Torah Readings for Saturday, November 1, 2014
Lech-Lecha (Get thee out)12:2 - 17:27 Bereshit (Genesis)
Lech-Lecha is the third sedrah in Bereshit (Genesis). The sedrah takes its name from the fifth and sixth Hebrew words in the first sentence of the sedrah. “And the Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out (Lech-Lecha) of thy country.…” It is the first in a series of three weekly readings that deal with the life of Abraham. The sedrah covers a lot of ground. At the same time, the text is spare and almost cries out for interpretation. So let’s look at some of the major items covered in the narrative and then touch on at least a few of the many messages (see Themes below) contained in this portion.
12:1-9 The initial travel to and through Canaan.The trip appears to come without warning. However, if we look back to the penultimate verse of No’ach (“And Terach took Abram his son…and they went forth from
12:2 "And I will make of you a great nation…."This is the first in a series of promises that God repeats to Abraham throughout this sedrah. In 12:7, "To your offspring I will give this land.…" In -17, God adds the promise of numerous offspring to the promise of the land. This series of promises reaches a climax in 15:1-12 with the “Covenant between the Parts,” -20 and 17:1-8 when God changes the first patriarch’s name from Abram to Abraham. Almost from the start, the Torah shows us that Judaism rests on the three elements: Revelation, Covenant and Land.
12:10-17 Abraham and Sarah journey to Egypt because of a famine.This journey reinforces the concept that the travels of Abraham presage the travels that will be taken by the Jewish people in future generations. It is here that Abraham instructs Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she is his "sister." The Plaut Chumash provides an explanation of what that term meant in ancient times. Most commentators are perplexed by what appears to be Abraham’s dissembling if not outright lying. The episode raises the question if it is ever acceptable to tell a lie.
13:1-4 Abraham returns from Egypt.Abraham returns to
13:5-9 Lot and Abraham go their separate ways.This brief passage offers us a lesson on the importance that Abraham and therefore all Jews place on the need for peace in the household. He deferred to his younger kinsman, letting him make the choice. This passage also offers a lesson on the relationship between materialism and immorality.
14:1-24 The War of the Kings or the Rescue of Lot.To some, this story seems out of place; almost an interruption in the narrative. Furthermore, Abraham seems to be on the side of leaders of Sodom which Abraham has previously been told is an evil place. Maybe it is here to show another facet of Abraham’s personality. He is not some wimpy, marginal figure. Here he is an imposing man of substance, a man of action. He answers Cain’s question about am I my brother’s keeper in the affirmative by going to war to rescue his kinsman. The first Jew teaches all Jews a sense of responsibility for our co-religionists. Throughout the ages, Jews have sought to rescue their brethren from captivity and harm. This has included special funds to ransom travelers taken by brigands during the Middle Ages to Operation Joseph in our own time. (No, the text does not state this and the ancients may not have meant it this way but that does not make the lesson any the less valid.)
15:13-16 A glimpse into the future.This is a most disquieting interlude. God tells Abraham not to worry. He will die in peace at a ripe old age. But his offspring are going to be slaves for more than four hundred years. Personally I find Abraham’s silence a lot more puzzling than I do his behavior when it comes time for the binding of Isaac in the next sedrah. Why did he not plead for his descendants? Why did he accept this enslavement with silence?
16:1-16 The whole chapter is devoted to Hagar and Ishmael.The relationship with Hagar is a study in contradictions. God has promised Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Yet he still has no children. Is his mating with Hagar an example of Abraham’s lack of faith in God? Does he have to respond to his wife’s apparent barrenness like any mortal and co-habit with somebody who can give him an heir? Considering the events that follow Hagar’s pregnancy, this interpretation provides an excellent lesson in what happens when we become impatient waiting for the divine plan to reach fruition.
