Story line (narrative):
God tells Abram (name not changed to Abraham yet) to leave the land he knows best go forth to a land that He will show him
On blind faith Abram leaves everything behind and takes his family (including his nephew Lot) and follows God’s instructions. He settles in Canaan, which today is the land of Israel, and is the land promised by God to Abram.
God makes a covenant with Abram and is further promised to be the father of a great nation.
A famine strikes and Abram guides his family to Egypt.
Pharoah takes a liking to Sarai and Abram instructs her to tell Pharoah that she is Abram’s sister.
Abram grows rich in Egypt.
A plague afflicts the palace, Pharoah discovers that Sarai is actually Abram’s wife and banishes them both.
They return to Canaan – Lot and Avram’s herdsmen quarrel and Lot goes to Sodom and Gemorrah.
War breaks out and Avram goes and frees Lot and his family.
Sarai gives Avram her handmaid Hagar to bear him a child. Hagar has Ishmael. Sarai becomes jealous and treats Hagar harshly. Hagar runs away but an angel of God convinces her to return.
God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah
God introduces circumcision of every male at 8 days old as a sign of his covenant with man. Abraham circumsizes his entire household.
God promises Abraham and Sarah a son.
Lech Lecha is where our journey as Jews really begins; it starts in an idol shop in Harran owned by a man named Terach who had a son called Abram. “God said to Abraham, Go from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house to a land I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). This is the boldest beginning of any account of a life in the Hebrew Bible. It seems to come from nowhere. The Torah gives us no portrait of Abraham’s childhood, his youth, his relationship with the other members of his family, how he came to marry Sarah, or the qualities of character that made God single him out to become the initiator of what ultimately turned out to be the greatest revolution in the religious history of humankind, what is called nowadays Abrahamic monotheism.
It was this biblical silence that led to the midrashic tradition. As children we learned that Abraham broke the idols in his father’s house. This is Abraham the Revolutionary, the radical, the man of new beginnings who overturned everything his father stood for.
Perhaps it is only as we grow older that we are able to go back and read the story again, and realise the significance of the passage at the end of the previous parsha. At the very end of Noah it says this: “Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Harran, they settled there” (Gen. 11:31).
It turns out, in other words, that Abraham left his father’s house long after he had left his land and his birthplace. His birthplace was in Ur, in what is today southern Iraq, but he only separated from his father in Harran, in what is now northern Syria. Terach, Abraham’s father, accompanied him for the first half of his journey. He went with his son at least part of the way.
So what actually happened? Well, according to Rabbi Sachs, there are two possibilities. The first is that Abraham received his call in Ur. His father Terach then agreed to go with him, intending to accompany him to the land of Canaan, though he did not complete the journey, perhaps because of age. The second is that the call came to Abraham in Harran, in which case his father had already begun the journey on his own initiative by leaving Ur. Either way, the break between Abraham and his father was far less dramatic than we first thought.
The Ramban quotes Rashi – Abraham left Ur long before he received the commandment of Lech Lecha. Rashi rearranges the order of the verse of Lech Lecha. Even though Avraham already left Ur his native land and ancestral home established in Charan, he was told to go even further away from his father’s home that was newly established in Charan. According to Rashi, Terach left Ur voluntarily. Avraham's further migration came later.
Ibn Ezra disagrees with Rashi. According to him the command to leave Ur was given to Avraham before he left Ur. The opening verses of Lech Lecha should be inserted before the verse at the end of Parshas Noach. That way, Parsha Lech Lecha would begin with Avraham leaving Charan and going to Canaan.
The arguments between the sages prove that there are many ways of interpreting the story. Rabbi Sachs goes one better – he tells us that the story is deliberately written to be understood at different levels at different stages in our moral growth. There is a surface narrative. But there is also, often, a deeper story that we only come to notice and understand when we have reached a certain level of maturity.
