When God reached out to Avraham to leave his homeland, Avraham never knew where he was going. Avraham was told לך־לך – and he just went!
Why wouldn’t God say where he’d be going?
The Sfas Emes finds this interaction, the first of its kind, instructive as to what it means to be a Jew. There is no destination because it is a dynamic mission that evolves along the way. Being a Jew calls for different things at different times – a good Jew during the Inquisition looked different to a good Jew in New York today, and a good Jew 500 years from now will look different still.
Perhaps that’s why Rashi notes that every step brought its own reward. It’s not about extrinsic rewards of Paradise and eternal bliss – it’s about the intrinsic blessing that each step reveals.
Without a singular focus on the outcome, Avraham could put his heart and soul into the process. Every step Avraham took brought him somewhere new. But the effort for every step was the same because each step could be the last. In a way, לך־לך is an instruction to go לך – within yourself, a lifelong journey of self-discovery. There is no destination because it’s a challenge – how deep can you go? The process is the purpose of the instruction, not the outcome. Each step compounds development.
We never control our circumstances or outcomes, but we control our actions and ourselves. It was this desire and commitment to progress that mattered. This attitude was characteristic of Avraham, the prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to emulate.
One of the most beautiful parts of Tanach is God’s promise never to forget the sacrifice and belief the Jewish people once showed:
כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה – So says Hashem, “I remember the kindness of your youth; the love of your commitment. You followed me into the desert, into a barren land…” (Jeremiah 2:2)
The model for this is Avraham, the first to put himself out there, long before God spoke to him. His entire life was about exerting himself to reach out to others.
One of his greatest moments came when he was lame and exhausted on a searingly hot day. There was every excuse to take it easy, but that’s not what Avraham stood for. In his idiosyncratic way, he did the only thing he knew. He left his home and went out into the scorching heat because there was another human he might be able to help.
Avraham wasn’t born special. God’s call was always out there, and others heard it – there was Shem, Ever, Methuselah. But Avraham was the first to take the initiative and try to make his world a better place.
Maybe that’s what לך־לך means – a better world looks different to every generation, but our duty, and the commitment it requires remain the same.
We can always do more; it’s just one step away.