of direction, remaining completely formless. This is why the word for ani, the self, shares its root with the word for ship, aniyah; each of us is a ship in the middle of the ocean. There is no looking around to see which path others are taking; we can only forge our path by looking within, finding our own unique purpose, and then journeying towards the ultimate version of ourselves.
The Process of Human Growth
With this principle in mind, let us explore the process of human growth. Many people grow from the outside in. They look around at their friends, society, and the people around them, and then shape themselves to fit their surroundings. The clothes they wear, the food they eat, and the things they talk about all become a reflection of their external environment. In this model, a person is a slab of clay, and the goal of life is to fit as neatly as possible into the molds that society creates for you.
This is not the Jewish path; this is not the lech l’cha path. Each one of us is created with his or her own unique potential, waiting to be actualized. Our job in life is to discover who we really are, to express our latent perfection. Growth isn’t about becoming great, it’s about becoming you; learning isn’t about discovery, it’s about self-discovery. You are born as a masterpiece, masked by confusion; your job in this world is to uncover yourself. To do so requires a “lech l’cha” journey.
Instead of becoming a mirror, reflecting everything outside ourselves, we can become projectors. We can build something majestic and beautiful within ourselves, and then express that outwards into the world. This is also the difference between thermometers and thermostats. A thermometer reflects its environment; the temperature outside determines its internal state. A thermostat, however, is unaffected by the external state of things. It first determines its desired reality within itself, and then expresses it outside, building towards that goal in its external environment. A true model of growth is where we first develop ourselves internally, and then express that out into the world.
The Lonely Path of Truth
Sometimes, we must also be willing to walk alone on the right path, instead of following the masses on the wrong path. Avraham was called the Ish Ivri, because he walked on the other side of the river. All of humanity walked one path, and he chose a different one. He walked alone, choosing to live a life of truth rather than a life of social acceptance. Sometimes we can see most clearly when we have the time to distance ourselves from our current surroundings, rethink, redirect, and then return with newfound purpose and meaning. Many leaders throughout history went through this process along their journey to greatness:
Avraham Avinu completely removed himself from his culture, and then became the father of the Jewish People.
Moshe Rabbeinu spent years alone in the desert, developing his clarity and understanding of life before returning to lead the Jewish People.
David HaMelech grew up as an outcast before being appointed king by Shmuel HaNavi.
This is not always necessary; but often, taking a step back leads to a giant step forward. This is why teenagers who leave their homes in chutz laAretz (outside the land of Israel), and spend time learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael, find it to be so transformative in their spiritual development.
The Torah Path
This model of growth, however, is only effective when undertaken within the framework and guidance of Torah. The only way to find your greatness is to see yourself within a greater self – Hashem, the source of everything. Perhaps this is why a ship is called aniyah, a combination of the words ani and yud-kei (Hashem’s name). The only way to journey towards yourself – ani – is when you are journeying to [and with] Hashem – yud-kei. The journey to your “self” is also the journey towards Hashem, the Root of all self. May we all be inspired to follow in the footsteps of Avraham, and have the courage to embark on our own lech l’cha journey, on our unique journey at sea, and discover who we truly are, and who we are meant to be.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.