He writes, “When we are young we hear the enchanting – indeed empowering – story of Abraham breaking his father’s idols, with its message that a child can sometimes be right and a parent wrong, especially when it comes to spirituality and faith. Only much later in life do we hear the far deeper truth – hidden in the guise of a simple genealogy at the end of the previous parsha – that Abraham was actually completing a journey his father began.”
There is a line in the book of Joshua (24:2) – we read it as part of the Haggadah during our Seders – that says “In the past your ancestors lived beyond the Euphrates River, including Terach the father of Abraham and Nahor. They worshiped other gods.” So there was idolatry in Abraham’s family background. But Genesis 11 says that it was Terach who took Abraham, not Abraham who took Terach, from Ur to go to the land of Canaan. There was no immediate and radical break between father and son.
So let’s look at Abraham from the perspective of his accepting G-d’s instructions to Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha is usually translated as “Get Thee Out” – from your country and your birthplace and your father’s house – but it literally means, “go to yourself.” Going has the connotation in Torah of moving towards one’s ultimate purpose – of service towards one’s Creator. And this is strongly hinted at by the phrase, “Go to yourself”- meaning, towards your soul’s essence and your ultimate purpose, that for which you were created.
This was the command given to Abraham, and the first part of the narrative bears this out. For he was told to leave his heathen background and go to Israel. And within Israel he was “going and journeying to the South, “that is, towards Jerusalem. He was moving progressively towards an ever-increasing degree of holiness. But then we suddenly find: “And there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt.” Why this sudden reversal of his spiritual journey, especially as the whole parsha, as testified by its name Lech Lecha, is supposed to contain an account of Abraham’s continual progress towards his spiritual fulfillment?
That it was a reversal seems clear. To go to Egypt was itself a spiritual descent – as the verse explicitly says, “And Abram went down to Egypt.” And the cause of his journey – “and there was a famine in the land” – also seems like the deliberate concealment of G-d’s blessing. The more so as G-d promised Abraham, “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.” Is it not strange that when he reached the land that G-d had shown him, a famine forced him to leave?
A possible answer is that this was one of the trials which Abraham had to face to prove himself worthy of his mission (and the Midrash tells us when faced with this inexplicable hardship Abraham “was not angry and did not complain”).
But this doesn’t really answer the question. For Abraham’s mission was not simply a personal one – it was his task to spread G-d’s name and gather adherents to His faith. So an explanation of his descent in terms of a personal pilgrimage will not do justice to the difficulty. Especially since its immediate effect was to endanger Abraham’s mission. It could not help the work of spreading G-d’s name for the arrival of a man of G-d to be followed by a bad omen of a national famine.
Worse is to follow, for when Abraham entered Egypt, Sarah, his wife, was taken by Pharaoh by force. So how in the face of so many contrary indications can it be that the whole story of Lech Lecha is – as its name would seem to imply - one of Abraham’s continual ascent towards his destiny?
We can work towards a resolution of these difficulties by understanding the inner meaning of the famous dictum “Maaseh avot siman l’banim.” (מעשה אבות סימן לבנים) - “The actions of the parents is a sign for the children.”
This does not mean simply that the fate of the parents is mirrored in the fate of their children. But more strongly, that what they do brings about what happens to their children. I will repeat that. What they do brings about what happens to their children.
This is a principle that you must understand throughout all the upcoming stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a great concept that our rabbis articulated in brief language.
Everything that happens to the parents is a sign for the children.
So when the Torah goes on and on with the stories of the journeys they took, or the wells they dug, or the other events of their lives, one will think these are unnecessary details, which have no meaning. But all of them are meant to teach us about the future. For when something happens to one of the three forefathers, we can understand from it that something has been decreed upon his offspring.
“The actions of the parents is a sign for the children.” But what does that mean, ‘a sign’? Is it just that we tend to replay the patterns set by our families? That much any psychologist will tell you is true.
The great commentator Nachmanides elaborates: that in the case of Abraham, those patterns are set not just behaviorally, culturally, or psychologically - but metaphysically. Whatever he did somehow shaped the very contours of reality, so that everyone who came after him was destined to retrace the arc of his journey.
