Lech Lecha לֶךְ לְךָ
By Zwi Reznik, November 9, 2019, 11 Heshvan 5780
I don’t recall the exact date, but sometime this month will be the 70th anniversary of my arrival in the United States. Along with my parents we arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on a converted merchant ship along with a large group of refugees from Italy. While the destination may have been uncertain Europe was clearly someplace to leave.
About forty years ago I read a book by Chaim Potok titled “Wanderings”, a history of the Jewish people. The title itself was intriguing in suggesting that our peoples’ history was one of being unsettled and restlessly moving on from place to place. Yet growth and transformation is achieved by that wandering. I also read Potok’s “My name is Asher Lev”. I recall the description of how young Asher would create an art work. He would mark a point on a surface, then draw a line and then, without any further description, the art work would be complete.
I was reminded of young Asher’s artistry a few months ago when I was having a conversation with one of my learned Library Minyan friends who was describing how she approached composing a Drash. The process involved an initial thought and then allowing one’s mind to wander from that thought. Productive wandering does not necessarily involve physically moving.
So, when I started thinking of doing a Drash again I remembered all of the above and I arrived at Lech Lecha.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־ אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־ לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־ הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ *
12:1 And the LORD said to Abram, **”Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you”.
Chapter 12 opens with a direct command from God to Abram, who we have only just met. Noach ended with just a brief mention of him. Most of us learned a midrash story about Abram which told of Abram, as a child, smashing his father’s idols, refusing to apologize and challenging his father as to why he would pray to such objects. Yet here in the Torah the first story of Abram occurs ten generations after Noah and we can only make inferences to his earlier life. God speaks directly to Abram with a clear command (lech) לֶךְ, i.e. GO. Go is the second person imperative form of the verb ללכת-to go. The following word לְךָ (lecha) is not really necessary for the verse to have a clear message. However, adding lecha can give the two word phrase an enhanced meaning. Literal translations could be “Go to you” or the similar “Go to yourself”. In other words you must GO to become what you are supposed to be and not remain as you are. A commonly cited saying of Rabbi Zushya of Hanipol, which I think relevant, states: “When I get to Heaven, they will not ask me, Zushya, why were you not Moses. They, will ask me, why were you not Zushya?” With this first verse we can understand that Abram has been selected to begin a transforming journey to become his true self, and as we’ll see later that transformation will be marked by a name change. And what of God’s purpose? By ten generations after Noach something different had to be done other than saving one family and wiping out everyone else. A transformation was needed that will result in a new people being formed. None of that could happen without Abram first removing himself from the environment which had formed him and in which he did not fit. After all, smashing idols does not endear one to the neighbors.
At the beginning of Chapter 12 Abram is living in Haran—identified as someplace in South Eastern Turkey. He had previously arrived there from Ur of the Chaldees, somewhere in modern Iraq, with his father, Terah, his barren wife Sarai and his nephew Lot. Promises are made to Abram by God if he does what he is told. Without any questions or discussions by Abram he leaves at the age of 75. Now his wanderings begin in earnest. He leaves Haran with his still barren wife, his nephew Lot, and everything they had including their slaves. They arrive at Shechem which is north of Beth-El. From there they move on to the Negeb and a famine occurs. In a bit of foreshadowing they move to Egypt.
In Egypt Abram is seen to be less than a righteous person in relation to his wife Sarai. Fearing for his life he tells Pharoah that Sarai is his sister rather than his wife. Pharoah takes her in and Abram starts doing real well. 12:16—”And it went well with Abram on her count, and he had sheep and cattle and donkeys and male and female slaves and she-asses and camels”. Then in another bit of foreshadowing Pharoah suffers plagues because of Sarai and he has them both, and all their property and escorted out of Egypt. As you might imagine there has been ample discussion of this incident. As an example consider the commentary of Robert Alter regarding this: “17. plagues. The nature of the afflictions is not spelled out. Rashi’s inference of a genital disorder preventing intercourse is not unreasonable. In that case, one might imagine a tense exchange between Pharaoh and Sarai ending in a confession by Sarai of her status as Abram’s wife. In the laconic narrative art of the Hebrew writer, this is left as a gap for us to fill in by an indeterminate compound of careful deduction and imaginative reconstruction.”
