Lech Lecha: Hesed and Courage

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

Greetings on a beautiful fall day! Before we begin this week’s Torah
study, the Department of Torah Typos here at rabbineal-list has an
announcement regarding last week’s Torah study, and that announcement
is: Duh! Noach was not on the ark for 40 days- that’s how long it
rained- but for more than a year. (Cf. the last part of Bereshit 7 and
the first 14 verses of chapter 8, where the timing is clearly
enumerated, unless you miss it, which we blame on insufficient coffee
while writing.)

With that important bit of business out of the way, we can send our
fearless fact-checkers back to the garage until we need them again,
and turn to this week’s Torah portion, Lech-lecha, which begins the
story of Avraham and Sarah and their descendants. In Lech-lecha, Avram
(as he is first known) is called by God to go to the land of Canaan,
where he stays for a bit before heading down to Egypt to escape a
famine. Upon his return, he separates from his nephew Lot, who has
been travelling with him, and then Lot gets caught up and taken
captive in a battle between various allied kings and tribes near the
Dead Sea. Avram calls out his men, they go and rescue Lot, and Avram
gets a blessing from one of the kings.

One interesting detail about this story is that Lot, Avram’s nephew,
is sometimes called “achiv,” or “his brother,” and sometimes Lot is
called “his brother’s son.” In most modern translations, it’s assumed
that “ach” doesn’t only mean “brother” in the limited sense, but also
means “kinsman” in the more general sense, and thus JPS translates
these verses like this:

“They also took Lot, the son of Avram’s brother, and his possessions,
and departed; for he had settled in Sodom. . . . ” (Bereshit/Genesis
14:12)

“When Avram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he
mustered his retainers, born into his household, numbering three
hundred and eighteen, and went in pursuit as far as Dan. . . ” (14:14,
but see also verse 16 and 13:8)

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, noticing that Lot is called “his brother’s son” in
one verse and “his brother” just two verses later, links this to
Avram’s great empathy and sense of duty towards Lot:

“Before the separation, Abraham had said: ‘we are [anashim achim]- men
who should be brothers.’ But when he heard of Lot’s misfortune, the
unfortunate Lot is at once ‘achiv,’ his brother.”

Now, as an uncle myself, I certainly feel that that I’d go to great
lengths to rescue a nephew taken captive, but my sense is that Hirsch
sees Avraham as motivated by more than family or clan loyalty,
powerful as that is. In the broader Jewish understanding, Avraham is
understood as possessing great hesed [“lovingkindness’], which we see
most clearly in the beginning of chapter 18, when he welcomes the
three dusty strangers to his tent and generously provides for their
needs.

With that as background, we can understand Hirsch as teaching that
precisely because Lot was suffering, Avraham grew in his attachment
and sense of obligation towards him- he was his “brother” because he
needed help, not only because he was family. That, in turn, clarifies
what the trait of hesed is all about- it’s about responding with great
empathy and dedication to human needs.

Hesed could be described as being oriented towards others such that if
you know someone is suffering, then indeed, they become your brother,
or sister, and you must not be afraid of extending yourself towards
them, even to the extent that Avram saddled up and went off to battle
to rescue “his brother.” We won’t all have the dramatic adventures
that Avram did, but all of us, every day, have a chance to regard
someone as “our brother,” as “our sister,” and give of ourselves as
Avram did- and that’s what becoming a blessing is all about.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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