5756 - #2

Lecha, To Yourself: The Involvement of Self

The language of G-d's command, to Avraham Avinu, to go to the land of Israel[1] is most interesting: lech lecha, literally "go to yourself". What exactly does this mean, to "go to yourself"? Specifically, what is the meaning of this word lecha?

Rashi, obviously bothered by this question, understands lech lecha to mean: "go for yourself". Lecha, he explains, means "for your benefit and for your good". Ramban, on the other hand, argues that the use of the word lecha in this context is simply part of the natural expression of the Hebrew language. Lech lecha means simply "go"; there is, by definition, no problem. Ramban quotes various examples to support his view that lecha is, simply, some adjunct to the verb.[2] Siftei Chachamim, though, defends Rashi's view that lecha demands explanation, showing that even in the cases Ramban cites, the term indicates a presence of self in the command.

The words of the Siftei Chachamim are actually most revealing. He writes that lecha actually means li'retzoncha, according to your desire or will. As this command to go, though, had no connection to the will of Avraham, Rashi, in explaining lech lecha, had to find another meaning for this term. Rashi[3], in fact, in explaining the use of the term lecha in connection to the dispatching of the spies, does apply the meaning of desire or will. The spies were sent l'da'atcha, pursuant to "your understanding" and decision. Yet, most interestingly, Rashi's understanding of the lecha in lech lecha - that Avraham should go for his own benefit - could not be applied in explaining the lecha of shelach lecha in relation to the spies.[4]

A consistent definition of lecha would actually seem to be elusive. Rashi's definition of lecha in shelach lecha would not apply in lech lecha and the definition in lech lecha would not apply in shelach lecha. Commentators, such as Siftei Chachamim, seem to accept this reality, that there is no fixed definition for this word. Lecha is deemed to have a certain meaning unless the context of the verse renders that meaning unacceptable; then we are to find another meaning for this term. To the Siftei Chachamim, as we have seen, lecha is deemed to mean "according to your will", unless that understanding is unacceptable as was the case in lech lecha. To the Ntziv, [5] lecha usually means privately, for no-one else's knowledge[6]; however, as this explanation did not fit in lech lecha [7], the command to go to Israel, another explanation of the word had to be presented. Can it be, though, that this term is so malleable? If lecha is so open to such variant explanations, how can we ever be sure if our understanding of the word is correct?

In fact, in the literature, the word lecha is indeed understood in such distinct and different ways by the various commentators. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch[8] understands the word lecha as a call for isolation. Lech lecha, go by yourself. Avraham, in going to Israel, was to isolate himself from his previous life. Malbim[9], accepting lecha in its literal sense as meaning "to yourself",explains the call to Avraham as a call, through the move to Israel, to find himself, to find his essence.[10] Furthermore, as the Mizrachi[11] points out, lecha, at times, is also deemed to indicate a need for personal ownership of an object of a certain mitzvah or a need for specific intention in the performance of a certain mitzvah. One small word, yet it has so many different meanings. Can there be, though, one underlying theme that connects these many different thoughts?

Often in the fulfilment of a mitzvah, even as our bodies perform the task demanded, we are aloof from that which we are doing. And while this is never optimum, at times, it is acceptable. If the key is the action, as long as this action of the mitzvah is performed, G-d's Will is met. Our response to the mitzvah, our personal connection to the mitzvah, is not the priority. Yet, there are other mitzvot where the key is not the action but rather the effect on our beings. G-d is stirring the pot, challenging us, forcing us to respond, to be. At these times, aloofness cannot be tolerated; we, our selves, must be there. Ultimately, with all its variant meanings, it is in these cases that we find the word lecha. With all its different possibilities, this word informs us that the call is not solely to action but that Hashem is touching our beings and demanding our selves to be involved.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail



[1] Bereishit 12:1.

[2] Ramban further argues that the Sages always had a special reason when they derived some lesson from lecha, or a parallel term, used with a verb.

[3] Bamidbar 13:2

[4] The Me'ino Shel Torah, Bamidbar 13:1, however, quotes the Tiferet Yohonatan who applies the meaning of "for your benefit" to the lecha of the spies. Since Moshe was to be barred from entering the land of Israel, the spies' actions, by delaying the Jewish People's entry into the land, effectively gave Moshe 40 more years of life. Thus, G-d was hinting, the sending of the spies was lecha, for Moshe's benefit. There are obvious difficulties with this approach.

[5] Ha'Emek Davar, Bereishit 12:1.

[6]The Ntziv quotes the command of God to Avraham in regard to akeidat Yitzchak (Bereishit 22:2) as proof for this assertion. God told Avraham to go, lech lecha, to the place that He will show Avraham and there to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice. The Ntziv states that the lecha in this case clearly means that this was a command of a personal nature for Avraham to consider privately. Even those who went with Avraham did not know the true nature of his mission. This explanation, the Ntziv argues, is the basic understanding of the term.

[7] In regard to G-d's command to go to Israel, the lech lecha of Bereishit 12:1, this explanation would not be possible for Avraham publicly announced his plans as part of his attempt to bring others under the wings of Heaven. Interestingly, both an understanding of lecha as "for your benefit" and as "according to your wishes" would, in turn, be difficult to apply to the lech lecha of the akeida.

[8] See his commentary to Bereishit 12:1 and 22:2.

[9] Bereishit 12:1

[10] See also Kli Yakar, Bereishit 12:1 who expresses a similar theme although in a more mystical manner.

[11] Bereishit 12:1

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