Several people at Temple Beth David let me know that my weekly d’var Torah does not have to follow the weekly Torah portion. I deeply appreciate the latitude this provides. On the other hand, the portion can be such a rich jumping off point for an important aspect of Judaism. Personally, there is nothing more important than sinking into the first lines of Parashat Lech L’cha. Genesis chapter 12 verses 1 and 2 are a synopsis of how I view Judaism.
This week, we step forward from understanding the purpose of humanity into understanding the purpose of the Jewish people. We begin with God’s call to Avram, the man who will become Avraham.
The first two verses of chapter 12, the beginning of our Torah portion read as follows:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The Ground of Being said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
We could speak for hours just on these two verses. Let us begin to unwrap this origin story by recognizing the emphasis placed on moving forward. Avram is told “lech l’cha,” which could be translated as “Go to yourself” or “Surely you shall go” or, as JPS states, “Go forth.” The first significant words in this portion are a command to begin a journey.
Perhaps, like Avraham, you have completely changed your surroundings during your life. Maybe where you’re living now is nowhere near where you were born and raised. Or perhaps you’ve taken a spiritual journey and have arrived at a completely new understanding of God. Maybe you’ve been on an emotional journey and have better insight into who you are and why you’re here. As Avraham teaches us, being willing to put aside all that you know and all that makes you comfortable is the first step towards a more expansive way of being. Going on that journey — making your ego smaller, while sinking into your deepest self — can be a way to be a blessing to the world.
Let us also remember that this command to go, lech, is intricately connected to halacha. They share the same shoresh, which means that the same three-letter root connects the verb with the noun. Halacha means “the way.” Lech is the command form of the word “go (on foot), walk, depart.” So, while we have come to understand halacha as an impenetrable set of behavioral rules, its origin is as an attempt to create a Jewish way of being. In fact, for centuries halacha was not codified in a book, or described with certainty. Variations have always existed between communities. This is why so many progressive Jewish teachers consider themselves halachic Jews — they are not willing to cede the term to a particular sect of the Jewish people.
As modern seekers of community and meaning, we have the opportunity to forge our own way into the depths of the Jewish tradition. We can choose to hear the call of the Divine, to walk in the path of Avraham — to go away from what we know in order to become who we are meant to be. Avraham modeled kindness. Our next portion will begin with Avraham leaving a conversation with God in order to welcome strangers into his home.
In this portion, several people are named by God. First, He names Hagar’s son, Ishmael. That name, Ishmael, means “God listens.” The Hebrew Bible recognizes that it was not right for Hagar and Ishmael to be treated poorly. The name is given when Hagar runs away from the camp after Sarai speaks badly about her. When God appears and names her son, she is convinced to return to the camp. Later, God says to Avram, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.” This is when God makes a particular covenant for Jews. He renames Avram as Avraham. The extra “hey” is a form of God’s name, to signify that God is always with Avraham. God instructs Avraham to circumcise himself, Ishmael, and all of the males in the tribe as a physical sign of the covenant. While giving the instructions, God renames Sarai, adding a “hey” to her name as well, and she becomes Sarah.
Here in this portion is the pure description of why I choose Judaism. It is not because it is better than other ways of living. For me, Judaism is a coherent way of approaching life: as a member of a community dedicated to walking a path of goodness and truth. I am responsible for greeting people with kindness, even if they are interrupting me. It is up to me to become a blessing for my family and my community. And it is up to me to honor my foremother and live fully into my soul’s name. My name is Sarah bat Fayge Rivka v’Moshe, and like Sarah, my goal is to help the Jewish people walk the path of goodness and be a blessing to the world.