What does the 'lech lecha' phrase mean?

What does 'lech lecha' mean, and how can we understand it as a calling to search for God?

Tzipori Park (Israel Nature and Parks Authority) (photo credit: ISRAEL NATURE AND PARKS AUTHORITY)
Tzipori Park (Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
(photo credit: ISRAEL NATURE AND PARKS AUTHORITY)
The call is abrupt: “Lech lecha (Go-you-forth) from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see” (Genesis 12:1). This cryptic call from God to Avram begins the sojourn of the Jewish people. A short while into his journey he will be called Avram ha’Ivri, Abram the Hebrew.
Jonah also refers to himself also as an “Ivri.” The core meaning of Ivri is to cross over. It is both a physical description and a religious existential state of being. Abram and Jonah each cross bodies of water and are on journeys in response to a call from God. Abram listens to God’s call, while Jonah attempts to run away from that call.
As with many phrases in the Torah, “lech lecha” is enigmatic and open to many interpretations. There is the understanding of lech lecha as “Go to yourself,” an internal odyssey. It has also been translated as, “Get you out, Go for yourself, Go forth, Go out.” That is to say, disassociate from where you are; a call with an external echo to it.
In the recently published Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach, professor of religion Richard Sugarman paraphrases the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, “What the life of Abraham signifies is the beginning of the way out of human egocentrism... it is both morally possible and necessary to go out of or beyond ourselves... this phrase can also be understood as ‘go out from yourself’.... As Levinas argues, Abraham as human subject signifies that the other comes before the self.... From the very outset, I have a responsibility before the Other and to others.”
In his moving and inspiring book, I Am Third, football legend Gale Sayers wrote, “God is first, others are second, and I am third.”
We know nothing about Abraham at the time of the call from God. While we may know more at that moment about God’s biography through the accounts of creation, Noah and the Tower of Babel, we understand God even less: the mysterium tremendum of existence as described by the Lutheran theologian Rudolf Otto and modern-Orthodox theologian Rav Joseph Soloveitchik. The 18th-century scholar and mystic Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto (Ramchal) wrote in Derech Hashem (The Way of God), “We begin our discussion, however, by acknowledging that God’s true nature is beyond comprehension.... Among the things that is also necessary to know is that God must be absolutely one.”
How can we understand that? “The great formula [the Sh’ma] is not that there is one God but that ‘God is One,’” explains Thomas Cahill in The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. The oneness of God is more than a reductionist mathematical equation stating there is one God in the world; rather profoundly it means there is only God in the world. Rav Soloveitchik teaches, “‘God is One’ means also that He is the only One who exists, besides whom no other form or manner of autonomous Being is possible. Ehad means God and reality are identical.”
Echoing this insight, the kabbalist Rabbi Moses de Leon wrote in Sefer haRimon (The Book of the Pomegranate), “Everything is connected in its mystery, caught in its oneness. God is one. God’s secret is one, all the worlds below and above are all mysteriously one. Divine existence is indivisible. The entire chain is one. Down to the last link, everything is linked with everything else; so Divine essence is below as well as above, in heaven and on earth. There is nothing else.”
Elucidating, scholar Daniel Matt teaches the concept “Ein od” (“There is nothing else”) first found in Deuteronomy 4:39 and sung at the end of the Aleinu prayer, can mean both “There is no other [God]” or “There is nothing else.” Matt writes in The Essential Kabbalah, “The first alternative conveys the literal meaning of the biblical verse; the second, its mystical expansion.”
How can we grasp and hold onto the insight “All is God”? As discussed above, one understanding of lech lecha is the internal journey of “go to yourself.” Such self-examination prods us to the realization that we are literally made up of the stuff of the heavens. In the Stellar Nucleosynthesis periodic table, we see we are created mostly of stardust, as is the Earth itself and the other living creatures that inhabit this planet with us. Underlying it all, insignificant and vast, is a shared, as contemporary theologian Rabbi Art Green says, “Intrinsic understanding” of a profound Unity. The illusion of difference is challenged by the basic stuff of this world we all share. In that light, the transcendent perception of God becomes more immanent, and our prayers are able to locate a more accessible address.  
Implied within that awareness of Unity is interdependence and a command to be in relationship with God as well as with all of God’s creation. Prayer asks us to leave the ego of self and cross over to a different orientation that sees reality as One. In that light, we can understand prayer as a lech lecha moment. It contains the inner call to “go to yourself” and focus and meditate on the sublime truth: that we are formed from the same matter as everyone and everything else on Earth.
Once we settle with that awareness, lech lecha then informs us to “go out from yourself” with the obligation, as Levinas says, to “the Other and to others.” In this way, the insights gained from our inner lech lecha experience informs our external lech lecha interaction with God and others.
The Reconstructionist Rabbi Jack Cohen was fond of teaching, influenced by a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov (Besht), that the goal of prayer is to be transformed by the prayer experience. Writing on this week’s Torah portion, commentator Avivah Zornberg teaches that Abram is told to leave, “the landscape of your basic self-awareness, to a place that you will know only when the light falls on it with a difference.” Ideally when we pray we work to cross over, like Avram ha’Ivri, to a new vision of reality and the world, and a new version of ourselves.

The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the
Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.