Archive for Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27)

OVERVIEW

The first two parshiot of Genesis tell the story of the creation of the world; with this, the third parsha, the story shifts to the beginnings of the Jewish people. Avram and Sarai (later to become Avraham and Sarah) travel from their home in the East, to Canaan in the west, then to Egypt and back to Canaan, having adventures and conflicts along the way. God strikes a dramatic and mystical covenant with Avram to give him land and descendants, and changes his name. Finally, (now) Abraham has a son with Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant; this causes family tensions.

IN FOCUS

“Avram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. . . God appeared to Avram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land”- then he built an altar there to God Who had appeared to him. ” (Genesis 12:6-7)

PSHAT

At the beginning of Avram’s travels, he arrives in Canaan (what the land of Israel is called at this point in time) with his family and possessions, and again encounters the mysterious God who commanded him to leave his home and come to this foreign land. When God first appeared to Avram, in 12:1, God promised Avram to make of Avram a “great nation.” Only now, in his second encounter with the Divine, is this blessing connected to a specific land.

DRASH

The Torah often uses very compact language to tell its narratives. In this case, we have a whole story in just two verses. Avram has traveled across whole countries; at the end of this part of the journey, God appears to him and elaborates on the Divine promise made in Avram’s homeland. In response to this spiritual experience, Avram builds an altar. Presumably, Avram is feeling a sense of awe, of gratitude, of reverence, and can only think of channeling or focussing these feelings into the form of worship that is familiar to him.

At this point we find a disagreement in the commentaries about Avram’s motivations in building the altar. Rashi says that Avram built the altar because of the promise of children and land- in other words, Avram was grateful for the specific content of God’s promise to him. This would be easy to understand- who wouldn’t be grateful for the promise of a wonderful future?

Ohr HaChaim offers a different understanding of Avram’s gratitude:

    The intent of the Torah is show us Avraham’s [sic] great love for his Creator. For when God appeared to him and promised him descendants and the giving of the Land, he did not consider this to be much, in comparison to his joy at the revealing of the Presence of the Blessed One. This is a fulfillment of the verse: “the fullness of joys is Your Presence.” (Psalm 16:11) This is why it says “then he built an altar there to God Who had appeared to him,” because he was so overjoyed at God’s appearance to him that he built the altar. (Translation mine, after consulting the translation by Eliyahu Munk.)

What I like about the Ohr HaChaim’s commentary is that it suggests that Avram’s spiritual greatness was not that he merited a Divine Covenant, but that he was able to love God for God’s own sake, not just to get something out of it. This kind of relationship with God is just like a profound relationship with a human being- one can love simply because one’s beloved is simply present, not because of any specific manifestation of that love.

For example, if my best friend gives me a birthday cake, I might embrace him in gratitude, but it’s not really gratitude for the cake, per se. Hopefully, I would be emotionally mature enough to experience the gratitude as a response to my friend’s caring, to the fact that my friend remembered me, that he or she was simply there, fully present in my life. The cake is just an outward manifestation of that caring, fully present relationship.

Perhaps one insight underlying the Ohr HaChaim’s midrash is the idea that a love dependent on outward manifestations can become fickle or unstable, whereas a love which emerges from within, which depends only on the presence of the beloved, can better survive the ups and downs of any relationship. If we “bless God only for the good,” we risk becoming spiritually alienated when life gets hard; if we can find an inner connection to the Source of all Being, we can stay spiritually centred through all our journeys. The Ohr HaChaim seems to be suggesting that Avram would have been just as happy if God appeared to him and promised him nothing at all; this is a spiritual love which can endure, just as Avram’s faith seems to have endured throughout all his tests and travels.

Leave a Comment

Lech Lecha 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW
The first two parshiot of Genesis tell the story of the creation of the world; with this, the third parasha, the story shifts to the beginnings of the Jewish people. Avram and Sarai (later to become Avraham and Sarah) leave their home in Ur Kasdim to head out for the land of Canaan; they arrive there only to leave for Egypt and return to Canaan again. Avram’s nephew Lot is with him at first, but settles in Sdom, which will later be destroyed for its evil ways; Lot also has to be rescued by Avram in a bit of military action. God strikes a covenant with Avram to give him land and descendents, and changes his name. Finally, (now) Abraham has a son with Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant; this causes family tensions.

IN FOCUS
God spoke to Avram: Lech lecha- Take yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
(Genesis 11:1)


PSHAT*

With these words, the story of the Jewish people begins. Avram cannot worship the One God in a country of idol-worshippers, and he must travel to Canaan, later to be known as the Land of Israel, where the Jewish promise will ultimately be fulfilled. Furthermore, God’s command is Avram’s first test of faith- he must set out without knowing exactly where he is going, but only Who sends him there.

DRASH*
My colleague and friend Rabbi Anat Moskowitz found a great question pertaining to this verse, from the collection Itturei Torah (Torah Gems), which quotes a book called the Ohel Yaakov, (Tent of Jacob). The commentator points out that if one were physically leaving one’s home, the actual leaving would take place in the reverse order from our verse. In other words, one would get up and leave the house, then one’s birthplace (this commentator interprets “birthplace” as family or clan, but it might mean village or home area) and finally after travelling a bit one would reach the border and leave one’s land or country.

So the question is, why did God phrase the command in a counter-intuitive way, with land first, then birthplace, then “your father’s house?” What’s being taught here?

Our commentator, the author of the Ohel Yaakov, suggests that God is giving Avram instructions not for the physical journey but for the psychological or spiritual one. First, if one is to undertake a journey of spiritual growth, and therefore away from whatever idols are cluttering up one’s spiritual path, one must discard the characteristics of your society that inhibit one’s growth- “take yourself from your land,”- in other words, take yourself away from all the values of the general society that are not Godly ones. In our day, we might think of materialism, sexism, racism, competition, callousness to human suffering, and so forth- all things we must leave behind on our journey to Divine service.

Harder yet, the next stage of the journey, is thinking through and possibly abandoning the bad habits, misconceptions, and prejudices of our community and even our family- “your birthplace and your father’s house.” In my experience, rare is the person who has undergone a process of thoughtful maturation into the person they want to be who has not decided to live life a bit differently than their parents did. I don’t think this means one must leave behind one’s parents and community completely- I think this means that the spiritual journey involves examining and evaluating one’s habits, preferences and preconceptions, and “leaving behind” those that hold one back from one’s spiritual potential.

According to this interpretation of the story, Avram’s real test was not his willingness to undergo danger and deprivation crossing the desert, but his willingness to undertake a process of “cheshbon hanefesh”- literally an “accounting of the soul,” and understood to mean an active introspection and evaluation of one’s life and deeds. Or, in the famous words of Alcoholics Anonymous, “a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.”

Fearless rethinking of accumulated mental baggage- sounds much less exciting than Avram’s wars with the kings of Canaan, doesn’t it? But Avram’s greatness, and ours, comes not from without but from within, not from material achievements but from mental, spiritual and emotional effort, directed at love, service, prayer and truth. It takes humility and patience to grow oneself spiritually, and like Avram, for every trip to the Promised Land there may be a detour into Egypt [Mitzraim, the “narrow place.”] again. God’s promise, to Avram and to us, is that we will, eventually, get there.

Leave a Comment

« Newer Posts