Parashat Lekh Lekhah 5782 - Walking with the Land

my child walking barefoot in wet fields at Yesod Farm+Kitchen

Translation is not a simple task. There are nuances between languages that are often lost - hence the common saying, "lost in translation." Hebrew is an interesting language. It is constructed out of what is known as "root words" which can be turned into nouns, verbs, and other forms of speech. Depending on the style of verb used, it drastically alters the meaning. One type of verb that I find to be incredibly interesting is what is known as a reflexive causative verb - an action done to one's self. Because Biblical Hebrew is not exactly a complete language (it only possesses around 7,000 words; modern Hebrew has over 30,000 and English has over 170,000) translation is often based upon repeated usage of words to understand context. Therefore, when a word is never repeated or repeated infrequently it becomes more difficult to capture its true nuance. Yet, when there are only a few instances of a word and the contexts are wildly different, there are elements of shared usage which might help the translator understand this term better.

There is a particular causative reflexive verb which only appears 11 times throughout the entire Hebrew Bible, and only four of those are in the Torah; 3/4 of the occurrences of the word are in Genesis, and 2/3 of those are in reference to Avraham.

The word first appears in reference to Noah, where it states at the beginning of Parashat Noah (Gen. 6:9):

אֵ֚לֶּה תֹּולְדֹ֣ת נֹ֔חַ נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃
These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man, he was whole for his generation; with God, Noah caused himself to walk.

Traditional rabbinic interpretation looks at the phrase, "whole for his generation," and they understand this to mean that he may have been special for his generation, but the bar was so very low that it didn't mean all too much. They contrasted this verse with the last usage of this word in Genesis in reference to Avraham: (Gen. 17:1):

וַיְהִ֣י אַבְרָ֔ם בֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְתֵ֣שַׁע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיֵּרָ֨א יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ אֲנִי־אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים:
Avram was ninety-nine years; Hashem appeared to Avram and said to him: I am El Shaddai, cause yourself to walk before me and be complete

The traditional interpretation contrasts "walk with" and "walk before" likening it to the ways a parent may treat a child who is more or less trustworthy. A child whom a parent trusts is able to walk ahead, but a child who has yet to learn to be trustworthy, the parent will stay close by. It's a cute and sweet little interpretation, and helps us understand an interesting nuance in how to understand this word when we look at the other occurrence of this word "cause oneself to walk" as it appears in Parashat Lekh Lekhah.

It says (Gen. 13:17):

ק֚וּם הִתְהַלֵּ֣ךְ בָּאָ֔רֶץ לְאׇרְכָּ֖הּ וּלְרׇחְבָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י לְךָ֖ אֶתְּנֶֽנָּה׃
Arise, cause yourself to walk the land, its length and its width; because for you am I giving it.

The first two citations are clearly in relationship to Avraham and Noah's personal relationship with the divine. But what can be made of the reference to walking with the land? Avraham's relationship with the divine is not just in his willingness to follow command, but is also in relationship to the promise of connection to place.

Connection to place is a dynamic relationship that evolves and we build relationship with land. Relationship with land is different than interpersonal relationships - it gives to us constantly, sometimes it takes from us, but it always is there waiting for us to build relationship with it; it will never come to us, we must bring ourselves to the land. The willingness to be present with the land, to learn with and from the land, to conform ourselves to the needs of the land, to build an intimacy with its unique character and creativity demands a sense of being with that is quantifiably and qualifiedly different than our relationship with others, or with our spiritual sense of being in relationship with the mystery.

However, just as landscape slowly changes through the passage of time, but occasionally will manifest extreme changes, traumas, new growth, and depth from acute moments of interference, so too does our own relationship with ourselves. Avraham's call is to be in relationship with himself in order to be in relationship with the land. When God says to Avraham, "Go for the land that I will show you," (Gen. 12:1) it is not just a call to move out of a place, but a call to move into a sense of relationship with self; that relationship with self, the going for oneself, is in the Torah intimately connected to one's relationship with place. For Avraham to be able to successfully go for himself, he must also go to be with the land; it is not enough to walk with (or before, in his case) the divine, he must go to walk with the land in a state of equity, justice, and presence.

To change our inner landscape, to be in relationship with our selves deeply, we must also learn to respect and be in presence with place. In order to go for ourselves, to go into ourselves, we must also walk with the land. We must nourish her in an equitable way in which she nourishes us; we must be present with her in a way that builds integrity in our relationship. Avraham's journey out, which is truly a journey in, is ultimately dependent upon his relationship with the land, it is dependent upon his walking with and not over. Integrity in our relationship with the land demands opening ourselves to its beauty, its sustenance, its offerings, and perhaps most importantly, its needs.

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