This week’s d’var Torah is in memory of my father-in-law, Milton Freedman (Mendel ben Sholom) whose jarhzeit is this weekend. He was the proud grandfather of many Scouts, including five Eagles.
This week, we read Parashat Lech Lecha, which tells us the story of the travels of Abraham and his wife, Sarah. (His name is Abram at the beginning of the parasha, and Sarah’s name is Sarai; God would change their names to Abraham and Sarah later.)
Abraham’s journeys begin when he leaves his home in Haran together with Sarah, and his nephew, Lot, to travel to Canaan. In Canaan, God promises to give the land to Abraham’s children.
There is famine in Canaan, and they move on to Egypt. Because Sarah is so beautiful, Abraham is afraid Pharaoh will kill him so Pharaoh can marry Sarah, so Abraham asks her to explain that she is Abraham’s sister. Pharaoh brings her to the palace, but his family suffers a plague, and Pharaoh realizes it is because of Sarah, so he returns her to Abraham and tells them to leave.
The family then moves to the plains of the Jordan River valley. Abraham and Lot decide to part, so that each will have room for their growing flocks of sheep. Lot chooses to stay in the plain, where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah lie. Abraham moves back to Canaan. There is a war among kings in the area and Lot is taken captive. Abraham leads his men into battle and rescues Lot.
God speaks to Abraham, who is childless, and again promises to give Abraham the land of Canaan. To mark this covenant, Abraham performs a ceremony in which he cuts several animals in half and walks between the parts, so it is called the Covenant Between the Parts. God also tells Abraham his children will be oppressed 400 years in a land not their own and then will leave it with great wealth.
Because Sarah is childless, she has Abraham marry her servant, Hagar, to provide an heir. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. God then tells Abraham that he and Sarah will have a child, and commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the men in his household, as a covenant with God.
Abraham undergoes these travels and trials in 24 years, from age 75 to 99. Quite an adventure for someone that age! What can his story mean for us?
The Torah uses very unusual language when God first speaks to Abraham, saying “lech lecha from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Genesis 12:1. The usual way to say this in Hebrew would be to use just the word “lech” meaning “go.” Instead, we have an additional word “lecha” which means “to you.” Why does the Torah use this extra word?
One answer is that while it looks like Abraham is going to make a long trip over land (from his birthplace in modern day Iraq to the Land of Israel), he really has to make a journey “to himself.” In order to do his duty to God, he has to do more than just leave his physical surroundings; he has to live up to his own potential for serving God. This means that even though he might move his home and his family from one end of the world to the other, he still has not fulfilled the commandment unless he makes a journey into himself, to understand his relationship to God.
The Torah’s historical stories help us learn about ourselves, the world and God. As we make our journeys in the world – “lech” – we also make a journey within ourselves to learn how to be good people and help others. In this way, we turn our physical lives into a spiritual journey and go to ourselves – “lech lecha.”