Lech-Lecha: Shield of Avraham

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Good afternoon!  It’s a bit overcast in Poughkeepsie but it’s going to be a lovely weekend with our special guest from Hazon and the Green Team Shabbaton- do come if you can.

This week’s Torah portion is Lech-Lecha, which introduces us to
Avraham and Sarah, who are chosen to leave the east and travel west to an unknown destination:

“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  . . ‘ ” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1)

Avraham and Sarah arrive in the land of Canaan, leave for Egypt, come back, and then get mixed up in a battle between local kingdoms. Eventually, God reappears in a vision and renews the promise to Avraham:

“Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying:

‘Fear not, Abram,
I am a shield to you;
Your reward shall be very great.’ ” (Bereshit 15:1)

This promise, that God will be a “shield” [magen] to Avraham, shows up in our daily prayers as part of the opening blessings of the Amidah, or standing prayer, in the section recalling the avot or ancestors:

“Blessed are You, O Lord our God and God of our ancestors, the God of Avraham, the God of Yitzhak and the God of Yaakov . . .  Blessed are You, Holy One, the shield of Avraham.”

Traditionally, mentioning the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in many congregations) at the opening of the Amidah is understood as approaching God in the merit of our ancestors. This is called z’chut avot- the idea is that we may not be worthy of an audience before the Holy One but we are descended from those who were.

The phrase “magen Avraham” is interesting, because if there’s anything the Torah spells out clearly, it’s that our ancestors had challenging and tumultuous lives- Avraham, after all, had many difficult conflicts over the course of his life, both within his family and with the surrounding peoples.

So if God’s promise to be a “shield” doesn’t mean protection from
conflict and difficulty, why recall that promise in our prayers? To
me, it’s worth noting that a shield is not only a defense from what’s
outside, it’s also something that keeps and protects what’s on the inside. Maybe the meaning of “shield” in this sense is not protection from life’s difficulties but the shielding and keeping of faith despite those inevitable challenges.

That is, the meaning of “magen Avraham” is not: the One Who kept suffering away from Avraham, but rather: the One who protected Avraham’s spiritual dedication over the course of challenging years. fter all, the very idea of “I am a shield to you” came to Avraham in a vision- maybe the vision itself was what needed shielding!

Read this way, “magen Avraham” is not the false promise of a life free from pain; it’s rather a deeper covenant, that we can find meaning, vision, purpose and faith despite life’s difficulties. Everything on the outside can change in a minute, but what’s on the inside can be kept by faith- this is truly a great promise, and one that sustains us today.

Shabbat Shalom,


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