Torah Readings for Saturday, October 20, 2018
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 Ur of the Chaldees to go unto the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.” 29:31), we might have caught at least a hint of the trip. The sedrah gives us no reason why God selected Abraham to make the trip. The only thing we know about Abraham is that he was 75 years old. At least with Noah, we knew that he was chosen because he was a righteous man in his generation. All that we know of the character of Abraham we must deduce from events that unfold over the next several chapters of Bereshit.
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,” in -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 Canaan laden with gifts from a grateful Egyptian king. This presages the experience of the Israelites who will depart from the land of bondage laden with wealth offered up to them by their former Egyptian masters.
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. Lot chose a place of ease even though he knew it to be place of questionable moral standards.
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 cohabit 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.
2. The commandment of circumcision ().
Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin
Customs and Ceremonies
The 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.”
Name changes often indicate a change in character or responsibility. Among the Patriarchs we go from Abram to Abraham and from Jacob to Israel. But Isaac gets his name from God and his name never changes. Abraham’s other son, Ishmael, also gets his name directly from God. Ishmael means “God hears.” In , the text identifies the first patriarch as “ha-ivri” or the Hebrew. This is the first use of this term and should put to rest the claims that others would like to make that Abraham was something other than the first Jew. In 15:8, Abraham becomes the first person to address God as “Adonai” or in English, my Lord. “And he said, ‘O Lord God (Adonai), how shall I know.…’”
The 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 Canaan you will be the father of a great nation that will inherit that land. One more is "Go to yourself" which speaks to the inner or spiritual nature of the journey. In other words, life is made up of two aspects - the outward physical aspect and the inward spiritual aspect. Part of the purpose of man’s journey through life is to bring harmony between the spiritual (higher level) and physical (mundane) aspects of life.
Abraham 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 Lot’s rescue. He was a man of peace as we can see by his giving Lot first choice as to who would live where. Was he the first monotheist, as we are taught in Sunday School? No less an authority than Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz says Abraham was not. According to Steinsaltz, monotheism was the natural order of man’s belief. Idolatry was a descent from man’s original monotheism. Abraham was in effect practicing Teshuvah (the act of returning). When he left his native land to go to Canaan he was returning to the belief in one God that had previously existed. Whether he was the first man to believe in ethical monotheism or whether he was returning to a long lost belief the question still is what made Abraham tick? Why did he do it? Did God find Abraham or did Abraham find God? As to the nature of Abraham's God, that begins a whole new set of questions that we will ponder as we continue our future years of Torah study.
Hagar and Ishmael
Who 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 inherit 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.
According 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 Haran.” Considering all that we do not know about Abraham, why are we told his age and what is the significance of his beginning his trip at such an advanced age? Some people, like some characters in the Bible, know what they are to do with their lives from the outset. Consider King David. Samuel anointed him when he was a youth. His whole adult life was devoted to fulfilling the role of becoming King of Israel. Other people move smoothly from one role to the next. For example Joshua successfully fulfilled his role as Moshe’s assistant and then took on the mantle of leader in his own right. Then are those for whom life is a series of ups and downs and ups again. Consider Moshe. First he was an Egyptian Prince. Then he was a fugitive in Midian. Finally, at the age of eighty, he rebounded as the man who saw “God in the face.” There are people like Abraham; people who think that life is done with them only to find out that they are about to embark on the greatest journey of their lives. Abraham leaving Haran at seventy-five should be a reminder to us all that we are never too old to learn, to change and to grow. No matter how old we are, we must listen for the call of Lech-Lecha, “go to yourself.” We are never too old to seek our own authenticity, to be true to ourselves which for the Jew means being true to our heritage. Only when we do this will we find our ultimate reward as Abraham did when he responded to the command of Lech-Lecha.
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 Canaan. But what happened to them once they got there? They do not seem to be around when we meet the next Patriarch, Isaac.
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 Others
In 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 Carpathian Mountains, there was a drought which led to a shortage of grain. The local merchants jacked up their prices figuring to profit on the shortage. Since it looked like the drought was going to last for more than one year, the merchants sold only some of their grain, thus making the famine even worse. They figured that in a second year of shortage their stock of grain would be worth even more and they would become even richer. Lo and behold, the rains came. The drought was broken. Instead of a famine, there was a bumper crop. The merchants were left holding the bag. They lost so much money on the grain that they had hoarded that all of the profit made during the drought was wiped out. To make a profit is one thing, the Sages said. To make a profit off of misery is another thing all together.
The Oleh and the Yorad
Zionists 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 Israel. But if Abraham was the first Oleh, he was also the first Yorad, the Hebrew word for a Jew who emigrates from Israel. As soon as there was trouble in the land (in this case a famine) Abraham hit the road and headed for the wealth and comfort of Egypt. Abraham, the man of character who followed the voice of God, immediately began betraying his values when he moved into Galut, in this case Egypt. Like Jews who will be living in the Diaspora centuries later, Abraham had to lie and connive just to stay alive. The Zionists would say, Abraham returned to Eretz Israel because it is only in his own land that he fulfilled his destiny. But then the Zionist view of things is not necessarily the final authority.
Harbingers of Things to Come
Historicity of the Abraham Narrative
Modern (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 Abraham
This 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 Thought
In 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!
Everybody 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 which 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.
One of the favorite aphorisms 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.
In his commentary on this week’s portion, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks, “How Perfect Were the Patriarchs and Matriarchs?” More specifically, how perfect were Abraham and Sarah. On the one hand they show great courage and moral fortitude by heeding God’s call, leaving their comfortable life and their family and traveling to Canaan. On the other hand, Abraham conspires to deceive the Egyptians about his marital status and makes his wife a partner in his duplicity. And Sarah’s treatment of Hagar is something that even most of the rabbinic sages criticize. So they answer to the question is they were not perfect at all. But as Sacks and others have pointed out, this should not bother us and in one sense should encourage us. The characters in the Bible are human beings, not saints. In some instances they behave nobly and in other cases their behavior is reprehensible. Noah can build an ark. But he can also get so drunk he is an embarrassment to his family. David can face Goliath. But he also can seduce Bathsheba. King Solomon can build the Temple. But he can also build palaces for his foreign princesses where they can pursue the idol worship that God forbids. The characters in the Bible are faced with decisions. Do I leave the Promised Land and go to Egypt because of the famine or do I stay and trust that somehow I will survive? Do I talk to the rock when I need water or I do I strike it with my staff? The Biblical characters are constantly faced with challenges, just as we are, and sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong. And so it is with us today. But the Biblical characters remind us that we are not all good nor all bad. Which means we should enjoy the “victories” but learn from the “defeats.” Just because we got it right once does not mean we will always get it right. And just because we get it “wrong” does not mean we are doomed.
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 68th 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 Yemen to Israel. 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 he had not. She asked him if was afraid. He said he was not afraid. After all, he told her, 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.
On a more poignant note, next month marks the 79th 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.
Hollywood and the Haftarah: You may remember the film classic Chariots of Fire about two English runners, one Jewish and one Christian, and the challenges they faced because of their respective religious beliefs. At one point, a competing American runner offered Biblical words of encouragement the origins of which are found in this week’s prophetic portion, “they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” (40:31).
Copyright; October, 2018; Mitchell A. Levin