17:9-14 and 17:23-27 The Brit or Circumcision.Both Plaut and Telushkin provide brief, yet complete discussions on the origins of the ritual. Its true origins are lost to antiquity. Suffice it to say this ritual has been a critical aspect of Judaism since ancient times. When the Syrians and Romans banned the practice, Jews risked death to follow the commandment of the Brit. Attempts by some early Reform leaders to abolish the commandment were no more successful. The Brit is not just a sign of our covenant with God. The Brit is a symbol of a four-thousand-year-old heritage reaching back to the first patriarch. It is a symbol of our antiquity and our uniqueness.
17:15-21 God changes the first matriarch’s name from Sari to Sarah.He promises this 90-year-old woman with the 100-year-old husband that she will have a son.
Commandments2. The commandment of circumcision ().
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Customs and CeremoniesThe Brit Milah or Covenant of Circumcision is performed on the eighth day because Bereshit states “…every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.” Why wait eight days? The text does not say. Some commentators contend that the hiatus between birth and brit is tied to the story of Creation, which took seven days. The child is named at the time of the brit because Abram became Abraham at the time of his circumcision. In the first part of the Amidah we say, “Blessed are You, Lord Our God, shield of Abraham.” This concept of God as shield (as in protector) comes from this sedrah when God says, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you…” (15:1). Those who have re-written the Amidah and invoked Sarah at this point must have chosen to overlook the Biblical text. The Hebrew word for shield is “Magen,” which most of you connect with Magen David, the six-pointed star. In An Ancestral Fragrance, Stuart Schoffman reminds us that “nothing…is unchangeable - nothing except the covenant, the brit, carved as it is into the flesh of Abraham’s descendants, blood relative and convert alike.” Rabbi Akiva was asked by a Roman why males are born with foreskins if foreskins are made to be removed. The rabbi replied, “Because man is required to improve upon nature.”
NamesName changes often indicate a change in character or responsibility. Among the Patriarchs we go from Abram to Abraham and from Jacob to
Lech-LechaThe name of the sedrah has several translations. Each translation provides a different insight into the sedrah. There is the common "Get thee out", which is seen as God commanding an obedient Abraham to leave his native land and go to Canaan. There is "Go for yourself", which implies that Abraham should make this journey for his own benefit i.e., if you go to
AbrahamAbraham was the first of the three Patriarchs. They are critical figures in the lives of the Jews. After all, we invoke their names every day when we recite the Shemoneh Esray or Amidah. What was the nature of Abraham? He was brave enough to leave his home and all that he knew to go to a strange and possibly less civilized place. He was human enough to dissemble to the Egyptians when he thought his life was in danger. He was courageous enough to go to
Hagar and IshmaelWho was Hagar? The text says she was an Egyptian maidservant. Midrash claims that she was the daughter of Pharaoh, who gave her to Sarah because he thought she would be better off living with the virtuous Sarah than with Egyptian noblewomen. Regardless, she was never Abraham’s wife. Ishmael was Abraham’s first son. But when Abraham asks God to protect Ishmael so that he might inherent from him, () God tells Abraham that Ishmael will not inherit the covenant. Ishmael will have his own inheritance (). “But my covenant I will maintain with Isaac” (). Revisionist can spin to their heart’s content. For once the text is quite clear as to who is to inherit what.
SinAccording to the commentators even the first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, were capable of sin. In commenting on the statement concerning their treatment of Hagar, “Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your maid is in your hands.’ Then Sarai treated her harshly.…” (16:6). Nachmanides, also known as the Ramban, says that Sarah “sinned by such maltreatment, and Abraham too by permitting it.” Not only are we not supposed to abuse people, we cannot remain silent while others engage in such behavior.
