People often comment that it is incredible that we start the reading of Torah over again each year. That we’ve been reading this same book for thousands of years and here we are again at the third parsha of this great and timeless book. We have been reading the same book, year after year, our entire lives. People in temples and synagogues all over the world, across every place, every situation, every culture and language are also reading this same book, year in and year out. And this has been going on for hundreds of generations.
Why do we re-read this book? Why do we start again every year? Doesn’t it get old? Haven’t we learned all of the stories by now. I want to preface this week’s learning with a revolutionary thought. Every time we start the cycle of Torah reading again, we are starting from scratch. As if we haven’t read anything. Why? Because we are all individuals, experiencing Torah in a different way every year. You are not the same person that read Bereshit last year. You are older. Wiser. More experienced. More enlightened. Perhaps something wonderful has happened to you over the past year. Perhaps something terrible. But whatever your experience has been, you are not the same person who read the Torah last year. So, every time the cycle starts anew, you are bringing fresh perspective and a more evolved Torah experience to your reading.
In Bereshit we read about the genesis of the world and in Noah the genesis of humankind, but here, in Lech Lecha we have the genesis of the Jewish people as a people, a nation, with Abraham as our forefather. Lech Lecha tells the beginning of that journey.
Lech Lecha is about change.
Change is something we all struggle with at many points in our lives. The tasks and challenges we face are different in different phases of our lives, but they all involve change – whether you’re four and going off to school or ninety-four and feel your world shrinking.
What does Abraham’s story tell us about change? In Parasha Lech Lecha, Abraham embarks on massive change. What does this entail and what is it that makes it possible for him to do it? What might we understand from the story that might help make it possible for us to do it?
The story starts with a call: Abraham hears God speak to him and tell him to leave. So, the first point is that change requires an impetus – a motive, a longing, a need, a call, something. Sometimes the impetus is external – it’s time to start school, we lose a job, a relationship ends, an opportunity arises. Sometimes the impetus is internal, we’re impelled by desire to seek or search for something – knowledge, friends, adventure, love. Or we’re impelled to escape something – boredom, loneliness, conflict, dread. Sometime we are forced to change because we’ve seen the light so to speak and our old ways aren’t successful anymore. In the classic words of Dr. Phil – “And how’s that working for you?” are often the impetus for change – when we realize that old behaviours just aren’t cutting it.
For Abraham, it’s not just a case of going to something new; the parsha is also quite specific about what must be left behind and it’s a lot: his country, his birthplace, his land, his father’s house -- in short, his home, all that is familiar to him and all that he holds dear. Herein lies the most powerful resistance to change we all have: to change, to become something different, even if it’s something ostensibly better, we have to give up what is known and familiar and move into territory that is unknown and unfamiliar -- vague, ambiguous, uncertain, perhaps exciting, but also frightening. God is very specific in telling Abraham what’s to be left, but very vague in telling Abraham where he's going – it’s “to the place I’ll show you.” So, in my mind this begs the next question: what enables us to tolerate such ambiguity, to leave what we know to set sail on such uncertain seas? I find in Abraham’s story three things that speak to this question.
The first and perhaps most obvious is the promise of rewards. Here the rewards seem quite lavish: fame, fortune, power, land, legacy, blessings. Motivation is important. However we define those rewards, they have to be personally meaningful in order to get us to move. We can all name endless ways we’d like to change or think we should change – that’s what new year’s resolutions are all about – but what allows us to actually follow through?
That brings me to the second thing I see in Abraham’s story. Abraham may be leaving what is known to him, but he is not going alone. God is with him, behind him, ahead of him, alongside him. To change we need the help and support of others. We need a connection to someone or something outside ourselves – spurring us on, cheering us on, holding us up, calming our fears. Where do we find that? I think we find it in each other -- in our friends, our families, our coworkers, our congregation.
We may not hear the voice of God as Abraham did in this parsha, but we need to find that spark of divinity in those around us who can be our guides, those who help us believe in ourselves and who give us the strength and confidence to try new things, to change. So who is that for you? Who in your life helps you to believe in yourself and to have the courage to face the unknown, whatever that particular unknown is for you at the moment? Where does each of us turn for that? Is it to husbands? Wives? To parents? Children? Friends? To God? To our Rabbi?
And finally, in addition to the promise of rewards and the promise of company on his journey, the company of a powerful and benevolent God, Abram goes, and is able to go, because he has faith in his God. Abram believes in God and trusts him. God chooses Abram to form and to lead God’s people. In this story, God needs Abram, and Abram needs God. And here, I think, is the true covenantal relationship that is ushered in with this story. It is a partnership, a co-created relationship between God and humanity. To embark on our own journeys of change, we, too, need faith. To change we have to have at least some faith, some hope that the unknown place we’re moving towards will be better than the known place we’re in now, that the journey will be worth the effort. We need the courage to believe in this possibility, as Abram does when he puts his faith in God.
The anticipation of meaningful rewards, confidence in the possibility of reaching them, and the reassuring comfort of feeling accompanied and assisted by another on the journey are the things that allowed Abram to change and I think they are what allow us to change in our own lives as well.
But there’s one last point. God’s promise to guide Abram to a good place, a place of great rewards, comes with a rider, a responsibility. It’s stated as a command, a charge to Abram: Vi-hi-yay b’racha – be a blessing.
This reminds me of Rabbi Hillel’s very familiar words: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?” God enjoins Abram to leave and reap great rewards, but to not be for himself alone, to give back instead – in short, to be a blessing to others. So here we have the final challenge. Not only must we find the motivation, the faith, and the support to change our own lives, we must also find the way to help change the lives of others who are in need of us. The mission stated here is nothing short of tikkun olom, the repair of the world.
