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Parashat Lech L’cha 5779 — 10/20/2018

Parashat Lech L’cha 5779 — 10/20/2018

Bereishit 12:1 – 17:27

There was a famine in the Land and Avram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, because the famine in the Land was severe. When he approached the border of Egypt he said to his wife, Sarai, “Look, I just noticed that you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you, they’ll figure you’re my wife and murder me and keep you alive [for their own pleasure]. Please tell people you’re my sister so that it will go well with me for your sake, and I’ll live for your sake. (13:10-13)

The commentators wrestle with two questions. First, why did Avram leave the Land of Israel to begin with? So there was a famine – did Gd suddenly lose the ability to feed Avram and his household? Why did Avram not have faith that if Gd sent him to the Land of Israel, and did not send him down to Egypt, that Gd would take care of him if he stayed? The second question is, how could Avram have put Sarai into a situation of such danger? Again, why did he not have faith that Gd would save them?

R. Goldin introduces the various commentators’ approaches by indicating the spectrum along which they lie: are the actions of the Patriarchs and other Biblical heroes absolutely correct and 100% in accord with Gd’s Will, or are they not? In other words, when confronted with a text that clearly seems to indicate some kind of sketchy behavior, do we engage in apologetics or do we call a spade a spade and say that their actions were incorrect.

Ramban, for example, answers both questions with similar language:

His leaving the land, to which he was commanded from the outset, was a sin that he transgressed. Even in a famine, Gd will redeem one from death.

With regard to Sarah’s abduction into Pharaoh’s palace Ramban writes:

And know that our Father Avraham sinned a great sin in error by placing his righteous wife in a situation of potential transgression because of the fear that he might have been killed. He should have trusted in Gd to save him, his life and all that was his; for Gd has the power to help and to save.

While there are times when the Talmud criticizes Biblical figures harshly, there is also a current of thought that tends to excuse behavior that would be looked at very askance nowadays. For example, Torah says that Reuven went and lay with his father’s concubine, Bilhah (35:22), but the Talmud (Shabbat 55b) expresses the opinion that “whoever says Reuven sinned is just mistaken,” and gives a much milder version of what he actually did. Why did the Torah write it the way it did? Reuven was on a very high spiritual level and while what he actually did might seem trivial to us, for him it was as if he did what the Torah describes – that is, what he actually did was as egregious for someone like him as what Torah says would be if one of us hoi polloi had done it. Similar quasi-exonerations are given for Yehudah (in the incident with Tamar) and King David (in the incident with Bathsheva). In both of the latter cases their Rabbinic apologists fly in the face of the protagonists’ own admission that they had sinned!

So who are our Biblical heroes? One thing is certain – they are not gods. They never pretend to be gods and would object most strenuously to any attempt to deify them. But if they are men, then, almost by definition, they are imperfect – they sin, they violate Gd’s Will. However they also grow. It seems to me that this growth is particularly apparent in the cases of Avraham and Moshe Rabbeinu. Avraham goes through 10 tests (see Pirke Avot V:4 and commentaries for a list) of increasing difficulty, and grows through each one of them – that is the point of these tests, to actualize the testee’s potential. And Moshe Rabbeinu grows from a stutterer of the beginning of Exodus to the great orator of Deuteronomy.

The fact that our illustrious forbears are men and not gods means that we can emulate them. One cannot really emulate a perfect being, but one can strive to perfect oneself as these great people did. I am writing this on Erev Yom Kippur, so thoughts of t’shuvah are naturally on my mind, and thoughts of whether I am better this year than last, and how I can be better next year than I am now. The advice generally given is that one has to “work on oneself.” I have never quite understood what this means in practical terms. We all have weaknesses and addictions and it has been my experience that when one is in the grip of an addiction it takes quite a bit of help, and often a jolt of some kind, to shake up the system and get it out of the rut it is in. As the Talmud says, “the prisoner cannot free himself.”

I think that as long as t’shuvah remains on the surface level of thinking and emotions, it is of limited power. Real t’shuvah, our Sages tell us, leaves us a changed person, with a new relationship to Gd and a new relationship with our Self. For that to happen, deep changes have to take place, and these changes must be based on the state of one’s physiology. A physiology that is blocked by stress and strain is not one that can respond thoughtfully to the environment. A mind that is hemmed in by negative thought patterns is not one that can think clearly through situations. What is needed is a deep t’shuvah, one in which we return to our essence, to the divine soul within us, to the place where our mind can settle and refresh itself and our body can get correspondingly deep rest and purify itself. This kind of t’shuvah can help us sustain real growth, real change, real movement in the direction of perfection.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parsashat Lech-Lecha

Genesis 17,1:
And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and Gd appeared to Abram, and He said to him, “I am the Almighty Gd; walk before Me and be perfect.”

