How do we ever really know who we are? Why we do the things we do? Why we make the decisions we make? As children, we are raised in an environment where choices are made for us, and our specific circumstances and surroundings often determine how our lives are lived. As we grow older, we gain more independence and freedom. We are given more responsibility; we have more say in different matters. And at a certain age we leave our homes, where we are finally on our own and we determine how we will live. Yet there is always a question as to how we come to these decisions.

The Torah should unveil our personal autobiography

If we follow in the way that we were raised, then we have to wonder if we really chose this for ourselves, or if we are doing this because it is what we know and what we are comfortable with. On the other hand, if we rebel against our upbringing and do the opposite, then the question still remains. Are we doing what we feel is right, or are we just not doing things the way we were taught?

The lifelong process of figuring out who we are and who we want to be is what this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is all about. There is a Chassidic concept that we should “live with the times,” meaning that as each Torah portion is read, we need to find ourselves—our lives—in the words. The Torah, when properly learned, should unveil our personal autobiography.

So, what do we learn from Abraham? Abraham is a rebel. And from a very young age. But a rebel with a cause. The Midrash teaches us that as a small child he was sent to a cave, to solitary confinement, where he spent three years. When he emerged, he knew Hebrew and knew that there was a G‑d, the Creator of the world (Otzar Midrashim, “Ma’aseh Avraham”). He came out knowing who he was and what he believed, and began a lifelong process of breaking the idols in the world around him.

How did he learn when there was no one to teach him? He looked within. He read his soul.

It is said that when the whole world was on one side, on eiver echad, Abraham was on the other side, eiver sheni. It is this very word eiver that the term for the Hebrews, Ivri, comes from. For as a Jewish people, we are commanded to follow the Torah and live according to its ways, even if the whole world is against us.

This is why a convert to Judaism is called the son or daughter of Abraham. For a convert has the greatest test of all; the convert is the potential Jewish soul that has been born to non-Jewish parents. The convert is the one who has to stand on the other side, to break away from how he or she was raised, educated and brought up to believe, and say, “No matter what you think, I know my soul, and I am a Jew.”

And yet it is not only the righteous convert, but every one of us that needs to do this as well. Each Jew must look at him- or herself and ask the question, “Who am I? What do I believe?” For we are not intended to be robots; we must do, but we also must know and understand. Judaism is not only about practicing; it is about living.

We need to meet ourselves all over again

The Torah portion begins, “Go for yourself, from your land, from the place where you were born and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). According to the Zohar, the words lech lecha, which constitute the name of the Torah portion and are in its opening verse, do not only mean “go for yourself,” but simultaneously mean “go to yourself.” And how do we go to ourselves, discover who we truly are? We need to leave our land, our birthplace and our father’s home.

This teaches us that in order to really know ourselves, we must temporarily distance ourselves from the influences of those around us. This doesn’t mean that we need to physically move or go anywhere (though for some that may be part of the process); but spiritually and emotionally, we need to meet ourselves all over again.

So, we must leave our land, society at large, American culture, the socioeconomic pressures. We need to stop worrying about what the world wants from us, and start looking within, to our soul, to know what we want from ourselves, what our Creator wants from us.

But that is not enough.

We must go from where we were born. From our more direct surroundings. From those whom we were raised with, our school systems, our communities, our friends and extended family. We must not allow their influences to get in the way of learning who we are truly meant to be.

And then, hardest but just as essential, we must go from our father’s home. We must recognize that as much as we may want to live in the very path that we were raised (ideally, this is the case), we must choose it for ourselves. We must take ownership of this direction.

It is then, and only then, that the new land is shown to us—our potential, our possibilities, and the world that awaits us. It is only then that we can progress, for we cannot move forward until we truly know who we are. This is how we lech lecha, go from ourselves, back to ourselves.

Even a fish that is dead will move with the current

And we do this as Ivrim, as Jews, willing to stand on “the other side,” from the rest of the world, as those who will pursue truth and righteousness, even when popular view may greatly differ. The more we break those idols in our own world and the world around us, the stronger we can become.

This is what Abraham teaches us. This is what it means to be a Jew—to swim against the current, reveal our G‑dly soul and our unique missions in this world—when we go from ourselves to ourselves, to discover and reveal our true essence.