Brene Brown on Abraham’s Journey – Lech Lecha

No, Brene Brown didn’t actually comment on Lech Lecha, but as I listened to an interview with her on Krista Tippet’s OnBeing podcast, I was captivated by her notions of belonging, and not just because of her down-to-earth, almost homespun, manner of providing incisive observations about the human psyche and soul, offered in a way that seem as real for her as for us (yes, I admit, I’m a Brene Brown fan boy). The multi-layered and paradoxical aspects of belonging and standing alone that she talked about seem to apply to Abraham and his calling to search out his destiny.

The parshah of Lech Lecha starts with G!d’s command to Abraham, “Go from your land, your birthplace, the land of your father to the land that I will show you.” One little line, but yet how powerful and fearsome! Leave everything you are familiar with, indeed leave your identity behind. Many of us are faced with moments like this, although maybe not to this magnitude, where we are pushed to question our assumptions about ourselves. In fact, I have been confronted with just such a moment recently. 

What is striking about this call is the indeterminacy (to use Aviva Zornberg’s word) of Abraham’s path or destination. G!d doesn’t tell Abraham where to go. There’s no map, no GPS! He just must go. G!d does tell Abraham that he will make him a great nation, and that he will be a blessing, but remember that Abraham is childless at this time. His wife Sarai is “barren” (or perhaps Abraham is sterile, but traditional commentators put it on Sarah). In fact the unknown, the indeterminacy, is critical to the nature of Abraham’s “test.” So how does this work, or how could it work in Abraham’s mind?

It’s convenient to think of Abraham as very sure of himself. He doesn’t question. He just packs up his family and hits the road. According to midrash (i.e., source of Jewish scriptural interpretation or interpretive stories), Abraham had been thinking about questions about the source of creation before he heard G!d’s voice. In other midrash he had been very sure of the artificiality of the idols in his culture, leading him to smash the idols in his father’s shop. Is Abraham really that sure though? Who ever is that sure of him or herself when making large, radical changes, especially if embarking on a path of wandering (the Hebrew word that’s used actually has a further connotation of exile)? Sure, Abraham is our patriarch, but we are also very clear throughout Torah that our patriarchs and matriarchs are very human with many human foibles and weaknesses. That’s why we can learn from them and emulate them.

What does this have to do with Brene Brown? In the OnBeing interview, Krista Tippet and Brene talk about the paradox of belonging.  True belonging requires us to be able to stand alone in our own strength, authenticity and Genius. This is in contrast to fitting in, that is, being inauthentic to feel like we’re getting along with people, which ironically can lead to greater loneliness. Brene says in the interview, “it kind of sucks that your level of true belonging can never be greater than your willingness to be brave and stand by yourself. I kind of hate it a little bit. But it’s just what I’ve found. It’s how the men and women that have the highest levels of true belonging show up in their lives.”  This paradox highlights that we are a collection of “yes/ands” rather than “either/ors,” as Krista says. We are, and we learn this from our patriarchs and matriarchs, a collection of dualities, and if we can hold these yes/ands, we can show up more authentically. Borrowing from Brene Brown’s other work, that authenticity also requires vulnerability and the courage, or since this is a spiritual blog, the faith to show that vulnerability. 

The Hebrew Lech Lecha is translated by the great medieval commentator, Rashi, as “Go to yourself.” This is often interpreted as telling Abraham to go INTO himself to understand his soul’s purpose, or his Genius. According to Chassidic interpretation, Abraham stands on his own, takes on a journey to his own gifts, with the faith and courage to submit to wandering and placelessness to transform those gifts into a blessing for the world. And by the way, he wanders in all four directions to realize these transformations, but that’s another blog. The Sefat Emet (the revered 19th century Chassidic rabbi) says this detaching from the psychological conditions of his being, from his place in the world, is critical to Abraham’s righteousness. His journeys to new places mature his gifts, his capability for blessings. As Zornberg says, “Abraham becomes emblematic of man discovering his own life’s energies, as he confronts the hiddenness of God.” Abraham does what Brene Brown talks about, and he becomes a source of connection and belonging to Jews throughout generations.

What is the foundation that you can rely on? Is it family, Spirit, nature, something else? What are your gifts that you would discover and deepen in a journey into the unknown?

2 Responses

  1. This is so reflection-provoking, Jon. So interesting that our foundation may lie in spirit, and possibly not in something tangible. So, too, it is with Abraham’s journey; it is based upon the ethereal world of G!d. (Maybe this is why Abraham had to stop every so often to ‘set up a stone’, something tangible….)
    I bless you on your journey. There is the whole world of your spirit, teaching, creativity, ritual, and wisdom. You have much to share with the world and its seekers. In moving through your 4 directions and 4 worlds, may you be led to the place where you can give and be respected well… for who you are and what you offer.

  2. Gosh! You’ve captured the magic of Brene Briwn, Krista Tippet, Rashi, Avivah Zornberg and the Sefat Emet in your musings on the personal, transformative meanings of Lech Lecha! Shouldn’t you be teaching somewhere??
    The going-out-to-come-to-one’s-self is revered in Judaism as it is in the vision quester and the desert mystic. If this was just the “self” with a small “s” it would refer to the necessary ego development of the human infant and adolescent. But in middle life and later, we start losing the forces of initial selfhood, having hit our zenith in career, health, marketplace power. This process is the gateway into development of Self, the readiness to tap into G-d’s nearness, though hidden. You mention leaving a career. The gate’s yawning open like the door of a dark creepy manaion on a stormy night, I imagine, and the inner voice is saying, “Don’t go in there!”
    Christian Wyman writes abt this as he endures terminal illness in midlife. He “goes in there,” that scary house. The making of Self is waiting. Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and author of “Falling Upward,” talks abt this. Then he writes his wisdom piece abt ageing, “Immortal Diamond.” Suffering leading to gain, and all that. Peace, Shalom, Salaam.

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