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Torah Sparks

Parashat Lekh Lekha
October 27, 2012 – 11 Heshvan 5773

Annual: Gen. 12:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial: Gen. 16:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 86; Hertz p. 56)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16(Etz Hayim, p. 95; Hertz p. 60)

Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, Franklin Lakes, NJ

This Torah Sparks is sponsored by Beth El Synagogue New Rochelle, New York in honor of Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

With this parashah, the Torah shifts from the primordial history of the world to the particular experience of Israel. Abram and his wife Sarai become 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, following Abram's express instructions, she identifies herself not as his wife but his sister. Abram benefits materially from this deception, although God afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. A dismayed Pharaoh returns Sarai to her husband.

Abram, Sarai and Lot return to Beth El. In time, 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 goes to war, with an armed force of 318 troops at his command, to rescue him. Upon his victory and Lot's safe return, Abram exchanges diplomatic pleasantries with Melchizedek, but refuses material consideration or spoils of war - both to preclude political indebtedness and to emphasize the providence of God 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 offspring arrives with the birth of Ishmael. His mother is Hagar, Sarai's servant and "surrogate." The covenant of circumcision is prescribed. God changes His covenant partners' names to Abraham and Sarah, signifying their elect and elevated stature. When God assures him of the birth of a second son, to be named Isaac, who will become heir to the covenant, an aged Abraham laughs at the prospect of further fertility. 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 twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation." Abraham and Ishmael are circumcised, signifying their covenantal status and fealty, together with all the men (the servants) in Abraham's household.

Theme #1: "A Peace of My Mind"

"Abram said to Lot, ‘Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen.'" (Genesis 13:8)

Study: Derash

"Abraham, the source of Lot's good fortune, chooses not to pull rank. He suggests instead separating their families and magnanimously grants Lot first choice as to where he would like to settle: ‘If you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north.' When Lot grabs the most fertile land, Abraham still does not demur. At no point in this narrative does he assert authority to impose his will on his disrespectful and greedy nephew. For whatever reason, be it a desire to avoid conflict or because he is blinded by love, he refuses to resolve the dispute by force… what strikes me is the extraordinary display of restraint." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

"It is noteworthy that before Abram and Lot went their separate ways, the non- Israelite nations are described as simply ‘in' the land (see 12:6), while in 12:7 they seem to have become more established: they ‘dwell' in the land. From this we see that non-Israelites can establish roots in the Land of Israel only when Jews are divided by factionalism." (Chatam Sofer)

"Abraham said further that the strife between the herdsmen was worse than that between him and Lot in one respect: they did not speak arrogantly and harshly to each other as the herdsmen did… Neither derived any pleasure from hearing his kinsman mocked and derogated." (Netziv, Ha'amek Davar)

"Nothing hurts more than to see parents and children torn apart when normal family tensions are blown up into full family feuds. How are we ever going to love our neighbors if we can't even love our own families?" (Rabbi Bernard S. Raskas)

Questions for Discussion

What motivated Abraham's magnanimity, his "extraordinary display of restraint?" Love? Family loyalty? Was avoidable armed conflict simply inconsistent with his principles, his life's work? Did he find it distasteful or unacceptable to attack a weaker party… preferring the role of under-dog? What implications does this question hold for the modern State of Israel?

Rabbi Moses Schreiber (the Chatam Sofer) is famous for his absolutist stance against non-Orthodox innovations ("Anything new is forbidden by the Torah."). Is his statement about the deleterious effects of Jewish factionalism more applicable to religious dissenters and innovators… or to those who are intolerant of such progressive steps? Perhaps both? What are the social – and geo-political – consequences of Jewish factionalism today?

Abraham's indulgent treatment of his "disrespectful nephew" avoided armed conflict and bloodshed. Why did the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin) emphasize the avoidance of harsh words and hurtful rhetoric? To what spheres of activity in contemporary society are his concerns most relevant?

Why, at times, is the divine injunction to love our neighbors a simpler matter than avoiding conflicts within our own families? How might we learn from Abraham to manage and minimize these inevitable expressions of internal discord?

Theme #2: "Operation Desert Shield"

"Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. He said, ‘Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.'" (Genesis 15:1)

Study: Derash

"'Very great.' That is, eternal life. As they say, ‘These are the things whose fruits we eat in this world but whose full reward awaits us in the World to Come.' Among them is gemilut chasadim – acts of human kindness." (Sforno)

"I shielded you and saved you from the kings. So, too, I will reward you for your generosity of spirit in coming to the aid of your kinsman, despite your inferior numbers, relying on Me." (Ibn Ezra)

"YHWH's word came: A formula often used by the Prophets. Avram is portrayed as their spiritual ancestor." (Everett Fox)

"'The word of God came to Abram.' Of course you can't imagine such a thing as that the word of God should ever come to you? Is that because you are worse, or better, than Abram? – because you are a more, or less, civilized person than he? I leave you to answer that question for yourself; -- only as I have told you often before, but cannot repeat too often, find out first what the word is." (John Ruskin)

"I feel that the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more." (Earl Warren)

"Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward; it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me." (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Questions for Discussion

What was Abram's reward? Eternal life? God's continued protection? The power of prophecy? The assurance that he could continue his work? The ability – identified by Samuel Coleridge – to perceive goodness and beauty? Which of these "rewards" do you personally find most desirable?

For what was Abram rewarded? His kindness to strangers? His faith in God? His loyalty to family? Which of these virtues is most worthy of reward and recognition? To which do you most aspire… and to which would you most want to see children and grandchildren aspire?

In what ways is Abram the first among Israel's prophets? Which of his traits and actions make this designation difficult to accept? What life experiences does Abraham have in common with Moses or Hosea or Isaiah…? Abraham was, arguably, ancestor to Israel's prophets in the most literal sense; what does Professor Fox mean by the term "spiritual ancestor"?

Consider Ruskin's challenge: what is "the word of God"? How are we to "hear" or "learn" or "receive" that word today? Is our experience of God's word "more or less" sophisticated than Abraham's? "More or less" accurate? When have you experienced a sense of God's word… and how do we best prepare and open ourselves to that experience?

Historic Note

In Parashat Lekh Lekha, read on October 27, 2012, we read of Abraham's involvement in the War of the Four Kings against the Five, and of his subsequent diplomatic alliances with Melchizedek. On October 27, 1954, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower formally – and fatefully – offered aid to South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem. On October 27, 1978, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat were named recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize for their diplomatic breakthroughs.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The Covenant of Circumcision has its origin in Parashat Lech Lecha: "Every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days" (Genesis 17:12). While any time on the eighth day is acceptable, it is customary to perform the ritual as early in the day as possible, to demonstrate enthusiasm and eagerness for the observance (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 262:1). The circumcision (berit/bris) is not to be conducted at night; if it does occur at night, it is required that an additional drop of blood (hatafat dam berit) be drawn during the daytime (ibid., see Remah). Similarly, many rabbinic authorities, including Rabbi Isaac Klein (Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 425), require hatafat dam on the eighth day for a circumcision performed earlier than the stipulated time (See also Shach, Yoreh Deah 262:2). If the infant is too ill or weak to be circumcised on the eighth day, the procedure is postponed until seven days after he has recovered, as determined by a physician (Yoreh Deah 262:2). Such a delayed bris (unlike circumcision on the prescribed eighth day) may not take place on Shabbat or a Festival (Yoreh Deah 263:4, 266:10).

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