My grandmother kept assorted house plants throughout her apartment — spider, philodendron, cactus, and coleus. Wandering Jew, with its lush clusters of purple leaves, was my favorite, though I never understood why a plant rooted in soil had such a nomadic name.
Still, for a people on the go since Genesis, the moniker suits us. In Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah reading, Avram listens when God commands him: Go forth! Leaving everything he knows behind, Avram embarks on the first Jewish road trip and makes his way toward the land of Canaan. But the story is as much about his destiny as it is about the destination. It is a physical trek with a spiritual underpinning, a journey of self-discovery that gives him the new name Avraham and positions him as the elder patriarch of the Jewish people.
Travel can be transformational for us non-biblical folks, too. If only for the duration of the journey, we separate from our numbing routines, sloughing off the daily grind to pursue adventure with wide-open eyes. We awaken to the big world out there as we encounter both divinely created and manmade attractions, the touristy ones and those off-the-beaten path. And we become more curious, better attuned to the small, everyday wonders, things we might walk right by in the haste of our regular lives.
On our annual summer road trips with our boys, we venture out to different states, part of our quest to visit all 50. We go to museums, memorials, historic locales, and Major League ballparks, stopping to smell the roses along the way. While we enjoy all of it, the natural sites almost always prove the most inspiring — the mountains and forests and waterfalls, the flora and fauna, the sunsets, the lightning storms that appear out of nowhere, even the tumbleweed that scuttles across the highway.
“Can you believe God made ALL of this?” is my oft-repeated road refrain, announced loudly enough for my sons to hear through their headphones in the back of the minivan. Though they prefer we keep these thoughts between us, sometimes I can’t help myself, letting the words slip out when other tourists are within earshot.
This past summer, while visiting several national parks in Utah and Arizona, among them the Grand Canyon, we were astounded by how much magnificence and diversity God had poured into something as simple as rock. I made my usual pronouncement over and over. But it was in the shadow of an awesome structure in Arches National Park that we were moved to pray, to recite in a hush the blessing on a work of creation that filled us with awe and wonder.
The moment recalled for me a well-known story about the great 19th-century German rabbi, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. Later in life, he insisted on visiting the Alps. Asked why, he said that when he reached Heaven, he wanted to be able to answer God, who would surely ask him, “Nu, what do you think of my Alps?”
Here on earth, our travels can both ground us in gratitude and give wings to our souls, an idea that helps me make some sense of the wandering Jew on my grandmother’s plant cart. But there’s more. In Lech Lecha, God speaks directly with Avram, a privilege afforded journeying patriarchs, not modern-day tourists. Yet, when we stand face to face with God’s artistry in its most astounding, natural forms, it reflects a sliver of that intimacy. The experience alters something elemental deep within us — we, who are not only tenants in the world, but stewards, compelled to see and appreciate as much of it as we can.
Translated literally, “Lech lecha” means “Go to yourself.” Like Avram, sometimes we have to go places in order to get better perspective on who we are. Our travels needn’t take us far, nor must they be exotic or first-class. We don’t even have to cross state lines. We can hike the Pine Barrens or watch the sunrise over the Jersey Shore. All we have to do is go forth from our tiny corner of the universe to discover a wonder we’ve never experienced before, so that when the time comes and we are asked, we’ll be ready with an answer.