Age and Change“Abram was seventy-five years old when he left
What Happened to the Converts?“Abram took…the souls that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan” (12:5). According to the commentators “the souls that they had acquired” refers to those who had converted. The men converted under the tutelage of Abraham. The women converted under the tutelage of Sarah. We see an echo of this in the naming convention for those who convert. They are always referred to as the son or daughter of Abraham and Sarah. These newly minted followers of Hashem followed the first Patriarch and Matriarch to
Rabbi Chanoch Henich HaKohen of Alexander, a 19th century sage, says they fell away from Hashem because of the difference in the nature of the first two Patriarchs. Abraham epitomized the attribute of Loving Kindness. Isaac epitomized the attribute of Strict Justice and Awe. The converts were attracted by the former and put off by the latter. They convinced themselves that Isaac was not as worthy a leader as his father so they returned to the ways they had follow before their encounter with Sarah and Abraham. There is more than one lesson to be learned from this. First, when there is a change in leadership, stick around. If these ancient converts had, they might have come to see that even though Isaac differed from Abraham he was a Tzaddik in his own right. Second, belief should not be tied to one leader. Leaders come and go. The teachings of the Lord are eternal. Just because a Jew does not see eye to eye with a particular leader is no reason to walk away from the House of Israel. Rabbi Chanoch lived for over seven decades and taught many lessons. Here is one more example. In Psalms, we read "The Heavens belong to God, and the earth He gave to humans." (Psalms 115:16) Rabbi Chanoch takes this to mean, “The Heavens are heavenly in any event. God gave the earth to humans so that they could make that which is worldly, heavenly.” This is another twist on the basic concept of “elevating the mundane” that, among other things, gives rise to the multiplicity of blessings for the events of our daily existence.
Profiting at the Expense of OthersIn the sedrah we find the line “And there was famine in the land” (12:10). This line is echoed in the Shabbat prayers “In famine You have sustained us and in plenty You have nourished us.” In a land beyond the
The Oleh and the YoradZionists contend that Zionism is as old as Judaism. As soon as Abraham heard the voice of God, he made Aliyah - he moved from his home to Eretz Israel. He was the first Oleh, the Hebrew word for an immigrant to
Harbingers of Things to ComeNote the names of the places connected to the travels of Abraham described in this portion including Beth-El, Ai (12:8) and Hebron (13:18) to cite but three. Some commentators cite these references as a link to the future of the Jewish people since each of them will play a prominent role in Biblical history. Some of the critics who dispute the antiquity of the Biblical narrative contend that these names were inserted by later authors to create the semblance of connection between the Jewish people and the mythic figure of Abraham.
Historicity of the Abraham NarrativeModern (19th century) Bible critics seized on the lack of non-Biblical evidence to support the stories in the Bible. Twentieth century archaeologists, typified by W.F. (William Foxwell) Albright, the son of American Methodist missionaries, discovered whole hosts of evidence in their digs that indeed provided just such evidence, including the mention of places which Abraham had visited and written evidence of a legal and cultural civilization that had many similarities to what is described in Bereshit (Genesis). Nobody has found a clay tablet that says “Abraham, the first Jew slept here” but they have found evidence that buttresses the antiquity of the narrative of the Patriarch.
The Tests of AbrahamThis week’s portion is but the first of three weekly readings devoted to the life of Abraham. We will wait until the last of three before analyzing the life and impact of Abraham. However, you should note that this week’s reading begins a motif that will follow through all three readings - the difficult life of Abraham which some view as the tests of Abraham. See how many things you can identify in this week’s reading that you would describe as Tzoritz (troubles) and the sages would have called Tests. Abraham is the first of the Chosen People. And then there is the old joke about the suffering Jew barely surviving in the Pale of Settlement who calls out to God, “Next time when you have to “choose” a people, could you choose somebody else?”
Circumcision: The Law v Reality/Food for ThoughtIn this portion we read “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. …And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his king; he has broken My covenant.” (17:11-14) But was this always the case? Apparently not for in the Book of Joshua (5:2-9) we read about a mass circumcision ceremony that took place as the Israelites entered the Promised Land. Apparently, none of the men who had been born during the forty years in the Wilderness had had a Brit. And while you are pondering that one, consider that the sign of the covenant was made on the body of the male. At the risk of offending anybody’s sensibilities or pre-conceived notions, this would seem to be grounds for the argument that among the ancients the rule was patrilineal rather than matrilineal decent since there is no similar ceremony for girls and women. Maybe the Reform Movement was not so far off the mark in 1983 when it recognized patrilineal as well as matrilineal decent as a determining factor in establishing the Jewish identity of the children born in a “mixed marriage.” Now that should give you something to talk about at your next Shabbat Kiddush!
