PARASHAT LEKH L'KHA
November 5, 2011 – 8 Heshvan 5772
Annual: Genesis 12:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 14:1 – 15:21 (Etz Hayim p. 77; Hertz p. 50)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16 (Etz Hayim p. 95; Hertz p. 60)
Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
With this parashah, the Torah shifts from the history of the world to the experience of
Israel. Abram and his wife Sarai are now the focal characters of the biblical text. God
calls upon Abram to leave the land of his origin, promising him a life of blessing and
greatness. Abram and Sarai leave Haran for Canaan, where God appears again to the
patriarch, reaffirming their covenantal bond and promising him the Land as his own.
Abram constructs an altar at Beth El, "calling on the Name of God." A famine in Canaan
impels Abram, Sarai, and Lot to travel to Egypt. Sarai is taken into Pharaoh's household
where, at Abram's express instructions, she identifies herself not as his wife but as his
sister. Abram benefits materially from this deception, although God afflicts Pharaoh and
his household with plagues. Dismayed, Pharaoh returns Sarai to her husband, and the two
them, along with Lot, return to Beth El.
A conflict develops between Lot and Abram. The two kinsmen go their separate ways at
Abram's suggestion. God renews his covenant with Abram, promising him the land in
perpetuity and a legacy of innumerable descendants. Despite the earlier falling out with
Lot, Abram takes an armed force of 318 troops to rescue his nephew, who has been taken
captive in a conflict pitting four kings against five others. Upon his victory and Lot's safe
return, Abram exchanges diplomatic pleasantries with Melchizedek, but refuses material
consideration or any spoils of war, both to preclude political indebtedness and to
emphasize God's providence in securing his success.
God's repeated promises of blessing, land, and progeny are followed by the dramatic
"covenant between the pieces." Abram's long-awaited son is born – Ishmael, born to
Hagar, Sarai's servant and surrogate. The covenant of circumcision is prescribed. God
changes His covenant partners' names to Abraham and Sarah, signifying their elevated
stature and chosenness.
When God assures him of the birth of a second son, to be named Isaac and to serve as
heir to the covenant, the elderly Abraham laughs at the idea. In response to Abraham's
paternal concern - "Oh that Ishmael might live by Your favor!" - God bestows a blessing
on Abraham's firstborn: "He shall be the father of 12 chieftains, and I will make of him a
great nation." Abraham and Ishmael are circumcised, signifying their covenantal status
and fealty, and so are all the men in Abraham's household.
Theme #1: "Footing the Bill"
"Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the people, and take the possessions
for yourself.' But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High,
Creator of Heaven and Earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of
what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.'" (Genesis 14:21-23)
"Let us understand the message Abraham wanted to convey to the king of Sodom. He
was not claiming that he had no desire to be wealthy, as people sometimes say when
rejecting gifts on the grounds that wealth is harmful. To the contrary, Abraham
recognized the proper use of wealth, but did not want to receive his wealth from the king
of Sodom, who would boast that he enriched him, but rather from God, who had
promised to do so." (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)
"Abraham, true to nomadic tradition, does not wish to be beholden to anyone. Besides, as
a trader, he need not rely on plunder as a source of income. It is also possible that his
briskness signifies some contempt for the king of Sodom." (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The
Torah: A Modern Commentary)
"Abraham kept himself far away from the ease and comfort which appealed to his
nephew, Lot. Abraham struck out for a place which would challenge his creative
potential. The choice which Abraham made all of us have to make somewhere along
life's highway. The alternative is Sodom." (Rabbi Frederick C. Schwartz)
"Abraham is clearly the hero of this story. His military victory has brought him honor and
respect. But the focus of the story is not on Abraham's martial prowess but on his skill as
a diplomat and peacemaker. It is in Abraham's responses to the challenges of war and
peace, that we see the framework for a Jewish understanding of war. There are times
when war cannot be avoided. Abraham enters the conflict only after Lot's capture to
rescue his nephew. There are times when we need to go war to defend ourselves and
protect our families. One should not enrich oneself through warfare. The conventions of
his day allowed Abraham to keep the riches he seized from the defeated invaders.
Abraham, however, wisely refused all riches. He did not take advantage of his neighbors'
weakness to enrich himself and plant the seeds for future conflicts. Abraham
demonstrated that one needs to be magnanimous in victory. Wisdom often dictates that
one should not keep all that one has conquered." (Rabbi Lewis Eron)
Questions for Discussion
How do Abraham's participation in war and his behavior thereafter make him an
especially apt model for contemporary Jews?
It is no coincidence, as Rabbi Schwartz demonstrates, that the spoils of war that Abraham
declined were offered by the king of Sodom – a city state associated with moral
corruption and xenophobia. Would Abraham have acted any differently if a less
unseemly ally had sought to enrich him, as Rabbi Plaut seems to suggest? What are the
dangers inherent in entering into alliances with despotic leaders and corrupt regimes?
What are the moral justifications for such alliances?
What motivated Abraham to decline wealth to which arguably he was entitled? Strategic
foresight? Nomadic tradition? Faith in God? A lack of material ambition? More attractive
What would Rabbi Feinstein say to the possibility that the king of Sodom was God's
providential agent for providing Abraham with his promised wealth?
