The Ark of Trust and the Altar of Insight – October 2012

Parshas Lech Lecha enjoins us to “Go Forth” with Abraham in trust and faith. We should be “afraid of nothing”- but we should “fear the Lord”.

  The “fear” of the Lord is awe in His Presence not apprehension of what He might will for us, or how He might judge us. Though the latter is something we are always aware of, it should be without any terror of the God who we know loves us. 

 In Parshas Lech Lecha (at Gen 16:13), Sarah calls God “El Roi” (the God who sees) and in the associated Haftarah, we are also told that “His discernment is past searching out” (Isaiah40:28). He is able to see the future which is ultimately always hidden from us, and He is able to see our true intentions and most hidden thoughts. Our task is to try to see ourselves as He sees us and do something about it if we are missing our targets somehow. In this sense, we approach Him as “El-Roi” (the God who enables seeing) as we are often too afraid to face our own weaknesses without His help.

  One of the core messages of Parshas Lech Lecha is:

 If we do our part, God will be there for us and help us a hundredfold.

 So what exactly is “our part”?

 To answer that, I'd like to combine the image of an ark from Parshas Noach with a reference to Abraham's altar in Parshas Lech Lecha. Our small but essential “part” is that we each build an “ark” of trust and faith as our preparation for action, and an altar of prayer and contemplation to open our eyes to the Divine gift of Insight (daas). That ark of faith is bitachon: the kind of faith which is not so much a theoretical exercise concerned with theological questions— but a religious experience which is a personal and practical trust in Divine Providence (Hashgacha Pratis).

 I see this idea at work in this week’s Parshah. In that first verse from Genesis 12, we are told to pack up our things and get going. We are not told where we are going or why. But we are told that we will be shown the answer to the first question at some point. Our education in the spiritual life means that we have to relate to HaShem as willing servants and obedient children. If we sense strongly that a certain course of action is “required of us”—we are expected to trust the inspiration and hope that we are not mistaken in trying to discern the Divine Will. If,as fallible humans, we have misunderstood, we must also trust that we will be “shown” our mistake/misunderstanding, once we have taken that crucial first step forward. Both the first step and all subsequent steps are acts of trust.

 This kind of trust can remove our anxious fear. We are reminded in this parshah that it brings about a Divine blessing in itself:

 “And Abraham trusted in God, and God counted it to him for righteousness
 (Gen 15:6)

 Even if we have made a mistake and misjudged what we assume to be a Divine inspiration, He will show us our mistake at the appropriate time, and what is more—This Master and Parent helps his dependents pick up the bits and pieces after the crash. For in the Haftarah of Lech Lecha we read:

 “Fear not, for I am with you
  (Isaiah 41:10)

 We are told that God appeared to Abraham after Abraham had built an altar (Gen 12:8). This reminds us that most often God does not make His Presence felt or His Will known in our lives unless we first ask for them to be revealed. Just as we build a spiritual ark of trust in which to “travel forward” in life,so must we build the altar of our formal and informal prayers to invoke His continued guidance at each stage of the journey. This asking is not necessarily verbally and specifically expressed. By intending to dedicate the day newly begun to His service, by presenting ourselves before Him in liturgical prayer each day, by standing in His presence in contemplative attention—we are asking with our bodies, our minds, and our hearts already.


 What other advice does this parshah give those like us who might need to be shown how to develop this “Trust in God” when we on a spiritual journey which has no road map—When we are not sure if we are making any progress—Not sure if we are doing something which is of any use to Him at all?

 In Genesis 17:1, we read

 “I am El Shaddai, walk before Me and be whole-hearted.

 The phrase “walk before Me” indicates “living with a purpose united to God’s will”,but I prefer to read it literally as an English phrase, “Walk in front of Me.” It is then saying: 

 “Put what you feel is My will into practice, and by doing that you will have laid a royal carpet down for Me to walk upon and enter your world as outpouring compassion.” 

 It also represents an astonishing gift of independence. In listening as Abraham did, we are hereby divinely commanded to act as pioneers in our own personal spiritual journeys—trusting in our own instinctive and informed judgment. In practice, this means attempting to “stand on our own two feet” even though we know we owe everything to The One who calls all things into existence step by step, event by event, moment by moment. Within the framework of our covenant and its mitzvos, we are emissaries of the Divine Unity through our very diversity and individuality.


 In Genesis 13:3, We are told that Abraham returned to BeitEl

 “where his tent had been at the beginning." 

 This reminds us that when we have erred, our first port of call should be our “station” in prayer. For Jewish contemplatives, this is our primary “place” in time and space, and for all we know it may have been assigned to us “at the beginning” of all creation.

 It also reminds us that there is no shame in re-examining our path if we should find that we have taken a wrong turning. For those who trust in God, there are no “wrong” turnings because they will have been following the perceived intentions of the Master and Father to the best of their ability, all along. If we do what we do “for the sake of heaven”, all the diversions and “wrong” turnings which we may make in that process will be revealed as having been ultimately “for the good”.

 N R Davies 
(from an unpublished article written in October 2010)