My Weekly D’var Torah 31 October 2020 : Parasha Lekh L’kha לך לך …. Find yourself!
This is a transitional chapter moving our story from a kind of fantasy, Noah, to reality, Abraham. In some ways, this is the start of our human story. Adam, Eve, the serpent, Cain, Abel, the two trees, Noah, his sons, the ark, the animals…are all slightly (or more than slightly) dream-like, figures from fairy tales (as we used to call them). It is also a transitional chapter literally because as it progresses Abraham takes the first steps toward a promised land.
The title of the chapter in this regard is important. לך לך!
1. When the Torah repeats a word or a phrase, it intends to emphasize its importance. It’s the biblical equivalent of writing in UPPER CASE in a text message.
2. The phrase in Hebrew literally means “go, go”. It’s a strong imperative from Gd to Abraham: move!
3. The phrase can be interpreted (and has been) in many ways. Here are two of them:
A) “take yourself and go forth”
B) “go now and find your authentic self to learn who you are meant to be”** This is, to me, the inner meaning of the chapter title. Finding his true self is the command to Abraham and, as we read it, a command to us too to find ours.
In Israel, there have been many protests against the sitting government and the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The symbol of the demonstrators is לך : Go, Leave! The Torah is always relevant!
Let’s read further:
1. There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. (GEN 12:10)
As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (GEN 12:11-13)
But the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his household with mighty plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Abram. (GEN 12:17)
As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him. And He said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. As for you, You shall go to your fathers in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age. (GEN 15: 12-15)
The story of Abraham’s journey is full of foreshadowing. Abraham moves to Egypt to escape famine (as the Israelites will do later), plagues befall the pharaoh (as they will again), Abraham dreams about his future (as Jacob and Joseph will do).
2. Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.” But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ (GEN 14: 21-23).
The word translated as “persons” הנפש can be translated as “soul or souls”.** In short, the bargain being offered Abraham is the exchange of his soul for property. He refuses! This is the decision of a man of integrity, a man informed by morality. It is a bargain we have all been offered and the decision can be excruciating. We should remember Abraham when faced with this choice in our lives.
3. Ishmael : the story of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son, Isaac’s half brother, is complicated and painful. Sarah, Abraham’s wife is barren in her old age and tells Abraham to sleep with her maid, Hagar, in order to have offspring. He does and Ishmael is born of their relationship. This immediately provokes jealousy in Sarah (even though it was her idea!). Sarah treats Hagar harshly (ouch!). God blesses Ishmael but tells Abraham that Isaac will be his heir. Ishmael is the father of the Arab nation and the ancestor of the prophet Muhammed. We’ll have more to say about Ishmael. Here is how Gd (in the Torah) describes him and blesses him:
He shall be a wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone, And everyone’s hand against him; He shall dwell alongside all his kinsmen.” (GEN 16:12). As for Ishmael, I have heeded you (Abraham). I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains (NB: the mirror image of the Jewish tribes), and I will make of him a great nation. (GEN 17:20)
Three of the world’s great religions stem from the legacy of Abraham: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. And we are Abraham’s progeny. The recent peace agreements between the United Arab Emirates and Israel were named “The Abraham Accords Peace Agreement” in recognition of the relationship between Abraham and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac.
4. When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.” Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations (GEN 17:1-5).
And God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you shall not call her Sarai, but her name shall be Sarah. I will bless her; indeed, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she shall give rise to nations; rulers of peoples shall issue from her.” (GEN 17:15)
Names and name changes are vital and critical in the Torah and in (human) life. Gd asked Adam in B’reishit “where are you?”. In Lekh L’kha, Gd asks Abraham, “who are you?”.
In some large part our individual identities are tied to our names. Abraham’s name change from “Abram” to Abraham and Sarah’s name change from “Sarai” to Sarah are not casual. Name changes signal a change of status and, more important, a change of consciousness and awareness. Abram becomes Abraham and becomes the father of a nation. He is no longer a single individual, he is responsible for the birth of a nation. Sarai becomes Sarah and, with Abraham, gives birth to that nation. Jacob becomes Israel and realizes he is responsible for that nation.
5. I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.”God further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant.Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised.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. As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, they must be circumcised, homeborn, and purchased alike. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. (GEN 17:9-13)
The covenant, as we saw last week, is a contract for the future survival of the people and the planet. The covenant with Abraham supersedes the agreement/covenant with Noah. Circumcision is a physical reminder and symbol of the covenant. Why? You will have to wait until we discuss the binding of Isaac at which time I will share with you my theory ;)!
6. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised the flesh of his foreskin, and his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.Thus Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised on that very day. (GEN 17: 24-26).
I find it very moving that Abraham and Ishmael, father and son, undergo this vital act of passage together. There is a clear reconciliation and clear love between them. I will say more about this when we discuss the binding of Isaac. Ishmael plays a role there too.
** Thank you Nahum Sarna.
Jeff Morgan is the brilliant, ebullient, irrepressible founder of Covenant Wines in California and Israel. Jeff broke new ground when he founded Covenant with the conviction that Kosher wines could be as good as any wines in the world. Today, Covenant is, without doubt, among the top Kosher wines produced in California and in Israel. But as Jeff might tell you : it doesn’t matter that the wines are Kosher, it matters only that they are good! Covenant Wines they are not just good, they are great!
Read more here about Covenant Israel and connect to the main website for Covenant California:
And, finally, the beautiful intepretation of Lekh L’kha by Debbie Friedman. Thank you Michael Schmidt.
All images are free of copyright restrictions. Permission for the לך symbol was granted by designer Roni Dunevich and the owners of Covenant Winery have granted permission for the use of their logo.