What is the point of this story? Abram’s words to Sarai are disappointing. 12:11-13” 11 And it happened as he drew near to the border of Egypt that he said to Sarai his wife, “Look, I know you are a beautiful woman, 12 and so when the Egyptians see you and say, ‘She is his wife,’ they will kill me while you they will let live. 13 Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well with me on your count and I shall stay alive because of you.” There are a number of places in Torah where research shows that the details of a particular story can be explained by cultural norms that were contemporaneous with the patriarchal period. Apparently there were societies at the presumed time of Abraham where the social status of a sister surpassed that of a man’s wife. While that reality may have been a foundation for this story and would not make Abram look so bad it is not relevant. What we have is the story of a Patriarch who is an imperfect human being. What we learn is of the possibility of improvement in the future.
After Egypt the family, including Lot, return to the Negeb and eventually Beth El. They separate amicably and Abram speaks to his family member Lot with kindness which differs from the fearful Abram we just saw in Egypt and Lot went on to 13:12”…set up his tent near Sodom”. Abram moves on eventually to Hebron and God continues to affirm his promises to Abram. There is a poignant note that can be appended to one of the promises. 13:16” And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth—could a man count the dust of the earth, so too, your seed might be counted”. Alter adds the note: The great Yiddish poet Yakov Glatstein wrote a bitter poem after the Nazi genocide which proposes that indeed the seed of Abraham has become like the dust of the earth
At the end of the chapter God advises Abram to 13-17 “Rise, walk about the land through its length and its breadth, for to you I will give it.” Apparently this is an ancient manner of acquiring title to a parcel of land. So Abram has been promised the land and in the next chapter we find him playing an integral part of the international affairs of that land.
Chapter 14 seems out of place in this Parsha. There is no interchange at all between God and Abram. It is a story of the invasion of four Mesopotamian kings to do battle with five Canaanite kings. One could romanticize this “epic” and refer to this as the Battle of the Nine Armies—similar to a phrase occurring in the Ring Trilogy by Tolkien. There is ample scholarship to indicate that this chapter is an adaptation of a much earlier story or type of story. In his commentary Alter notes that “The dating of the narrative is in dispute, but there are good arguments for its relative antiquity: at least four of the five invading kings have authentic Akkadian, Elamite, or Hittite names.”
The Mesopotamian invasion does not go well for the Canaanites. 14:10-11:” 10And the Valley of Siddim was riddled with bitumen(חמר) pits, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled there and leaped into them, while the rest fled to the high country. 11And the four kings took all the substance of Sodom and Gomorrah and all their food, and went off.”
The Mesopotamians looted Sodom and Gomorah, including their food, and also seized Lot and all his substance. Abram was informed of this 14:14: “14 And Abram heard that his kinsman was taken captive and he marshaled his retainers, natives of his household, three hundred and eighteen of them, and gave chase up to Dan”. (I think the movie version should be called “Abram and the Magnificent 318). So now we see Abram as action hero, assembling an army and attacks the Mesopotamian kings and their forces. He pursues them as far north as Damascus and rescues Lot and everyone else and all their substance. He is given a hero’s welcome by the Kings of Sodom and Salem (שלם)-now Jerusalem. The King of Sodom asks just for his people back and offers Abram everything else. Abram, in an act of magnanimity responds. 14-24: “Nothing for me but what the lads (נערים) have consumed. And as for the share of the men who came with me, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre, let them take their share.” (Note: Current usage defines נער as youth, adolescent, teenager etc. the term armsbearer also appears in my dictionary. These were not merely servants. They were trained soldiers). Once again, as in his dealings with Lot when they separated we see a new Abram. He seeks nothing for himself, only for the men who fought with him. Also, we see an Abram the Hebrew who is an integral part of the community of national groups in Canaan and appears to be the equal of their kings. I would conclude therefore that this portion of the Parsha, while clearly adapted from earlier sources, is an essential part of the story of Abram becoming Abraham.
Another new development in Abram’s character appears in Chapter 15. For the first time Abram engages God in conversation and actually complains about the lack of children. More conversations, and even argumentation, will be seen later.
I will stop my drash at this point. The story of Hagar and Ismael are deserving of their own drash.
*All Hebrew quotations are from Westminster Leningrad Codex. The Hebrew Tanak: Hebrew Bible Edition (Kindle Locations 699-701). Kindle Edition.
**All English Quotations are from Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.