The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey.
Every serious outward journey begins with an inward exploration, often involving a spiritual and/or emotional leap of faith.
Thus the opening words of this week’s Torah portion, Lech L’chah, take Abraham—and us—both outward, into the world, and inward, into our selves. God commands Abraham to leave his home and family, to set out for the unknown land of Canaan. But as the Ishbitzer Rebbe notes, the divine command “Go forth” can also mean, quite literally, “Go to yourself.” God is asking Abraham to make both a physical and a spiritual pilgrimage, to look deeply into his own soul and become his best and most authentic self. It is not enough for the patriarch to leave behind the familiar comfort and confines of home—he must also shed the masks, fears, and defenses that get in the way of realizing his true calling.
For most of us, children of Abraham, this inward journey is terrifying. It takes enormous trust and faith and courage to look into our own souls, because we know that when we do, we will find a great many things that we would prefer to avoid. It is much easier—and very tempting—to just keep distracting ourselves with trivialities.
Father Henri Nouwen writes of this challenge in an extraordinary essay on spirituality and solitude. I think his words offer a beautiful commentary on the Ishbitzer’s teaching:
As soon as we are alone, without people to talk with, books to read, TV to watch, or phone calls to make, an inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. . . At first, silence might only frighten us. In silence we start hearing the voices of darkness: our jealousy and anger, our resentment and desire for revenge, our lust and greed, and our pain over losses, abuses, and rejections. These voices are often noisy and boisterous. They may even deafen us. Our most spontaneous reaction is to run away from them and return to our entertainment.
But if we have the discipline to stay put and not let these dark voices intimidate us, they will gradually lose their strength and recede into the background, creating space for the softer, gentler voices of the light.
These voices speak of peace, kindness, gentleness, goodness, joy, hope, forgiveness, and most of all, love. They night at first seem small and insignificant, and we may have a hard time trusting them. However, they are very persistent and they will grow stronger if we keep listening. They come from a very deep place and from very far. They have been speaking to us since before we were born, and they reveal to us that there is no darkness in the One who sent us into the world, only light.
This week, as we re-encounter God’s call to Abraham—and to us—ask yourself: how do I stay the course and get beyond the dark voices of fear, and so begin to hear and heed the voices of hope, forgiveness, and love?