Now, whether or not you believe that, it certainly does a good job of accounting for the way some of the narrative themes that run through Exodus seem to be seeded in this week’s parsha. Look at how much is foretold, for example, in just a few lines from Chapters 12 and 13:
Ch. 12, Verse 10: “There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt…”
Just as another famine later compels Jacob’s sons to journey down to Egypt to find sustenance. (Gen. 42)
Verse 14: “When Avram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very beautiful [Sarai] was…and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s palace.”
Just as Joseph - whose sojourn in Egypt is the first step in the descent of the rest of the Children of Israel - becomes an object of sexual desire as soon as he arrives, and is consequently imprisoned in the house of Pharaoh’s. (Gen. 39)
Verse 17: “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his household with many plagues on account of Sarai, the wife of Avram…”
Just as the Lord will famously bring the Ten Plagues upon Egypt to liberate the Israelites, concluding with one that afflicts Pharaoh’s own household. (Ex. 7-12)
Verse 20: “And Pharaoh sent him off with his wife…”
Just as the Pharaoh in Exodus will eventually relent and send out all of the Israelites. (Ex. 14)
Ch 13, Verse 2: “Now Avram was weighed down by riches, in cattle, silver and gold..”
Just as the Israelites left Egypt with riches of silver and gold. (Ex. 11)
All of this major foreshadowing, in just the course of 12 lines! It’s pretty remarkable. “The actions of the parents,” indeed…
Except for one thing. In the midst of those 12 lines, there is one major detail that I didn’t mention, and it’s a pretty strange one. Check out verses 11-13:
As [Avram] was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, so that things go well for me, and I remain alive because of you.
What?!? Abraham asked Sarah to lie?! And, even worse - it was just to save his own hide?! First of all, this doesn’t fit the pattern of historical foreshadowing. There’s no real parallel to this in the Exodus story (although Abraham himself repeats this charade once more later on, as does his son Isaac.)
But more importantly, what kind of role model is this?! How could the great patriarch, the founder of our faith, do what seems like such a shifty, cowardly thing? This isn’t the action of a guy whose footsteps I’d want to follow.
The commentators struggle to come up with answers. Maybe they were close enough relatives, that it was as if she was his sister, and he wasn’t really lying? Maybe it’s just acceptable to lie to save your life? Okay, fine. But none of these answers really addresses the real problem: that he put his wife in real danger!!
To deal with that, we have to turn back again to Nachmanides, who gives a raw, no-holds-barred interpretation.
Know that Abraham sinned a great sin, by mistake! For he brought his righteous wife into the threat of violation because he was afraid that they would kill him. He should have trusted that the Lord would save him and his wife and all he had, for God has the power to help and to save.
You hear that? Abraham sinned!!! And he sinned because he was scared!! He risked his wife’s honour and safety because he was afraid for his life. What a devastating condemnation of the great founder of western religion.
Well, all I can say is that I guess we’re lucky that this “action” was the one that wouldn’t be replayed throughout the generations.
But not so fast. It’s true, after one generation goes by, there seems to be no echo of this particular scene in the Exodus story - no shoving those we love into danger in order to save ourselves. But what about the other thing Nachmanides says? What about Abraham’s motivation?
He was afraid. He should have trusted the Lord.
In other words, Abraham, the father of our faith, struggled with doubt. And that - that struggle is a scene that his children have indeed been reenacting ever since.
From the moment Moses is called upon to lead them out of Egypt, he worries, “they will not believe.“ And again and again, through the long journey in the desert, that is exactly what happens. At every hint of danger, whenever food is scarce, they lose faith. Even after God has saved them from slavery, even after the revelation on Mount Sinai, they lose faith so quickly it seems as if they never had it to begin with. And when the journey has ended, and Moses is reflecting back on everything they’ve been through, he says, as if realizing he was right to begin with:
The Lord your God goes before you. He will fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your very eyes. And in the wilderness, where you saw how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his child, all the way that you have traveled until you came to this place.
