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Lech Lecha and Reaffirming Our Core Values

October 28, 2015

This Shabbos Baltimore joins together with Jews across the world in the Shabbat Project.  Joining in this initiative helps us to appreciate the gift of Shabbat and of the wonderful community that we have here at Netivot.  While we all love Shabbat, it is sometimes helpful to have a larger reminder of it importance and significance in our lives.  We sometimes take it for granted.

Over the past week there has been a rather painful discussion taking place on the Netivot facebook page, which for me has highlighted the need to affirm one of the core values of our shul that we may sometimes take for granted.  We need to actively affirm these values.

I’d like to focus on a “well-known” Rashi at the beginning of the parsha.  I put “well known” in quotations, because it is only well known to people who already know it.  But not everyone knows it.

Our parsha opens with Hashem’s call to Avraham “Lech lecha” – ‘Go away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Breishit 12:1).  Without blinking an eye, Avraham heeds God’s command.

Genesis 12:4:

וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אַבְרָ֗ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר אֵלָיו֙ ה’

So Abram went, as the LORD had spoken unto him

The Torah then records:

Genesis 12:5:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂ֣וּ בְחָרָ֑ן וַיֵּצְא֗וּ לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ אַ֥רְצָה כְּנָֽעַן׃

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

This is a strange phrase – “the souls that they had gotten.”  What does it even mean?

Rashi writes:

Rashi on Genesis 12:5:1:

אשר עשו בחרן שהכניסן תחת כנפי השכינה, אברהם מגיר את האנשים, ושרה מגירת הנשים, ומעלה עליהם הכתוב כאלו עשאום

“that they ‘made’ in Haran”-they brought them under the wings of the Shechina (God’s presence); Abraham would convert the men and Sarah would convert the women, the Torah writes it as if they ‘created’ them (that’s why it says ‘made’)…

Though the Midrash teaches that Avraham and Sarah’s efforts were in bringin non-Jews closer to God (after all, there were no other Jews at the time), the Gemara (Sanhedrin 99b) applies this in the context of Jews as well:

אמר ריש לקיש, כל המלמד את בן חבירו תורה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו עשאו, שנאמר את הנפש אשר עשו

Resh Lakish said: whoever teaches his friend’s children Torah, is considered as if he has made them as it says “the souls they had made”

Teaching someone Torah creates a powerful, almost parental relationship.

I believe that this understanding offers a new insight into Avraham Avinu and into one of the commonly asked questions:  Why did Hashem choose Avraham?  What was so great about Avraham that he merited to hear God’s call and be the “first Jew,” the founding father of the Jewish people?

Many of us are familiar with the story of Avraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.  But this is just one explanation.

A second possibility is offered by two of the great tests in Avraham’s life, which bookend his career.  The midrash notes:

מדרש תנחומא פרשת לך לך סימן ג

ורבי לוי אומר נסיון הראשון כנסיון האחרון נסיון הראשון בלך לך מארצך נסיון האחרון בלך לך אל ארץ המוריה…

R. Levi says the first test was like the final test. The first was given with Lech lecha from your land, the final one was given with Lech lecha to the Land of Moriah…

We are familiar with the greatness and difficulty of the demand of לך לך (lech lecha) in this week’s parsha when God first appears to Avraham.  To leave everything behind and start a new life, a new mission.  But what does lech lecha have to do with the test of the Akeidah?  Avraham has already established himself as a God-fearing person who has successfully brought Hashem’s mission to the world.

Aviva Zornberg explains that the significance of the test of lech lecha

the call of lekh lekha is an urging to self-transformation:  at base, that is the meaning of a change of name, or a change of place.  (The Beinginning of Desire 78)

Even at the end of his life, after having successfully passed nine tests from God, Abraham is still on a journey and still open to the possibility of change and newness in his life, even as it nears its end!  This is the greatness of Abraham.  The Sefat Emet explains that the Avot (patriarchs) are the pillars upon which our nation is built because they established new paradigms and ways of life. One of the things that Avraham initiated is the notion of being on a transformative journey. We are all on journeys, and like Avraham,  we too must be open to the possibility of change.

This brings us back to the Rashi with which we opened.  Because Avraham was open to change he was also open to being a change agent of others.  He recognized that not everyone shared his recognition of Hashem or his commitment to צדק ומשפט (social justice).  Avraham knew that not everyone would be persuaded or won over.  And yet he maintained an open door (or open tent) policy.

Our community faces similar challenges in wanting to be welcoming of everyone while remaining loyal to the standards of Halacha.  We sincerely want our fellow Jews to be a part of our community and we understand that not everyone has the same level of observance.  We want to be inclusive and welcoming, but sometimes the opposite effect is given.  If we communicate only in the language of halacha without recognizing the life circumstances and complicated journeys of the people we wish to include, then we wind up alienating and upsetting them, and God-forbid turning them off from a desire to be part of our community.

I am reminded of a powerful article written by Rabbi Asher Lopatin, who now serves as president of YCT. In it he writes:

In a sense we are all on an odyssey, and while it might be more pronounced among a certain age group, if we can sensitize the Jewish world to the need that all people have to explore and grow and transform, we can help make our God-given Torah and our age-old traditions more meaningful for Jews of all types and ages. (227)

(Rabbi Asher Lopatin “Orthodoxy and the Odyssey Generation”.  In The Orthodox Forum: The Next Generation of Modern Orthodoxy. Ed., Shmuel Hain.)

Further on he writes:

those [on an odyssey]  are not looking for us to validate their way of life as a Torah way of life.  They are looking for basic respect for their struggle and their search…  (235)
As I wrote in my introduction, the point of today’s speech is reaffirm values that we already hold dear.  Netivot Shalom is a shul and community that is fully committed to halachic observance.  We are proud of our Orthodoxy.  At the same time we are a shul that welcomes Jews from all walks of life.  We want to be supportive of people’s journeys and facilitators of their religious growth.  We do so in a non-judgmental manner.  There are times when trying to navigate this difficult balance that we may speak too quickly or with not enough sensitivity to the situation in front of us.  We will not stop trying to navigate this difficult tension because we believe so deeply in it.  I know and I trust that everyone here shares this value and commitment and because of it our shul is a richer and better place.

Shabbat Shalom.


From → Parsha

  1. kol ha kavod, Rabbi K

  2. Gary Glaser permalink

    You have the gift of saying so much in so few words! I am learning with the help of our members that the time in my life to “Lech Lecha” is never ending. Avram was lucky to hear these words from Hashem. I am lucky to hear them from so many wise members who have so freely reached out to me. I wish I had been in Shul to hear your Sermon. I hope to make it this Shabbos. Baruch Hashem

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