The political theorist Hannah Arendt writes: “To lose the appetite for meaning we call thinking and cease to ask unanswerable questions would be to lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the answerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.” (The Life of the Mind)
Our Jewish story begins this week. It begins with a call. Jewish civilization begins again today, and every day. God speaks to Abraham. “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12) It begins with a journey. It is founded on exploration. Our faith starts with a question.
Why me? (I imagine this was Abraham’s first question.) What am I to make of this life? How might I bring meaning to this journey?
Why us? What are we to make of our world? How might we bring meaning to others?
People think that religion is about answers. People think it is about promises. They cite as evidence the assurances God makes to Abraham. They call to mind the certainties with which the Torah speaks to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah. So this portion first appears as well.
Is our religion about the promises made, or the journey Abraham begins on this day? I choose the journey. I am at home with its questions and even its uncertainties. I am agitated by the certitudes others profess.
Our faith is about the journey of questioning we begin again. Go forth!
Answers prove allusive. Promises might always evade us.
Faith is in the journey. It is about making room for our questions.
Today we are witnesses to, but we should instead be participants in, an epic battle for the soul of civilization. On one side are those who profess a faith of answers. They scream their answers at what they perceive to be the answers of others. They never bother to ask questions. They shout, “We are right. And you are wrong.”
They forget today’s call. They forget the question hidden in every command. They neglect the discovery that is implicit in every journey.
Go forth! Lech lecha!
It is not just the Jewish story that begins this week but the Christian and Muslim stories as well. All look back to Abraham. Some might wish to think that God speaks only to Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, instead of seeing that God speaks today to the Abraham who is the founder of faith, and the progenitor of a religion in which journeying is sacrosanct. Faith properly understood is a faith of questions. Such is my dream.
And God says, “I will make of you a great nation.”
How will we become great?
Must our greatness come at the expense of others, must it be made great by their diminishment?
Is it instead about the journey? Is it then about striving after some measure of truth, although rarely if ever apprehending it? The quest is not about shoring up our parcel of truth and shouting down the truths of others. It is instead about discovering our divine purpose, our God inspired task. It is about discovering meaning as we go forth.
Our greatness can be realized in renewing the journey.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems. In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human answers. Faith is a consuming fire, consuming all pretensions. To have faith is to be in labor.” (Israel: An Echo of Eternity)
We begin the journey anew. Today!
Answers consume us. Questions propel us.
Lech lecha. Go forth.