This week, I study in memory of my dear father-in-law, Milton Freedman, Mendel ben Sholom. He was the proud grandfather of many Scouts.
This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, teaches us about the beginnings of the Jewish people, with the first Jew, the Patriarch Abraham.
We encounter Abraham on a journey. Last week, at the end of Parasha Noah, we learned of the ten generations born after the Flood that Noah and his family survived. In fact, Noah was still alive when Abraham was born.
Abraham was born to Terah and his name then was Abram. Terah made his living selling idols. He lived in Ur of the Chaldees with Abram, Abram’s wife Sarai, and Lot, who was Terah’s grandson. Terah left there to settle in Canaan. Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (c. 1470 to 1550) teaches that Canaan was a spiritually desirable land that gave its inhabitants intellectual elevation. (Sforno to Genesis 11:31) But the family stopped in Haran, where Terah died.
When we pick up the story in this week’s parasha, God tells Abram “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Now this sounds like a night hike set up by your Scoutmaster: “I’m not going to tell you where you’re going, but follow these clues and you’ll find something great.” So Abram, Sarai and Lot are off on their adventure, and God shows them a place to settle in Canaan.
God’s instruction sounds a little odd: “Go for yourself”. The meaning is more clear in the next sentence, as God explains “And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” The journey Abram is taking will be for something great – he will be a blessing.
But the journey is just beginning. There is a famine in Canaan, and Abram takes his family to Egypt. Sarai is so beautiful that Abram is afraid the Egyptians will kill him so Pharaoh can marry her. Abram asks Sarai to say she is his sister. Pharaoh takes her to his palace, but God sends a plague on Egypt. Pharaoh understands this is because of Sarai and he sends her home. Abram and his family move on.
They go to the fertile plains of the Jordan valley. Because Abram and Lot have both done so well in the sheep business, their shepherds are fighting over the water wells for the many sheep. Abram and Lot decide to split up, and Lot remains in the plain, settling near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, while Abram returns to Canaan. Five kings of the valley revolt against four more powerful kings and there is a great war; Lot is captured by the five kings. Abram leads his men on a rescue mission and saves lot.
Sarai cannot have children, but God promises them she will have a child and Abram and his children will inherit Canaan. As a sign of this promise, God instructs Abram to slaughter three cows, three goats, three rams, a turtledove and a young dove. He cuts the larger animals in half, and walks between them, which was the ceremony to formalize a covenant in those times – this is called the Covenant of the Parts. A great darkness falls and God tells Abram that his descendants will serve a foreign people for 400 years, but then the foreign people will be judged and Abram’s descendants will leave with great wealth and return to Canaan.
Sarai urges Abraham to marry her servant, Hagar, so that Abram can have a child. He does so, and Ishmael is born.
God again promises that Sarai will have a son. God also changes Abram’s name to Abraham, an abbreviation of av hamon – “father of a multitude”. God changes Sarai’s name (which means “my princess”) to Sarah (which signifies “princess to many”). God instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all the men in his household, which he does.
At the beginning of these travels, Abraham was 75. Now he is 99.
Quite a journey! I’m tired just reading about it. But it has an interesting lesson.
Abraham’s father, Terah, worshipped idols. The Sages taught us that he repented from his idolatry. Perhaps this is why he sought to live in the more spiritual land of Canaan. However, he got stuck in Haran, where he died. From this I learn that when you are on the path of something good, you should stick to that path and not get distracted.
I learn the same lesson from Abraham’s travels. Abraham suffered through ten trials, in which his faith was tested. The rabbis differ in their lists of his trials, but we encountered several in this parasha: God tells him to leave his home and move to Canaan; when he gets to Canaan there is a famine; the Egyptians take Sarah to Pharaoh; Abraham battles much larger forces to save Lot; he marries Hagar because he cannot have children with Sarah; God tells him his descendants will be aliens in a strange land; God instructs him to circumcise himself at age 99.
Despite these many hardships, Abraham did not lose sight of his path to something good, which was to serve God.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (The Ramban, 1194-1270) – taught “Everything that happened to the Patriarchs is a sign for their descendants”. (Ramban on Genesis 12:6). As we follow the many journeys of Abraham’s descendants through the rest of the Torah, we will see what happens to those who follow their intended path of good, and those who get distracted.