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Vision From the Starting Line

  • Vision From the Starting Line

    Lech L'cha, Genesis 12:1−17:27
D'var Torah By: 

All of us recognize that a universal vision is integral to Judaism. But from where did it come? Was it in the time of the ancient prophets, like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, that Judaism first developed a moral commitment to a just world, to become "a light unto the nations"? (Isaiah 49:6)

In this week's parashah, Lech L'cha, we find the answer, and it may surprise us. Here, in God's first charge to Abraham (called Abram in this portion of the story), are the seeds of universalism: "And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you." (Genesis 12:3) Our people's journey had just begun, but this "mission statement," so beautifully enunciated at its outset, powerfully articulates the Jewish dream that embraces all peoples.

Abraham is quick to implement the humanitarian role that God has ordained for him. His plea for the innocent people of Sodom, a scene we might have expected to find in the prophetic literature hundreds of years later, is a superb example of universalism at the starting point of Judaism's development. Abraham's concern extends far beyond the narrow responsibility of his own family. In this dramatic confrontation with God, he argues for people with whom he has no connection other than that they are fellow human beings, and he pleads that if good people could be found among them, they must be saved. (Genesis 18:22-32) As Rabbi Gunther Plaut writes, Abraham's "horizon is not limited by tribal considerations. His is a universal concept of justice ... He is a man for all men." (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, New York: UAHC Press, 1981, p. 133)

There can be no question about Abraham's role here as advocate for all humanity. It is significant that God reveals Sodom's impending destruction to Abraham because "all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him." (Genesis 18:17-18) Rashi underscores this point in his commentary on the above passage by asking: Just as Abraham is the "father of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:5), are not the people of Sodom his children, too?

Although Judaism richly develops the biblical message of universalism, that vision is always rooted in the experiences of our people. Enduring social values are an inherent part of the people who gave birth to them. Particularism and universalism join hands in the story of the Exodus and its message of human freedom; in Moses' Ten Commandments and their universal ethical principles; and in Isaiah's call to his own people to renew their faith and at the same time proclaim God's house "a house of prayer for all peoples." (Isaiah 56:7)

Sometimes people criticize the often intense concern of Judaism, especially Reform Judaism, with the problems in our society―with economic injustice, racism, and the erosion of civil liberties―as expressions of a particular political philosophy and not authentic Jewish principles. They regard these concerns as latter-day additions to the "fundamentals" of study, worship, and Jewish survival. When we reread God's initial command to Abraham and recognize Abraham's own moral courage, we put social action in its proper perspective in the Jewish faith. The story of Abraham is a mandate for action from its very beginning.

For Further Reading
Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time , Al Vorspan and David Saperstein, New York: UAHC Press, 1998.

At the time of this wriiting in 1999, Jerome K. Davidson was serving as the rabbi of Temple Beth El, Great Neck, NY.

A New Look at Abram and Sarai
Davar Acher By: 
Jennifer Marx Asch

One of the great mysteries of the Torah is why God chose Abram to be the first Jew. No information is given in the Torah to explain God's selection process. Instead, we have to sift through Abram's actions during his lifetime, creating our own understandings about and impression of his leadership.

In Parashat Lech L'cha, Abram gets off to a rocky start. Following a moment of divine inspiration, he boldly sets forth from his father's house, his birthplace, and his homeland to realize God's promise. (Genesis 12:1-3) He makes his way southward with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, continuing on to Egypt in order to escape a terrible famine.

Just outside the border of Egypt, Abram panics. He fears for his life because of Sarai's exquisite beauty. The first words we hear uttered by our first patriarch to our first matriarch are fraught with fear, doubt, and deception. Abram says to his wife: "I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you and think, 'She is his wife,' they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you and that I may remain alive thanks to you." (Genesis 12:11-13) Sure enough, after Sarai's beauty was reported to Pharaoh by his courtiers, she was taken away from Abram and into Pharaoh's palace.

Abram's words hardly seem appropriate for the founder of a new world religion. Several commentators criticize Abram for his actions or, in this case, his inactions. Ramban, a thirteenth-century Torah scholar, believed that Abram "committed a great sin" by lying about Sarai: "He should have trusted in God to save him, his wife, and all he had, for God has the power to help and to save." (N. Sarna, ed., The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989, p. 95) Or, as one of my bar mitzvah students suggested when I asked him what he would have done in Abram's situation, "I would have just hid Sarai in a big basket so they couldn't see how beautiful she was." Even more disturbing is the fact that Abram violates the Jewish value of pidyon sh'vuyim, rescuing the captives, by allowing his wife to become a captive. It is ironic that a little later in Lech L'cha, Abram rushes to Lot's rescue after he had been taken captive by the four kings. (Genesis 14:12-16) Perhaps Abram had learned from his past mistakes.

So what can we learn from Abram's conduct in Parashat Lech L'cha? I believe that we can learn much. First, we learn that Abram is a flawed leader: He was chosen by God despite or perhaps because he was not a perfect man. Second, we learn that faith is not something that develops overnight. Abram may have been brave in heeding God's call and leaving his homeland, but as soon as he finds himself in danger, he looks to his own wits to save himself. He is not yet totally ready to rely on God. Third, we learn that Sarai is willing to take risks to save her loved ones and that "because of her, it went well with Abram." (Genesis 12:16) The text even implies that Sarai bravely speaks up behind the scenes, telling Pharaoh that she is, in fact, Abram's wife. And finally, we learn that Sarai is not along just for the ride: She is an integral part of the success of Abram's life mission. Abram relies on her as a partner, drawing on her intelligence, discretion, and quick thinking. Although we do not always hear Sarai speak in her own voice, through her actions and words she has secured her place in history as the first matriarch of the Jewish people.

At the time of this writing in 1999, Jennifer Marx Asch was the rabbi educator at Temple Israel in Dayton, OH .

10/23/1999
Reference Materials: 

Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84

When do we read Lech L'cha

2020, October 31
13 Heshvan, 5781
2021, October 16
10 Heshvan, 5782
2022, November 5
11 Heshvan, 5783
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