The best film I’ve seen this year lasts just 30 seconds; it’s been screened in one place only, on a friend’s iPhone. I asked him, ‘How does your daughter-in-law-to-be get on with your young twins?’ He opened his What’s App and showed me them throwing themselves into her arms with delight.
That needs no explanation, – but here’s a long-winded effort. God’s first words to Abraham are ‘Lech Lecha, Set forth! Be gone!’ With them, the journey of the Jewish People, and of every individual ever born, begins.
They sound at life’s beginning, when, according to the kabbalists, the soul parts reluctantly from God and descends into the body. They sing in the wind which carries us ineluctably over life’s ocean: ‘Onward, the sailors cry.’ They’re the words those who love us will say quietly after we die, ‘He’s gone.’ They’re the unspoken hope that somehow life’s journey continues, in realms unknowable from earth.
That’s why Lech Lecha resonates inside me, so that I tremble when we read those words in the Torah, as we shall tomorrow.
I used to be drawn to the mystics who, with typical licence, read lecha not simply as an emphatic particle, ‘Get thee gone’, but as ‘to you’: Go to yourself; make life a journey of ever deeper self-discovery until you reach the very wellspring of your spirit:
Go to yourself! Travel until you reach the roots of your soul. (Rebbe David of Lilov)
Go … to the land which I will show you: Go to the place where I’ll reveal to you your own true self. (Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi)
Life is, undeniably, thankfully, a voyage of self-discovery, though it goes in no straight line.
However, nowadays I’m compelled by a more basic explanation. It too is a play on words, though not one I’ve encountered in the classic commentaries. ‘Go to you’: make life a journey toward ‘you’, towards not yourself but other people. For who we are is what we mean to them, – and they to us.
I’ll never forget someone that I greatly respect said at the stone-setting for her husband: ‘Your place was in my arms; now it’s in my heart.’ Our ultimate place, the lands we reach on our journey, lie in each other’s hearts.
I’ve been to cemeteries too often in these last years. I look across the field of graves and the questions rise from the very earth: ‘What does it add up to? What does it all mean?’
‘Go to you’, is the best answer I know. We devote our lives to one another. We do so consciously, as parent, child, partner, friend, colleague, neighbour. We need to give; we want to make life kinder, better, gentler, for the other person.
We go beyond that circle, as we must. Yesterday I was asked: ‘Will your write a commentary about this picture from your community?’ I opened the file with the photo and saw an elderly doctor from our congregation gently examining a refugee. ‘Go – to the you of others who need you’ is God’s most urgent command. How many voices are there right now in the world, crying ‘Is anyone out there for me? Will you go – to me?’
Our places in each other’s hearts are not always good. We lack the power to select only those which show us best. They also include the wrongs and hurts we leave behind, which is why apology and healing are so important.
In the end I believe the journey to find ourselves and our journey toward others are the same. Ultimately, we are what others garner of us; that’s what continues to live of us after we’re gone.
That’s why those 30 seconds are my favourite film, that beautiful innocent image of throwing oneself so completely into such welcoming arms.