Yet for all that, you have no faith in the Lord your God… (Deut. 1:30-32)
They struggled with faith. And thousands of years later, we still struggle with faith.
Because faith is hard. And fear is overwhelming. Even for our Father Abraham.
So as long as we continue to walk the path of his faith, it seems we are also destined to doubt.
Now back to the story.
Abraham’s journey down to Egypt foreshadows the future Egyptian exile. “And Abram went up out of Egypt” foreshadows the Israelites’ redemption. And just as Abraham left, “weighed down with cattle, silver and gold,” so too did the Israelites leave Egypt “with great wealth.”
Understood in this light, we can see the end of Abraham’s journey to Egypt foreshadowed in its beginning. For its purpose was his eventual departure “weighed down with cattle, silver and gold,” expressing the way in which he was to transform the most secular and heathen things and press them into the service of G-d. This was indeed the purpose of the Israelites’ exile into Egypt, that G-d’s presence should be felt in this most narrow-minded of places. The final ascent was implicit in the descent.
In other words, in order to ascend, Abraham had to ultimately descend.
In order to rise up, we have to fall down. This is a simple thought and it is proven over and over again in our lives. When you are happy and everything is going great, you tend to stay where you are. When you are sad and depressed – down – you tend to eventually rise up. You’ve heard the analogy that nothing changes until there is a crisis. There is no growth until one is compelled to grow. This is the lesson we take from Lech Lecha.
The Hasidic master known as the Degel Machaneh Efraim teaches that ascent and descent are intimately connected. When a person falls away from God, the experience of distance from the Divine spurs that soul's yearning to return. Falling down is precisely the first step of rising up. Our mis-steps are precisely what spur us to course-correct and adjust our path. Descent for the sake of ascent.
In a few weeks we will study Joseph and his incredible story of descent (from the pit and the jail) and his ascent to the highest position in Egypt and his eventual reconnection with his brothers.
Abraham’s removal to Egypt was not an interruption but an integral part of the command of “Lech Lecha” – to journey towards that self-fulfillment which is the service of G-d.
And as Abraham’s destiny was the later destiny of the children of Israel, so it is ours. Our exile, like his, is a preparation for (and therefore part of ) redemption. And the redemption which follows brings us to a higher state than that which we could have reached without exile. Exile is an integral part of spiritual progress. It allows us to sanctify the whole world by our actions and not simply a small corner of it.
You might ask, “Where is this progress apparent? The world does not appear to be growing more holy: Precisely the opposite seems to be the case.”
According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, this is a superficial judgement. He writes that “The world does not move of its own accord. It is fashioned by Divine Providence.”
This is further elaborated by his belief that what appears on the surface to be a decline is, however hidden, part of the continuous process of transformation which we work on the world whenever we dedicate our actions to Torah and G-ds will. In other words, the world constantly becomes more elevated and refined by our dedication to Torah and G-d.
Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the story of Abraham’s journeyings, seen first on the surface and then in their true perspective.
The moral of the story is that whatever a Jew’s situation, when he or she turns towards his or her true self-fulfillment in the process of Lech Lecha, and he or she places their life and their actions in the perspective of Torah, they take their proper place in the bringing of the future redemption. This is a powerful statement of the worth and value of each one of us as individuals. Through our own personal lech lecha, we have the power to change the world.
I would like to end this evenings study with a quote from Rabbi Jonathan Sachs that really blew my mind when I was studying for tonight’s class.
“Judaism begins not in wonder that the world is, but in protest that the world is not as it ought to be. It is in that cry, that sacred discontent, that Avraham’s journey begins… the easy answer would be to deny the reality of either God or evil. Then the contradiction would disappear and we could live at peace with the world. But to be a Jew is to have the courage to refuse easy answers and to reject either consolation or despair. God exists; therefore, life has a purpose. Evil exists; therefore, we have not yet achieved that purpose. Until then we must travel, just as Avraham and Sarah travelled, to begin the task of shaping a different kind of world.”