Lech Lecha, Genesis 12-17, is the first of three Torah portions telling the story of Abraham, whose name at the beginning of the portion is Avram. As this week’s parasha begins, God says to Avram, who, according to tradition, was already 75 years old: “Lech lecha” meaning “Go forth” from your native land and your father’s house “to a land that I will show you.” God promises to bless Avram and make of him a great nation. So Avram sets out with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, their material possessions, and “the souls that they had acquired in Haran.” When they arrive in Canaan, God again appears to Avram to tell him that God will assign this land to Avram’s descendants.
Avram first settles in Shechem, but then moves southward. A severe famine induces him to go to Egypt. Worried that the Egyptians will kill him and take his beautiful wife, Sarai, Avram instructs her to say she is his sister. The ploy apparently works, with Sarai being taken into Pharaoh’s palace for the pleasure of the Pharaoh, and Avram acquiring many animals and slaves. God, however, afflicts the palace with a plague and Pharaoh discovers the lie and sends Avram and Sarai away.
Returning to the land of Canaan, a conflict develops between Avram’s and Lot’s herdsmen, and Avram suggests that they go their separate ways. Lot chose to settle in the well-watered plain of the Jordan, near the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, while Avram remained in the hill country. Again God appears to Avram, telling him to look in all directions at the land God will give to his descendants. As the portion continues, an intertribal war breaks out during which Lot and his family are taken captive. When Avram learns of this, he gathers soldiers, pursues the captors, and frees Lot and his family.
Chapter 15 begins with God’s again reassuring Avram that the land will belong to his heirs. Avram notes that he is childless; his property will probably go to his steward, Eliezer. God promises Avram that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars. At God’s command, Avram takes a three-year old heifer, a three year old she-goat, a three-year old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird. He cuts them in two and places each half opposite the other, but “he did not cut up the bird.” Avram drives birds of prey away from the carcasses. Avram falls asleep. He is told that his offspring will be enslaved for four hundred years. When the night is completely dark, a smoking oven and a flaming torch pass between the carcass pieces. The chapter ends with God’s repeating that God will give Avram the land.
Sarai gives Avram her handmaid Hagar to bear a child. But when Hagar becomes pregnant, tensions develops between the two women. When Sarai complains to Avram, he tells her to do what she wants to do. She treats Hagar harshly, and Hagar runs away. An angel of God appears to her and tells her to return, promising her a son, Ishmael, who will also become a great nation. God again appears to Avram – now 99 years of age – repeating promises of the covenant. God changes his name to Abraham, which the Torah ascribes with the meaning “the father of a multitude of nations.” God also changes Sarai’s name to Sarah. God introduces a sign of the covenant: every male shall be circumcised at eight days old. God also promises that Abraham and Sarah will bear a son, Isaac, who will carry on the covenant. As the portion ends, Abraham, Ishmael, and all the males in Abraham’s household are circumcised.
The Torah does not describe Abraham’s childhood. Our Sages and teachers wrote many midrashim to fill in the blanks. According to one midrash, Abraham’s father, Terah, was an idol merchant. One day Terah went out and left the boy in charge of his shop. Abraham smashed all the idols, except for the largest one, into whose hands he placed an ax. When his father returned, Abraham reported that the idols were hungry so he brought them food. Abraham told his father that the largest idol then grabbed the ax, killed all the other idols, and took the food for himself. Terah replied that this was nonsense, since everyone knows that idols of clay and wood cannot talk, move or do anything. Abraham then responded to Terah, “Father, let your ears hear what your tongue speaks.”
The Torah tells us that when Abraham and Sarah left Haran, they took with them the souls they had acquired there. The midrash asks how could someone “create souls?” The answer is that someone who brings an other person near to God is as though he or she had created that other person.
In this parasha, Abraham is called an Ivri – a Hebrew. Rashi translates the term as “other,” meaning that Abraham came from the other side of the Euphrates River. The midrash uses the same translation, but interprets it as: The whole world stood on one side, and Abraham, the Ivri, stood on the other. What qualities did Abraham exhibit that set him apart from others? How does the worship of one God differ from the worship of idols? Have you ever taken a stand which set you apart from others?
Some Thoughts and Questions:
1. What kind of person do you think Abraham was? What special qualities did he have that made him a good choice as the father of the Jewish people? In what ways were he and Sarah role models? In what ways were they not role models? What do you think this says about our ancestors? What does it say about individuals we hold up as role models today?
2. What journeys have you taken? Where have they led you? How have they changed and influenced your life? The life of your family and those around you? What journeys are you looking forward to in your life? Like Abraham and Sarah, each of us has things we take with us, materials possessions as well as “souls,” where ever we go. Imagine that you need to leave your current home. What would you take with you in one suitcase? Think about your precious possessions. What do you own that is replaceable? What do you own that can never be replaced?
3. God told Abraham that he would be a blessing. What does it mean to be a blessing? To whom would you like to be a blessing? What do you think you can do to be a blessing?
4. Samson Raphael Hirsch suggests that “Lech Lecha” could mean, “Go by yourself.” In other words, this is one journey that must be made alone. One must leave all that is familiar behind and become a stranger in the world to be able to accomplish greatness. Do you agree or disagree? Why? What journey have you taken by yourself? What did being alone allow you to accomplish?
5. Menahem Mendel of Kotzk suggests that “Lech Lecha” could mean, “Go into yourself.” What could this mean? … Is it a command to Abraham prepare himself mentally for the rigors of his journey? … Is it a command to embark on a spiritual quest in addition to a physical journey?
6. What do you make of the symbolism of the split carcasses?
7. What’s the difference between a people’s being like the stars of heaven and the dust of the earth? Which would you prefer to be?
8. How can you justify Abraham’s behavior with Sarah in Egypt? … his behavior with the pregnant Hagar?
9. The sign of our covenant with God is circumcision. It changes Avram’s name. What did circumcision mean to Abraham? What does it mean to the Jewish people today?