LaughterEverybody has their favorite Jewish comedian or Jewish humorist. Whether it is Shalom Aleichem, the man who gave us Tevye, or Jack Benny or Seinfeld or Adam Sandler - there is always some Jew who is making us laugh. But where did all of this laughter come from? Who laughed first? According to Meir Shalev, the first laugh or laughs are found in Lech Lecha. Laughter is the response of both the first Patriarch and the first Matriarch when each of them hears that Sarah will have a child.
In chapter 17, we read of Abraham’s response “And God said unto Abraham: 'As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and moreover I will give thee a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.' Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart: 'Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?'”
Then in chapter 18 we read Sarah’s response to the news. “And they said unto him: 'Where is Sarah thy wife?' And he said: 'Behold, in the tent.' And He said: 'I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.' And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him. - Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. - And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: 'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? 'And HaShem said unto Abraham: 'Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is anything too hard for HaShem. At the set time I will return unto thee, when the season cometh round, and Sarah shall have a son.' Then Sarah denied, saying: 'I laughed not'; for she was afraid. And He said: 'Nay; but thou didst laugh.'”
Note God’s reaction to each episode of laughter. He really does not seem to be bothered by Abraham’s laugh. But He sure does seem to be upset about Sarah’s laughter. Strangely enough, God asks Abraham why Sarah laughed. He does not ask Sarah. God only speaks to Sarah about her laugh when the first Matriarch denies the sound of her mirth. According to Shalev, this is not only the first laugh in the Bible; it is also the last laugh. The only reminder of laughter is found in the name of their offspring, Isaac. In Hebrew his name is Yitzchak translates as “he will laugh.” Why does laughter disappear so quickly from the Biblical lexicon? Was God so offended by the cause of the first mirth that He banned it from His book? Now we have another topic to explore and to discuss over a Shabbat Kiddush.
RealpolitikOne of the favorite aphorism in the world of Realpolitik is the “Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend.” It is a statement used to rationalize all kinds of alliances that often defy moral and ethical norms. For example, in World War II, when England was fighting the Nazis without any allies and the Germans invaded Russia, Churchill was asked if he would make common cause with the Stalin and his Communists. In explaining why he, a devout anti-Communist would ally himself with Stalin, Churchill said he would make a pact with the Devil if the Devil were fighting Hitler. This week’s Torah portion offers a slightly different view of things. When Abraham hears that Lot has been captured, he goes to rescue him which means fighting the enemies of Sodom. But when the King of Sodom wants to strike up an alliance with Abraham, the Patriarch backs off. The implication is that he knows that Sodom does evil in the sight of the Lord. Attacking a common foe to free his kinsman does not mean that he wants to have anything to do with Sodomites or their King who appears to have been absent from the rescue mission. It is a hard needle to thread, but Abraham is providing us with a warning that we should be wary of whom we join as allies; that their habits can become our habits. Abraham would seem to have learned another lesson - he who lies down with dogs gets up with fleas.
The Man/The Book: The reading comes from the Second Isaiah or the Isaiah of the exile. We have no biographical information on this remarkable author. Based on statements in the texts and analysis of style and language all that we can say for sure is that he (or she for that matter), lived in Babylon among the Jews during the end of the Sixth Century B.C.E. This corresponds to the rise of the Persians and the Medes who, under Cyrus would conquer Babylonia and end the First Exile.
The Message: The prophet is reassuring the Jews of the Babylonian Captivity that God has not forgotten them and that He will redeem them. He offers a message of optimism. If the Jews grow weary, they only have to renew their faith in God and they will find rest and strength. When faced with the challenges of life, the pagan fashions new and better idols. The prophet calls upon the Jews to ignore these inanimate statutes and be faithful to the teachings of God.
Theme-Link: In the sedrah, we see Abraham being chosen by God. In the haftarah, the prophet says that God will remember the exiles because they are the “chosen, seed of Abraham My friend” (41:8). Additionally, the prophet mocks those who make idols, a reminder of the Midrash about the occupation of Abraham’s father and what Abraham does to his creations. Finally, the sedrah has God assuring Abraham of His protection, “I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you…” (12:3). Isaiah invokes this same reassurance, “They who strive with you shall become as naught and shall perish…Less than nothing shall be the men who battle against you.” (41:11-12).
