November 1, 2014 | 8 Cheshvan 5775

“When did you know that you wanted to be a rabbi?”

“Have you always wanted to be a rabbi?”

Do you have any idea how many times I have been asked those two questions?

People often assume that God visited me at a young age and just like Charleton Heston….er, Moses, I had a “Burning Bush”–like moment when God visited me, and my path of service to God, Israel and Torah was set.

God didn’t visit me…and I didn’t know I wanted to be a rabbi…at least a pulpit rabbi…until after I had begun to serve in my first pulpit in 1983.

Most of you know that my story is very different from Rabbi Rosenthal’s story and his journey to the rabbinate.

In brief, I was a poster child for the Conservative movement…I did it all, and I was an example of our movement’s success in the 60’s and 70’s.

At shul, even through my teen years, I was the “perfect kid.”

I even wanted to get more involved in Jewish life as I entered my twenties.

I wanted to become a Jewish professional…a teacher, maybe even an educational administrator…but a rabbi?

Forget it!

…until I spoke with Rabbi Goodman, and he talked me into going to rabbinical school.

“But I don’t want to be a rabbi, Rabbi Goodman!”

“That’s okay, Neil.  Do what you want to do, but spend a couple more years at the Seminary (I was already studying there), get the education and the title, and it will open doors for you.”

That made sense to me.

So I went to rabbinical school and after I was ordained I finished a Master’s degree in social work.

“Maybe I’ll become a social worker…nah…”

Then I walked over to the Columbia Law School building and picked up an application for law school.

“Maybe I’ll become a lawyer.”

But by this time I was 26 years old, Susan and I were married, and I had to face reality.

Now, as I reflect on that moment more than thirty-two years ago, I don’t recall any specific reluctance or resistance to entering the pulpit rabbinate.

On the other hand I don’t recall any moment of enlightenment or even a particular desire that was attracting me to it either.

I simply said, “I think I’m going to give the pulpit a try…”

“Vayomer Adonai el Avram – Lech lecha mayartzecha umee’moladetcha u’meebayt aveecha el ha’aretz asher ar’eka.”

God instructs Abraham – Lech lecha – Go to the place I will show you, the Land of Israel, the land that will become your Promised Land.

The word “lecha” is never translated in any translation I have seen of our parasha’s opening line.

“Lecha” – “To you.”

“Go to you” — That just doesn’t make any sense in a proper English sentence…and the truth is that the word makes no more sense in that sentence in Hebrew.

That’s why our rabbis and commentators devote so much attention to this word, “lecha,” which is utterly superfluous to the literal understanding of the verse.

“Lecha” – “to you” – A popular midrashic strand suggests that this word is an indication of Abraham’s initial spiritual task.

“Go inside yourself, Abraham, deep inside yourself.”

“Take an introspective journey to your core, and you will know that you must follow Me and My direction.”

But Rashi suggests a very different interpretation.

“Lech lecha” – “Lehana’atcha uletovatcha.”

“Go for your own benefit and pleasure.”

“Go for your own good.”

From the remainder of Rashi’s commentary it appears that God, in effect, said to Abraham – “You have to leave this place.  This isn’t a good place for you to be.  Go there, and you will prosper.  You will find your place.”

That’s what I discovered when Susan and I moved to suburban Dallas more than thirty-one years ago.

Set aside the issue of the physical move at the time.

For me, that moment was the beginning of a spiritual journey I didn’t yet recognize.

Little did I understand that the place where I was – a place of no clear direction or commitment – was an unhelpful place to be.

Even less did I comprehend the possibility of what entering the pulpit rabbinate could become for me –

Lehana’atee ule’tovatee – for my benefit, for my pleasure and for my good.

But that’s the way it turned out.

I have given much to many people…and I have received an awful lot too…mostly what we call “seepook nefesh…” profound gratification.

…all because I was prepared to venture into very different territory.

What about you?

By the time we reach the age that many of us are today we know that while the journey of life continues, its paths have been set.

We’re not changing!

Sometimes though that path or place is not, as Rashi said, completely beneficial to us or our well – being.

It’s just the easy or well – known or comfortable place to be.

However it may also be a stifling place, a place where we do not strive or grow…

a place where we  cannot get to enjoy the realizations we reach when we challenge ourselves to go to that new place.

What is that potential “new place?”

Well, the possibilities are numerous and varied.

Maybe it is learning a new perspective, one that is very different from our own.

Perhaps it is entering a new relationship or renewing one that has gone awry.

Maybe it is doing volunteer work in a realm entirely new to us or one that challenges assumptions we have made about people.

The possibilities for this metaphorical “aretz asher ar’eka” – this ‘land’ we will see perhaps for the first time – are endless.

But like Abraham, we will have to risk our comfort with the status quo.

If we are fortunate, as Abraham discovered and as I learned many years ago, these “journeys to new places” can ultimately bring great personal pleasure and benefit.

“Lehana’atcha uletovatcha” – Like Abraham, may we be open to new possibilities and directions in our lives so that we may undertake journeys to new places.

And may those journeys bring us both meaningful pleasure and benefit.