Torah tells us that Noah walked with Gd, was righteous and perfect but Torah doesn’t tell us how this came about; with Abram we can see what he did after Gd’s command and we can draw some tips about how we may also walk before Gd and be perfect. The deepest activity is the literal meaning of the name of the Parshah: “Lech Lecha” means “Go to yourself”. To most, perhaps all, of our Beth Shalom Congregation, this means “Go to your Self”, your universal, unbounded, Self. This is the first step in acting so that we walk before Gd.

What does it mean to “walk before Gd”? The primary commentator on Torah is Rashi, and Rashi says it means “serve Me, cleave to My service.”

Whenever Abram was commanded by Gd, he did what Gd commanded. To Abram, Gd appeared in visions: Abram must have been very close to walking with Gd in order to trust such commands as to leave his home and to “go to a place which I will show you.”  I personally don’t feel that confident that I can trust visions or voices and so I am left with cleaving to Gd’s service by doing the ordinary things that good people everywhere do: do my best to be healthy, happy and to share my happiness with others through work with organizations I respect so I can attune myself to Gd through service to people I feel are wiser, more experienced than I and to at least one who I feel does walk with Gd.

What did Abram do to be perfect? Prior to this command of Gd to leave his homeland, Abram had already come to the conclusion that all creation was made by One Creator, Gd, and he and Sarai spread the word and brought many to share this belief — and perhaps a taste of the experience.

Parshat Lech-Lecha tells us that, after leaving his homeland to go to an unknown place, Abram continued to spread the word of monotheism and to build altars to Gd. From this we learn the very important message that we should share what we know, especially what we know by experience, and that Gd, as it says in Kaddish, is “beyond any words to describe” so simple acts of reverence, such as offering prayers, building altars, and temples for them to be in are ways to grow in our ability to walk with Gd.

When a famine caused him and Sarai to leave Canaan and go to Egypt, Abram told Sarai to say that she was his sister, not his wife. He did this because he thought otherwise he would be killed.

Few of us are likely to be in such an extreme situation but we may take it that a lie to save our life, if we are otherwise innocent of any crime, is a way of serving Gd and being perfect.

In Egypt, Abram and his nephew, Lot, acquired many possessions, including cattle, and their herdsmen quarreled. Abram and Lot decided to separate. From this we can learn, that if we have no other way to create harmony, separation is a valid way to create harmony, which is the essence of serving Gd.

Lot moved to Sodom, an evil kingdom, and was captured when the city was captured: Abram took his trained men, though they were only few, and pursued the army holding Lot, defeated them and restored Lot’s possessions to him and four kingdoms, including Sodom, to their kings.. From this we learn, that we should be concerned with following right action as a way of serving Gd, not be afraid that our resources are too small: Gd protects those who serve Him.

Abram refused to accept any recompense from the King of Sodom for restoring his possessions to him. His reason: that the King of Sodom could not claim he had made Abram rich. A traditional explanation of Abram’s reasoning is that he wanted it to be clear to everyone that any accomplishment of his was through Gd: it was not Abram who defeated the armies, it was Gd; it could not be through evil hands such as those of the King of Sodom that he would acquire possessions but only through the Hand of Gd. Certainly we can be kind to even those who are evil and refuse to accept any compensation from them: and certainly we can recognize that any accomplishments of ours are Gd’s Gift to us.

Abram is blessed by Melchizedek, a priest of the Most High — to me, this Melchizedek means is not only a monotheist In belief but also in experience and enough experience of Gd to serve as a priest, a very high way to serve. We, too, can put One first and material possessions second so that we are protected by our sense of proportion.

And we can read Torah, listen to Torah, read from the Siddur, attend services at the synagogue, as ways to raise ourselves up to direct experience and to priestliness.

Abram tells Gd, when Gd says his reward for this action will be great: Of what use is to me since I have no son to inherit? And Gd responds: you will have a son and be a mighty nation, more than the stars. From this we learn that service to Gd can include asking Gd to redress a situation we feel is amiss: we can pray for help, we can ask simply and Gd responds. To Abram, He responded clearly; to us, perhaps not so clearly but we need to be alert to the response.

Abram’s son, Ishmael, is born with Hagar, Sarai’s maidservant, and Isaac is born, with Sarah.

From this we learn that when we serve Gd, we raise ourselves up, and what Gd promises, Gd delivers. Trusting Gd is very important and when we are not able to experience Gd directly, trusting our Traditions, especially Torah, is very important.

Gd tells Abram to circumcise himself and that all males of the community shall be circumcised as a Covenant with Gd. From the Babylonian Talmud we learn that through circumcision Abram became sanctified. He became not merely a physical person fathering physical children but a spiritual person protecting Gd’s Spiritual Wisdom and spreading it in its purity, a father to all souls.

We can treat circumcision not merely as something physical for males, but something everyone, males and females, can do: cut off anything that binds us only to the physical and to thus rise to be spiritual: to walk before Gd and become perfect as Abram did, become Abraham, father not only of Isaac and Ishmael but of nations, and as Sarai did and became Sarah: princess not only of Abram but of all souls.

Baruch HaShem!