The Journey of Self

By Yakov Danishevsky


Avraham’s journey, beginning in Parshas Lech Lecha, serves as a paradigm for the journeys of our lives. As Ramban explains, “ma’aseh avos siman la’banim,” – the stories of the ancestors are prototypes for future generations. This stated, interpreting Avraham’s journey takes on great significance. And yet, the opening words, confuse the reader from start. “Lech lecha,” can be interpreted in two opposing ways: “go for yourself” or “go to yourself.” The difference in these interpretations is not merely grammatical or academic. They set the stage for two vastly different journeys.

In the first story, Avraham is told to go “for himself,” away from all that he has known. “Go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s home” and venture out to a distant and unknown place. Essentially, it is a story of leaving. In leaving, he will learn and encounter something new and different.

In the second story, Avraham is told to go “to himself.” His destination is not foreign or distant, it is what he already knows. In this story, Avraham’s journey is inward. To do this, he needs to detach from the external pressures that run counter to his selfhood. He is to leave his land, birthplace, and father’s home with the goal of embracing that which he already is.

The first interpretation tells a story of change. The second, a story of acceptance. Perhaps the Torah’s ambiguity in word choice is intentional and beckons us to consider both interpretations simultaneously.

One of the most influential forms of modern psychotherapy is known as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and at its core is the paradox of change and acceptance. DBT encourages us to look at ourselves and our character traits with compassion and acceptance. And at the same time, engage in efforts towards self-development and growth. For example, a person whose mind ruminates on unwanted thoughts or doubts should both accept and work to change their thought patterns. Other examples can include people who are overly self-critical, have recurring feelings of depression, or feel unmotivated in life. In these and other situations, DBT teaches us to both embrace who we are and attempt change.

A variety of Jewish sources, including the Maharal and Ramchal, advocate for this dual approach. In discussing God’s love for His people, they pose a fundamental question: Does God love conditionally or unconditionally? Their answer: yes. God’s love is both conditional and unconditional. It is inherent and unwavering and also dependent on the individual’s actions and character.

This dual approach is fundamental for a healthy religious life. We are taught that avodas Hashem, (service of God), calls for continual growth. And yet, this emphasis on growth cannot be to the exclusion of feeling good about what has already been accomplished. The Mishnah in Avos teaches, “Who is the wealthy person? One who is happy with their portion.” Rabbi Dr. Bentzion Sorotzkin so poignantly observes that this mandate is not said exclusively about a person’s material portion, but their spiritual portion as well. No matter what you have accomplished religiously, it is our responsibility to embrace ourselves and build upon that foundation.