History and the Haftarah: This year marks the 65th anniversary of Operation Magic Carpet, which began on November 8, 1949. Operation Magic Carpet was the name given to the Israeli Airlift that flew 60,000 Jews from
to Yemen . Golda Meir, who would eventually become Prime
Minister of Israel, would go out to the airport and greet Israel ’s newest
citizens. She said she marveled at their
courage and endurance. She asked one
elderly chap if he had ever seen an airplane before. He told her had not. She asked him if was afraid. He said he was not afraid. After all, this had all been foretold in the
Book of Isaiah. “They shall mount up on
wings of eagles.” And then he stood
there and recited the entire passage from Chapter Forty of the Book of
Isaiah. Part of this is found in this
week’s haftarah, “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles…”
If you can ever read this haftarah again without getting a lump in your
throat, you are a better person than I am. Israel
On a more poignant note, next month marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Some would say that the difference between the fate of the Jews of Germany and the Jews of Yemen was the miraculous creation of the state of Israel.
Hannah Senesh Shabbat: Friday, November 7, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the murder of Hannah Senesh at the hands of her fascist captors. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if temples and synagogues all across the globe could dedicate their Shabbat Eve services to memorializing this marvelous young woman? She not only embodied bravery, patriotism and loyalty to both her comrades in arms and the Jewish people, she left behind a corpus of poetry and song lyrics that have enriched us for decades. Imagine the joy the heavenly hosts would feel if the whole House of Israel were to join in singing אלי, אלי. It might serve as reminder that there is more that binds us together as the Jewish People than separates us as individual Jews. “Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.” For more see http://www.hannahsenesh.org.il/Sc.asp?ID=1750
Jewish Book Month is an annual event on the American Jewish calendar dedicated to the celebration of Jewish books. It is observed during the month proceeding Hanukkah, thus the exact date changes each year. In 2014, Jewish Book Month begins on November 16 and ends on December 16. The Jewish Book Council is the driving force behind Jewish Book Month. According to the Jewish Book Council “It is the only organization in the American Jewish community exclusively committed to promoting and advocating for Jewish literature. The Council serves as a catalyst for the writing, publication, distribution, reading and public awareness of books reflecting the rich variety of Jewish experience.” http://www.jewishbookcouncil.org/about/jewish-book-month.html.
What is a Jewish Book? Obviously our traditional texts such the Bible, the Talmud, Prayerbooks, Rabbinic commentaries (ancient as well as modern) are Jewish Books. Then there are books by Jewish authors about Jewish topics such as Jewish history, Jewish customs, Jewish cooking and Jewish people (fiction as well as non-fiction). They too would obviously qualify as Jewish books. But what about books by Jewish authors about topics that are not Jewish. For example, Leon Uris was a Jewish author who wrote Exodus, a novel about the creation of the modern state of
. Obviously this would be a Jewish Book. But what about Battle Cry a novel Uris
wrote about Marines fighting in the South Pacific? Is this a Jewish Book? What about books by non-Jewish authors about
Jewish topics? John Hersey is not
Jewish. He wrote The Wall, one of
the first and finest novels about the plight of the Jews of the Warsaw
Ghetto? Is The Wall a Jewish
Book? While the answers to these
questions are open to discussion, for our purposes any book by a Jewish author
or on a “Jewish topic” will be considered a Jewish Book. After all, why limit your choices, when there
is so much out there waiting to fill your intellectual appetites? Israel
Nobel Prize 2014: This year there is additional excitement surrounding Jewish Book month because Patrick Modiano, a French Jew whose “novels are often set during the Nazi occupation of France, won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature.” For more see http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Works-of-Nobel-Prize-for-Literature-winner-Patrick-Modiano-deal-with-Holocaust-issues-378566
Copyright; November, 2014; Mitchell A. Levin