Theme #2: "Operation Over Lord"
"God said further to Abraham, ‘As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout
the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and
your offspring to follow that you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised.
You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the sign of the covenant
between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be
circumcised at the age of eight days.'" (Genesis 17:9-12)
"The significance of the eighth day is illuminated by a singular prohibition in Leviticus:
‘When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall stay with its mother, and from the eighth
day on it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Lord.' Similarly, circumcision is
delayed to the eighth day, as if to say that is the very first time when the male child may
symbolically be dedicated to the service of God. The rite is a pledge of fealty and the
mark is a lifelong external sign of apartness. Male Jews spend the rest of their lives
moving from fate to faith, turning ‘the covenant in the flesh (berit milah)' into a
testimonial of spiritual nobility." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)
"Jews should be proud of how different we are. In an era of unprecedented individualism
and hedonism, Jews declare that community is critical, even for an eight-day-old baby.
We take pride in a ritual that affirms that sexual desire is not meant to be left
unrestrained, but must be shaped by values of fidelity and devotion. When others seek
endless comfort, we are willing to say that doing the right thing might be painful, but it's
still worthwhile." (Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz)"Berit milah is our classic ceremonial
acknowledgment that we, descendants of Abraham, consider ourselves a community set
apart from all others and set aside in covenant with God. That is the story we have always
told, and continue to tell, about ourselves. To assert our sense of particular Jewish
identity as Jews is therefore in and of itself a mitzvah of the first rank. And of all the
ritual practices by which we have historically made that declaration, none is more
physical, more visceral, or more tangible than berit milah. In an era when the forces of
cultural assimilation pose such a daunting challenge to our continued existence as a
distinct people, this admittedly ancient tribal custom bears a message that we do well to
hear." (Rabbi Mark Washofsky)
"God's promises demand an active response from their recipients. Circumcision is both a
token of God's covenant and a symbol of the Jew's consecration and commitment to a
life lived in the consciousness of that covenant. The law of circumcision is the first
mitzvah in the Torah that is specifically directed to Abraham and his descendants."
(Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
"As long as Israel observes the practice of circumcision, heaven and earth will go on their
appointed courses, but if Israel neglects the covenant, heaven and earth are disturbed."
Questions for Discussion
Chancellor Ismar Schorsch calls upon us to spend our lives "moving from fate to faith" –
infusing religious forms with meaning and belief, transcending the accident of birth by
which we become Jews. Of the various "meanings" proffered for the practice of
circumcision, which should be emphasized as a tenet of faith? Which is the most
compelling response to detractors and critics of infant circumcision – as in the current
controversy in San Francisco? What is the most compelling response to Jewish parents
who are ambivalent about this observance?
If the symbolic significance of ritual circumcision is widely acknowledged and
understood, why does the ritual itself remain necessary? That is, why do we need the
form if we already embrace the message?
The sources provided above represent a wide spectrum of the Jewish community: Reform
(Washofsky), Orthodox (Steinmetz), and Conservative (Schorsch). On what points do
these diverse religious authorities seem to agree? What unique insight does each offer?
How are we to understand the Zohar's assertion that fidelity to the practice of
circumcision has cosmic implications? What consequences hang in the balance in regard
to this mitzvah?
Commenting on its long history and the religious emphasis placed on ritual circumcision, Rabbi
Ismar Schorsch has observed: "The challenge of our egalitarian age is to shape a worthy initiation
rite for our newborn daughters." Brit milah is in fact quite egalitarian, however, to the extent that
women have long been permitted to perform the ritual procedure – at least in part based on the
Biblical precedent of Tzipporah (see Exodus 4:25; see also Talmud Avodah Zarah 27A).
Maimonides (Hilchot Milah 2:1 ) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 264:1) both codify the
principle that a woman may serve as a mohelet. Though permissible in theory, women serving as
mohalot has become common in practice only in the past 25 years or so. A moving historic
account of a woman circumcising her son, with at least one rabbi in attendance (and who survived
to recount the incident with emphatic approval), is included in Yaffa Eliach's Tales of the
Holocaust (p. 151).
Read on November 5, 2011, Parashat Lech Lecha portrays Abraham as both warrior and
diplomat. The patriarch travels to Egypt, where he interacts with Pharaoh, the despotic leader of a
nation with which, Abraham is told, Israel's history long will be intertwined. Abraham is also the
covenant partner whom God promises "To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of
Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates." On November 5, 1956, the Israel Defense Force captured
Sharm el Sheikh from Egypt during the Sinai campaign. The city on the coast of the Red Sea was
returned to Egypt the following year. Israeli forces retook the city during the Six Day War, in one
of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of that conflict. Despite established Israeli policy pledging to
retain the city, amid painful national recriminations Sharm el Sheikh was returned to Egypt in
1982, as part of an unprecedented peace treaty. During the 15 years Israel held Sharm el Sheikh,
the area, which is celebrated in popular song and plays a particularly emotional role in the
national psyche, was transformed into an international resort destination.