Parshat Lech Lecha reminds me of social work school. As the ba’al koreih starts to reads my mind drifts back to my Wurtzweiler years. Read on to find out what Lech Lechah has to do with social work.
Every student’s question on our first day of class was “how is social work different than psychology?” - a sensible thing to ask for a class full of therapist wannabes. Here’s what Dr. Beder told us: social work is more about looking at the whole person. Looking at the whole person means seeing strengths and considering environment rather than focusing on pathology. This holistic view distinguishes social work from other disciplines.
I grew to love social work and became interested in the ecological approach, which emphasizes the worlds that surround an individual, like circles drawn around them. It is the importance that social work attributes to environment that brought social work close to my heart. Sometimes these worlds are concentric, sometimes they branch out of one another, sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they seem to stand alone. A child grows up in a home, which is in a community in a city in a country in a planet. Within the community there is school, and shul, and karate that all branch out of community but may not interface with one another. Within shul there is prayer, and friends, and family.
Every person lives in a variety of circles. The teacher was vague regarding our first assignment. She said that we had to write about what it meant to be a person. We were to focus on one character of a book and on ourselves. And we were to glean from what we had learned in class and in the field.
I chose to write about Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. What jumped out at me from the book was the appearance of different worlds. Francie lives in many worlds: one world in the library, another on her porch, one in school, another at home. And even within her home various relationships stand alone. Francie’s father Johnny lives in different worlds too. The reality of different worlds is driven home after Johnny Nolan dies. When Francie goes to his barbershop to pick up his shaving cup, the barber tells her that her father was a good man. At this moment, Johnny’s worlds of friends and family touch for the first time.
I think a lot about the circles around me, these worlds that I live in. As I work on myself, I remember my environments. Being an American, born and bred in Queens, growing up on 225th street, attending yeshiva day schools, learning in Israel, Getting Semicha from YU, working in Frisch, reading poetry at Makor, performing at Park East Synagogue, typing these emails at my table – all of these worlds are relevant to the question of me. In order to grow, I must look at my worlds and see how they’ve effected me.
Avraham was told to go to the land of G-d. The land is described as land that G-d would show him. But this can also be read to mean the land in which G-d would show Himself to him. Avraham is told that he must leave country, birthplace, and father’s home to get to this land. For a physical trip this order would not make sense, it would be backwards. But in light of the ecological approach to social work the meaning is clear. Avraham was told to work his way through the concentric circles that influenced him in life. He had to travel through the worlds that enveloped him.
The world that most tightly wraps itself around us is the world of family. Our place of birth effects us as well. And finally, we are all affected by our country’s general environment. G-d advises Avraham to deal with these influences in order – from that which affected him least strongly to that which affected him the most. Only after sifting through these worlds could he arrive at the land of G-d. And only then could he fulfil the deep literal imperative of "Lech lecha," traveling to himself.
May we all be so blessed
Rabbi Neil Fleischmann