Parashat Lekh Lekha
October 5, 2013 – 8 Heshvan 5774
Annual (Genesis 12:1-17:27): Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45
Triennial (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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina
God commands Abram to move his family to Canaan, promising him progeny and blessing. Shortly after arriving, a famine forces them to go farther south to Egypt. There, Abram’s wife Sarai is taken by the Pharaoh, who is told that she is Abram’s sister. When the truth is revealed, Abram and Sarai are allowed to return to Canaan with great wealth in hand.
Abram separates himself from his nephew Lot after there is tension among their respective servants. But later, when Lot is captured in battle, Abram organizes his rescue and defeats his captors.
Abram fears that he will die childless, but God promises that his descendants will be great and numerous. But when Sarai appears to be barren, she asks her husband to procreate with her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. Hagar becomes pregnant, then runs away after Sarai treats her cruelly. God convinces Hagar to return to the household, where she gives birth to a son, Ishmael.
God commands Abram to circumcise both himself and Ishmael as a sign of God’s covenant. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah.
Theme #1: Shalom Bayit?
There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.” If the Egyptians see you, and think, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (Genesis 12:10-13)
Before we know much about Abram's relationship with God, we learn how we navigates delicate situations with family and foreigners alike. As savvy as he is bright, Abram makes decisions that lead him to prosperity.
On the one hand, Abram’s first recorded words to Sarai are complimentary (Genesis 12:11); on the other, one might wonder why he does not explicitly consult with her about leaving Ur or Haran. On the one hand, Abram asks Sarai to help him; on the other, his concern is with his own safety: “so that it will go well with me” (Genesis 12:13). Sarai’s response goes unrecorded. (Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible)
R. Helbo said: One must always observe the honor due to his wife, because blessings rest on a man's home only on account of his wife, for it is written, "And he treated Abram well for her sake" (Genesis 12:16). (BT Bava Metzia 59a)
Until Abraham made his way into the wider world, the Holy One was, if one dare say such a thing, sovereign only in heaven, for in referring to his earlier years, Abraham said, “The Lord, God of heaven, who took me from my father’s house” (Genesis 24:7). But after Abraham made his way into the wider world, he was able to declare Him sovereignty over both heaven and earth, as when Abraham said to Eliezer, “I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth” (Genesis 24:3). (Sifrei Deuteronomy #313)
Questions for Discussion:
Knight and Levine claim that flattery gets Abram everywhere in the case of Sarai, even when he doesn't speak of his concern for her welfare. Even though one could argue that Abram's compliments sound phony, the fact that Pharaoh is also attracted to Sarai indicates that Abram is not lying to his wife. Is it unusual to be moved to do something because of a compliment? If so, does that make us feel, later on, that we were tricked, or was the other person’s complimenting genuine? Does Abram's plan seem more sly than smart?
The Talmud says that Abram is treated well only because of Pharaoh's affection for Sarai. This indicates that Sarai is indeed Abram's “better half.” But is it fair for how someone is treated to be based solely on the behavior of another family member? Or does Rabbi Helbo suggest that we should act righteously in order to reflect well on the people closest to us? Is it significant that the first time we learn of the merits of someone in Abram's family, it is Sarai who is praised?
Sifrei Deuteronomy ponders that God's sovereignty on Earth begins only after Abram interacts with people outside his family. This seems to suggest, that God’s merit mirrors that of Abram, as if God is dependent on Abram making a mark on the world. Must we be dependent on another person when we choose to expand our personal horizons? Must we be dependent on others to lead the way? Can personal growth take place in tandem with that of someone else? To what extent are God and Abram partners in the establishment of the Jewish people, and to what extent does one lead the other?
Theme #2: Co-Existence
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; and 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—this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt. So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus they parted from each other; Abram remained in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled in the cities of the Plain, pitching his tents near Sodom. (Genesis 13:8-12)
It always seems like Abram is wary of his nephew Lot. Even when he defends and protects him, one gets the sense that he is always keeping him at arm’s length. After returning from Egypt, Abram and Lot -- both very wealthy -- must deal with a quarrel between each other’s servants. Abram offers Lot first choice of land to settle.
Rabbi Berekhiah said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Simon: Abraham’s cattle used to go out muzzled, but Lot’s cattle did not go out muzzled. When Abraham’s herdsmen asked, “Since when is robbery permitted?” Lot’s herdsmen replied, “You know that the Holy One said to Abraham: ‘Unto your seed have I given this land’ [Genesis 24:7]. But Abraham is a barren mule and cannot beget children. Soon he will die and his nephew Lot will be his heir. So if these cattle eat outside of Lot’s field, it is their own that they eat.” The Holy One then said to Lot’s herdsmen: I did, to be sure, tell Abraham, “Unto your seed have given this land.” When? After the seven nations are uprooted from it. But now “the Canaanite and the Perizzite still dwell in the land” (Genesis 13:7). Up to now, the right to the land had been granted them.” (Genesis Rabbah 41:5)
“[Abraham said to Lot,] separate yourself, I pray you, from me” (Genesis 13:9). Abraham was a man of tolerance and loving-kindness who invited even heathens into his home and gave them food and drink. However, when he saw Lot, his own kinsman, stray from the right path and draw near to the corruption of Sodom, he cried out to him, “Separate yourself, I pray you, from me.” This teaches us that loving-kindness and love of man on the one hand, and loyalty to Judaism and the desire to keep aloof from evil on the other, should not be considered mutually exclusive. (Avnei Ezel)
In selecting for himself choice grazing land, Lot observed that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered “all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 13:10) The sequence of the thought, however, is interrupted by the remark, “this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.” At the end of the narrative another note has been appended, to the effect that “the inhabitants of Sodom were very wicked sinners against the Lord (Genesis 13:13). It hardly requires much imagination to see that both observations are preparatory to the events of Chapters 18 and 19 [when the cities are destroyed]. (Nahum Sarna, Studies in Biblical Interpretation)
Questions for Discussion:
Genesis Rabbah suggests that Lot’s herdsmen are dismissive of Abram, thinking that they will live long after Abram does and receive Abram’s inheritance -- and, therefore they feel free to as they please. Does the bad attitude of these men allow us to be less sympathetic to the eventual sad fate that meets Lot and his family? Does this story make Lot less likeable? These men believe that Abram will never father children. Does that make Abram seem like an underdog and, therefore, more likeable?
Avnei Ezel assumes Abram understands that Lot follows the influence of the wrong people, so he chooses to distance himself from Lot, though Abram is comfortable being around idolaters from other nations. Are there circumstances when one’s religious values must have more priority than staying close to family? Or is family worth preserving even at a cost to our personal faith and practice?
Sarna reminds us that Lot’s choice of land is based on its fertility, not on the quality of people who live close to it. Is it possible for us to live ethically while surrounded by moral corruption – or is that only Noah? Is it worthwhile to be close to those who make bad choices if our surroundings benefit us in other ways, such as economically? If real-estate prices are truly determined by “location, location, location,” does the worth of our souls come down to the same factors?