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 o’clock, or, you can choose to walk through this door.” 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 hell than journey into the unknown.”
Walking into the Unknown
When Hashem tells Avraham to leave his home and embark on a journey, Avraham is told: “Lech l’cha mei’artz’cha u’mi’molad’t’cha...” (B’reishis 12:1). This directive is conspicuously odd. Avraham is told where to leave from, but he is not told his destination. What kind of journey lacks a destination? Generally, the destination, not the starting point, is more important. For example, imagine being invited to a wedding, but instead of being told where the wedding will take place, you were only told where to leave from. Such a thing is unheard of.
The fact that Avraham is not given his destination is not merely a practical issue; it is a fundamental challenge to the idea of a meaningful venture. A great journey must begin with a clear goal and destination. In order to accomplish anything great, you must first create a clear target and determine what direction you must take to get there. One does not accidentally achieve spiritual greatness; it requires extreme focus and dedication. As we say every Friday evening in L’cha Dodi: “Sof ma’aseh 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, then 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,” the literal translation reveals something profoundly different. “Lech” means “go” and “l’cha” means “to yourself.” Avraham was commanded to embark on a journey towards “himself.” 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 you arrive can you retroactively see where the journey was destined to take you. What you’ll find at the end of the road is a greater version of yourself, and only then will you realize what the journey was building.
Of course we have goals, destinations, and proposed directions; but those who have achieved anything of substance know that the vision they once had is nothing like the actual journey they took. The goals create the process, but the actual journey transcends the limited goals that were used to start the journey.
This concept of understanding one’s own journey and growth can be compared to explaining a complex scientific or spiritual concept to a young child. 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 you are learning in Maseches Y’vamos (tractate on levirate marriage). The concepts would be completely beyond the child’s comprehension, as his limited intellect cannot possibly grasp such sophisticated and abstract ideas. The same is true for each of us: Imagine meeting a younger version of yourself and explaining to him or her all the things you will eventually accomplish, all the ideas you will learn, and all the experiences you will have. Your younger self would not even begin 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 actually happens will be a mystery, and to genuinely venture on the path towards your true self requires that 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 is known is the starting point. The destination requires a journey into the unknown.
Simply put, the journey to the self is actually a 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 our true 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 perhaps why many baalei machashavah refer to life as a journey at sea. Unlike dry land, where paths and roads can be paved, water has no pathways; the journey is a voyage into the unknown. While traveling on dry land, you can follow the path that others have paved. While traveling at sea, you must create your own path. There are no landmarks on the ocean; there is just endless sameness. You 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; you can only forge your path by looking within, finding your own unique purpose, and then journeying towards the ultimate version of you.
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 society, their friends, the people around them, and then shape themselves to reflect those surroundings. The clothes they wear, the food they eat, and the things they talk about all become a mirror of their external surroundings. 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 our own unique potential, waiting to be actualized. Our job in life is to discover who we really are, to express our dormant 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, who reflects everything outside itself, we can become projectors. We can build something majestic and beautiful within ourselves, and then express that out 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 builds its desired reality within itself, and then expresses that outside into the 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. People can see clearest when they have the time to distance themselves from their current surroundings, rethink, redirect, and then return with newfound purpose and meaning. Avraham completely removed himself from his culture. Moshe 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 as king by Shmuel HaNavi. This is not always necessary, but often, a step back leads to a giant step forward. This is why teenagers who leave their homes in chutz laAretz 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 ships 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 (www.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.