Back in the Torah portion Noach, we are introduced to Terach, the father of Abram, Abram, and his brothers, Nahor, and Haran. Terach and his family, including Abram's wife Sarai (whom we are told is barren) and Haran's son Lot, leave their home in Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan. However, they never complete the journey, settling in a place called Haran instead.
As this parashah begins, God says to Abram: "Lech lecha" meaning "go forth" from your home and father's house "to a land that I will show you." (Genesis 12:1). God promises to bless Abram and make of him a great nation. So Abram sets out with Sarai, Lot, their material possessions, and "the souls that they had acquired in Haran." (Genesis 12:5) When they arrive in Canaan, God again appears to Abram to tell him that God will assign this land (Canaan) to Abram's descendents.
Abram 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, Abram 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 Abram acquiring many animals and slaves. God, however, afflicts the palace with a plague and Pharaoh discovers the lie and sends Abram and Sarai away.
Returning to the land of Canaan, conflict between Abram's and Lot's herdsmen develop, and Abram suggests that they go their separate ways. Lot chose to settle in the well-watered plain of the Jordan, near the city of Sodom, while Abram remained in Canaan. Again God appears to Abram, telling him to look in all directions at the land God will give to his descendants.
As the portion continues, an inter-tribal war breaks out during which Lot and his family are taken captive. When Abram learns of this, he gathers soldiers, pursues the captors, and frees Lot and his family.
Once again, God appears to Abram, promising him a great reward. Abram asks God how this can be, since he is going to die childless. But God promises him that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars of heaven. God directs Abram to offer sacrifices, which Abram does.
Sarai gives Abram her handmaid Hagar to bear a child. But when Hagar becomes pregnant, tensions develops between the two women. When Sarai complains to Abram, 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.
God again appears to Abram—now 99 years of age—repeating promises of the covenant. God changes Abram's 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 text does not describe Abraham's childhood. Many midrashim were written by our sages and teachers to explain Abraham's character. According to one midrash, when Abraham was a boy, he was placed in charge of his father's idol shop one day when his father was gone. Abraham smashed all the idols, except for the largest one. When his father returned and questioned Abraham, he answered that the idols were hungry so he brought them food. The largest idol then grabbed Terah's ax and killed all the other idols and took the food for himself. Terah replied that this was nonsense, everyone knew that idols could not 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, however, interprets the phrase "the souls they created." How could someone "create souls"? The midrash answers that one who brings a person near to God is as though s/he created him/her. The midrash further explains that when Terah and his family settled in Haran, the inhabitants heard of Abraham and Sarah and all their good deeds, including hospitality and providing for the needy and because of these deeds they were blessed with material wealth. The people of Haran said to them, all that you do prospers, teach us so that we may do what is right before God and all people. So it was that Abraham and Sarah created souls (based on Genesis Rabbah).
To Talk About
- What do you think Abraham meant in the midrash when he said to his father Terah, "Let your ears hear what your tongue speaks"?
- In the midrash, Abraham challenged his father's belief in idols. Have you ever challenged another person's beliefs or ideas? Have you ever been questioned about your own ideas and beliefs? Describe the experience and how it felt. Sometimes when we are challenged we feel threatened or defensive. Suggest ways in which we can challenge someone and still preserve their dignity and esteem.
- Based on the Commentary and the midrash above, in what ways were Abraham 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?
- Abraham and his family were nomads. Even after arriving in Canaan, the Promised Land, they still journeyed, settling for periods of time in various locations. Families often move around today. Where did your family come from? How did your family come to the place where they are now living? What significant experiences did they have that shaped their journey? Discuss what factors led your family to the place you now live. Trace back your family history to determine how many generations your family has lived in the country in which you now live. When did they come, why did they come and why did they stay?
- 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," wherever we go. Pretend your family needs to leave your current home. Go around the table and have each person "put" one thing in a suitcase until the case is full. As you "place" something in the bag, explain why you chose to take it with you. Talk about your precious possessions. What do you own that is replaceable? What do you own that can never be replaced?
It is traditional to recite Tefilat Ha-derech (the Traveler's Prayer) before beginning a journey. In a siddur (prayerbook) from 1885, the prayer reads in part,
"May it be acceptable in thy presence, O Eternal! our God..., that thou mayest lead, support, and guide us unto peace; and cause us to reach the goal of our destination in life, joy and peace and deliver us from the power of every foe...."
This week and every week may all your travels be truly blessed.
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