This week, I study in memory of my dear mother, Ethel Poliakoff Block, Etel bas Avraham, whose jahrzeit is tonight and tomorrow. She was a wonderful supporter of Scouting, and was the sister, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother of many Scouts.
This week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, starts the story of the Jewish people with the first Jews, Abram (from av Aram, the “father” or “elder of Aram,” the land of his birth) and Sarai (“my princess”). Later in the parasha, God will change their names to Abraham and Sarah. The parasha also introduces several themes we will see repeated in the Torah.
At the end of last week’s parasha, Abram’s father, Terah, begins a journey. He takes Abram, Sarai and Lot – Terah’s grandson and Abram’s nephew – from Ur Kasdim to the land of Canaan. On the way, they stop in Haran and settle there, where Terah dies. Lech Lecha begins with Abram, Sarah and Lot in Haran, where 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.”
On the trip, while in Shechem, there is a famine, and Abram and his family travel to Egypt. Because Sarai is beautiful, Abram fears he will be killed so someone powerful can take her as a wife, so he tells Sarai to say she is his sister. Pharaoh is told of Sarai’s beauty, and he treats Abram well, but he takes Sarai to the palace. Because Pharaoh acted inappropriately, God punishes Pharaoh and his family and servants with a plague, and he comes to understand why he is being punished. Pharaoh becomes angry with Abram for lying about Sarai being his sister, and throws Abram and his family out of Egypt.
Abram and Lot both acquire many cattle and sheep, and it is difficult for all of them to live in the same pastures. Abram tells Lot to choose one part of the land in which to live, and Abram will live in another part. Lot decides to live in the valley of the Jordan River, near the city of Sodom.
There is a war in the Jordan valley, and Lot is captured. Abram takes 318 disciples, whom he has taught to worship God, and saves Lot. The king of Sodom offers Abram some of the spoils of war, but he refuses them, for fear that people will say the king of Sodom made Abram wealthy, instead of God.
God promises Abram he will inherit the land of Canaan. Abram asks for a sign, and God instructs Abram to cut three cows, three goats and three rams in half, and to arrange the pieces in two rows, together with a turtledove and a dove. This event is called the “Covenant of the Parts.” Abram then falls into a deep sleep. God says to Abram:
“Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own, they will serve them, and they will oppress them 400 years. But also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth. As for you, you shall come to your ancestors in peace, you shall be buried in a good old age. And the fourth generation shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite shall not yet be full until then.” (Genesis 15: 13-16)
Because Sarai is childless, she encourages Abram to take her maidservant, Hagar, as a wife, which Abram does, and Hagar bears a son, Ishmael.
God makes a covenant with Abram that he will be a father of a multitude of nations and changes Abram’s name to Abraham (taken from av hamon, “father of a multitude”). Abram and his male descendants are to seal this covenant by brit milah – circumcision – and he and Ishmael and all the men in his household are circumcised. God also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah (from “my princess” to “princess” because instead of being a princess of Abraham’s household, she became a princess of a multitude).
Those who know the stories of the Torah may have noticed some of the themes I mentioned at the beginning.
– God sends people on journeys.
– God tests the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.
– Often the journeys are intended to leave civilization so the people can become civilized.
– When there is a famine, people leave the land that was promised us by God that nourishes the spirit (Canaan) and go to a land where there is food for the body but not the spirit (Egypt).
– The Matriarchs have difficulty having children.
– The Patriarchs are very independent and want to partner with God, not kings who worship idols.
– God tells Abram that his descendants will be slaves in a foreign land but will be freed after 400 years.
– God changes people’s names in connection with great plans or accomplishments.
Be looking for these themes as we go through the rest of the Torah.