A friend who was raised in the Jewish tradition but calls herself atheist was over for dinner the other night, and she wanted to learn about my seminary studies. What did I find so compelling? Knowing that she had left Torah-reading behind in her girlhood, along with Princess telephones and Farah Fawcett’s hair-do, I offered this example:
“Do you know the passage in Genesis where God first calls Abraham?” I asked.
She vaguely remembered.
“English translations always render that command as something like ‘Go from your father’s house to a land that I will show you’,” I explained. “But I’ve recently learned that in the original Hebrew, the command is lech lecha.”
She looked puzzled.
“Walk to yourself?” she asked.
That someone who wasn’t looking for new ways to think about God should translate those words the same way Rami Shapiro does excited me all over again. I’m always suspicious that God-seekers may be playing loose with language.
“What does walking to yourself have to do with leaving your father’s house?” my friend asked.
I explained that Rabbi Shapiro, whose work brought lech lecha to my attention, believes those words are an injunction to free ourselves from the forces that originally formed us — “the conditioning of nationality, tribe, culture, religion, and parental influence” — so we can see the world as God wants us to see it.
But if your thinking apparatus was built upon the English language and the worldview it supports, that command sounds like a scribal error: why would God tell me to walk toward my self?
Apparently the translators working for King James decided to make God say something more conceivable — go forth from your father’s house — and we English-speakers have been making God say that ever since.
If God told Abraham to walk toward his self, I would bet that Abraham spent his first night out, and his second, and his third, staring at the inconceivable stars and muttering a prayer like the one attributed to Francis of Assisi: Who are you, O God, and who am I?
Who are you, that you should tell me to walk toward myself, and who am I, that I should be walked toward?
That’s what I want to know: Who am I that I should be walked toward?