But how do we do that?
The single most paralyzing thought for our progress is thinking that what we do doesn’t matter. Our thoughts, our words and our actions matter. Why? Because we were created in the image of God. But what does that mean, to be created in the image of God?
Like God, we as human beings have the power to create – from the Shulcan Aruch we learn that God – Elohim – is the master of all powers in the Universe. Elohim has the power to create from nothing. He gave us the power to create from what is here, from things that already exist. We believe that the Almighty creates a tree. As the Almighty’s partner in creation, we create a home from that tree. Elohim creates from nothing. We humans create from what already exists.
According to a Midrash from Rabbi Akiva, when we are doing the will of the Almighty, we are giving strength to God. If we are doing what we are supposed to be doing, living upright lives, meaningful lives, the way God wants us to live – it gives God the green light to go ahead and do wonderful things, if we don’t, He cannot. Perhaps that’s why it was necessary to destroy creation in the great flood we discussed last week. The Almighty’s power is directly correlated to our actions.
And you thought you didn’t matter!
Here’s an interesting perspective that I learned from Rabbi Oziel at Petah Tikvah.
At the root of all evil, says the Rabbi, is the belief that what I as an individual do doesn’t matter the “who cares?” attitude or the defiant attitude - “ I’ll do what I want”. When people believe that their actions don’t matter it makes room for evil – because all of our actions have an impact on the entire world. If I do what’s right and good, my actions can impact the world. Conversely when I do what’s wrong and evil, my actions can also impact the world, but impact it negatively.
The great Chasidic Masters tell us that there are four dimensions that link us to the “upper” realms are:
1. The Realm of Godliness – this is where The Almighty dwells
2. Creation – the highest part of the spirit of the human being which is comprised of:
a. 3 parts to the soul – the Godliness to our spirit (neshama)
b. Realm where the ruach dwells – our words are a hybrid of spirit and body - a widespread impact – more than we can imagine – when a person says good things instead of bad things – to express kindness, to pray to inspire people – they have an incredible impact and give strength to The Almighty
c. Likewise with our thoughts – we have so much power that even our thoughts can impact the universe – when a person thinks good thoughts about another person, things they learned, those thoughts are having an impact
d. Our actions – what we DO - when we do good things our actions give strength to The Almighty
BUT when we think, act, judge, talk negatively or do bad things – because we have this enormous God-given Power, we can have a devastating effect on the world. We can't know in advance what impact our negativity will have on the world. But we have the power to change outcomes - with our thoughts, our words and our actions.
According to the Nefesh Hachaim – this is the law of life – every single person matters – every person has power – every detail of my actions, words, thoughts every single moment does not go to waste. Not a thought is wasted. It accomplishes something.
When I do, think, speak good things I am empowering The Almighty to bestow goodness on this world.
Even our thoughts – are powerful – in our universe thoughts are extremely powerful – the gemara tells us – if a person thinks to do a mitzvah but it doesn’t work out, The Almighty credits you as if you had done it – even your intention matters.
All of this is a preface to this week’s Parsha Lech Lecha – which is where our journey as Jews really begins; it starts in an idol shop in Haran owned by a man named Terah who had a son called Abram. “God said to Abram, Go from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house to a land I will show you”. 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 Abram’s childhood, his youth, his relationship with the other members of his family, how he came to marry Sarai, 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 Abram 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 realize the significance of the passage at the end of the previous parsha. At the very end of Noah it says this: “Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Charan, 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 Haran, they settled there”.
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 Haran, in what is now northern Syria. Terah, 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 Sir Jonathan Sachs, there are two possibilities. The first is that Abram received his call in Ur. His father Terah 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 Abram in Haran, in which case his father had already begun the journey on his own initiative by leaving Ur. Either way, the break between Abram and his father was far less dramatic than we first thought.
The Ramban quotes Rashi – Abram left Ur long before he received the commandment of Lech Lecha. Rashi rearranges the order of the verse of Lech Lecha. Even though Abram already left Ur his native land and ancestral home established in Haran, he was told to go even further away from his father’s home that was newly established in Haran. According to Rashi, Terah left Ur voluntarily. Abram's further migration came later.
Ibn Ezra disagrees with Rashi. According to him the command to leave Ur was given to Abram before he left Ur. The opening verses of Lech Lecha should be inserted before the verse at the end of Parsha Noah. That way, Parsha Lech Lecha would begin with Abram leaving Haran 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. Which goes back to the beginning of this study – that we understand Torah differently as we mature and grow.
Rabbi Sachs 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 Abram 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 Terah the father of Abram and Nahor. They worshiped other gods.” So, there was idolatry in Abram’s family background. But Genesis 11 says that it was Terah who took Abram, not Abram who took Terah, from Ur to go to the land of Canaan. There was no immediate and radical break between father and son.
Does this change our understanding of the story? That’s a resounding YES!
Up until now we have understood Abram’s journey as a series of difficult changes. Abram is told to leave his country, his birthplace, his land, his father’s house – all in escalating degrees of difficulty. But if we look at the interpretation that there was no immediate and radical break between Abram and his father, it changes our perspective on the story and on its meaning to our lives. So, what do we do with this newfound information? Well, for me, it causes me to think differently about Abram’s journey. If Abram had his father’s support, it was less difficult for him to leave the familiarity of his home. We can all relate to this. If our parents support us, it is easier for us to make difficult decisions. And if they do not support us, it makes it so much harder for us. That seems pretty obvious
Rabbi Sachs talks about resolving this 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. They said:
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.
Perhaps this is a way that helps us understand what I talked about a few minutes ago – that what we DO matters. What we Think, what we Say and what we Do has a vital impact on the world through our children.