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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT LEKH LEKHA
October 20, 2007 – 8 Heshvan 5768

Annual: Genesis 12:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 12:1 – 13:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 95; Hertz p. 60)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

For reasons we are not told, God chooses Abram and tells him, leave your home and your father’s house and go to the land I will show you, where I will make you a great nation and bless you. Abram, his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot travel from Haran to Canaan. After some time, a famine causes Abram and his family to travel to Egypt, where Abram claims that Sarai is his sister, so that she is taken into Pharaoh’s harem. God intervenes, protects Sarai, and Pharaoh sends Abram and Sarai away. When they return to Canaan with much wealth, Abram allows Lot to choose the best grazing land for his own herds, and Lot settles near Sodom. Lot is captured during a war between five rebel kings and a coalition of four other kings. Abram assembles an army and goes into battle to rescue his nephew and the other captives. Later, God once again appears to Abram, who questions the value of God’s promise of the land because he is childless. God promises Abram that he will have offspring and instructs Abram to perform a ceremony affirming this covenant. Sarai gives her servant Hagar to Abram as a concubine and Hagar becomes the mother of Abram’s son Ishmael. When Abram is 99 years old, God gives Abram and Sarai the new names Abraham and Sarah and instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household.

1. To Be A Blessing

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. (Beresheit 12:2)

  1. In the previous parashah, dealing with Noah, the Torah begins by praising him as a righteous and perfect man. Why then doesn’t the Torah begin its account of Abraham here by praising him as a righteous and God-fearing man? The reason is that if it had, the text would have implied that the reason that Abraham had been chosen by God was because of that fact. Then, if at some time in the future the Jews would not be worthy of being God’s choice, it would, Heaven forbid, mean that the Jews no longer would be the Chosen People... Thus, by not mentioning praise of Abraham’s righteousness at this point, the Torah teaches us that God’s choice of him was for His own reasons, and that this choice will never be annulled. (Maharal [Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 1525-1609, Prague])
  2. I the Lord in My grace have summoned you, and I have grasped you by the hand. I created you and appointed you a covenant people, a light of nations. (Isaiah 42:6)
  3. The text does not read v’hayita b’rakha (you will be a blessing) but ve’yei b’rakha (you, become a blessing). These two Hebrew words subsume all the phases of the moral mission upon whose fulfillment the fulfillment of God’s own wish depends: “I wish to make your name great; therefore, you, become a blessing. I wish to make of you a nation to which the other nations need only look in order to become aware of their own task. And the task which you are to fulfill, as distinct from all the other national aspirations, is to become ‘a blessing.’” (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1808-1888, Germany)
  4. We learn to drive, to swim, to throw a football, or to play the piano not by reading a book about how to do it, but by watching people do it correctly and trying to imitate them... The Jewish people were [chosen by God] to be a “pilot project,” a demonstration community. God would give them explicit instructions about how to carry on the God-centered life. If they did it... they would bring the other peoples of the world to see how satisfying it is to live that way. (Rabbi Harold Kushner, "To Life")

Sparks for Discussion

The notion of chosenness makes many contemporary Jews uncomfortable. It seems arrogant, perhaps even racist, as if to say that Jews are innately superior to non-Jews or that God likes us best. Obviously, the Torah teaches that God chose Abraham, and through him the Jewish people, but it also teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God. Rabbi Hirsch points out that God did not tell Abraham “you will be a blessing,” a statement about Abraham’s essence, but “you, become a blessing,” a statement about Abraham’s mission.

What does it mean to say that the Jews are God’s chosen people? What, if anything, does it tell us about all the other peoples/nations/religions of the world? Is God’s choice like a race, in which one person wins and everyone else loses, or is it like a baseball team, where one person plays first base, another pitches, another plays center field, and winning depends on each one playing his own position to the best of his ability? How do you understand the Torah blessing “who has chosen us from among all people and given us His Torah”?

2. Neighborhood Watch

And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle... Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: If you go north, I will go south; if you go south, I will go north.” Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it... So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan... Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Lord. (Beresheit 13:7-13)

  1. Lot found [Abraham’s] argument quite rational, he seems to have been waiting only for some such opportunity. Wandering in inhospitable regions could not have appealed to a man like him. What he wanted was a rich luxurious district, protected against famine and scarcity, and that he found. “Lot looked about him [literally, lifted up his eyes],” he let himself be guided, undeterred by any consideration which would affect an Abraham, simply by what appealed to his sensuous eyes. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch)
  2. He who keeps company with the wise becomes wise, but he who consorts with dullards comes to grief. (Proverbs 13:20) A parable: When a man walks into a spice vendor’s shop, even if he sells nothing to the vendor or buys nothing from him, nevertheless, when he leaves, his person and his garments exude a fragrant aroma. And the fragrance will not leave him the entire day. When a man walks into a tanner’s shop, even if he sells him nothing or buys nothing from him, nevertheless, when the man leaves, his person and his garments reek with stench. And the vile odor from his person and his garments will not leave him the entire day. (Midrash Mishlei 13:20)
  3. Rabbi Nehorai taught: Uproot yourself to live in a community where Torah is studied; do not delude yourself that the Torah will come to you. Only with colleagues can your studies be fortified. Do not rely on your own understanding. (Avot 4:18)
  4. May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, to protect me this day and every day from insolence in others and from arrogance in myself. Save me from vicious people, from evil neighbors, andfrom corrupt companions. (Siddur Sim Shalom, Birkhot HaShahar)

Sparks for Discussion

We think of peer pressure in connection with teen-agers who engage in foolish and even self-destructive behavior to fit in with their friends or to emulate the “cool kids.” However, adults are not immune to influence by the people around them. Lot chose to settle on the most fertile land, ignoring the fact that it placed him among the wicked inhabitants of Sodom. And even though Lot was saved from the destruction of the evil city, he and his family were still destroyed.

Can you think of a case in which someone who believed he could simply ignore the negative behavior around him and go about his business was influenced by his environment? How powerful is the argument “but everybody else is doing it”? Does the behavior of community and neighbors influence people for good as well as for evil? How would you handle the choice that faced Lot – more wealth with unsavory neighbors or less wealth with upright neighbors? What if you could increase your income substantially by moving to a community with few or no Jewish residents, would that be a move worth making? How might it impact your religious life?

Can you think of a case in which someone who believed he could simply ignore the negative behavior around him and go about his business was influenced by his environment? How powerful is the argument “but everybody else is doing it”? Does the behavior of community and neighbors influence people for good as well as for evil? How would you handle the choice that faced Lot – more wealth with unsavory neighbors or less wealth with upright neighbors? What if you could increase your income substantially by moving to a community with few or no Jewish residents, would that be a move worth making? How might it impact your religious life?


 
 
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