Parashat Lech L’cha is the beginning of the story of the Jewish people.
As we see Abram and Sarai set out from Charan after an encounter with the Divine, we understand just how much first moments set the tone and direction of our days, even when we are not going on a physical journey like our distant ancestors.
Yet, what can we call a beginning?
While I doubt any of us has received a literal divine call, the words lech l’cha, “go forth,” still echo in the Jewish consciousness until this day. Our people have a sacred mission and a message for all peoples, but to fully understand what it means to go forth, we must go back; we must look at the beginning before the beginning.
Though God tells Abram and Sarai to go forth from Charan, the family journey began in Ur of the Chaldeans. In fact, Abram’s father Terah began the voyage, even keeping the sacred endgame in mind with no communication from the Holy Blessed One.
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Charan, they settled there (Genesis 11:31).
Traditional commentators like Rabbi David Kimhi feel the need to rearrange the text, placing the divine call to Abram before Terah takes the family out of Ur. However, the text speaks for itself: Terah is the one who sets Abram and Sarai on the holy path. While he is most commonly remembered from the midrash describing him as an idol merchant whose son teaches him in the ways of God, what we learn of him in the Torah is much more personal and powerful.
Terah has three sons, Abram being the eldest. The youngest brother, Haran, dies during his father’s lifetime, leaving behind a single son, Lot. Though the middle brother, Nahor, and his family remain in Ur, Terah begins a journey toward Canaan with Abram, Sarai, and Lot. Was he directed by God or driven by grief? Did he merely set out or was he seeking a fresh start for his family?
Terah’s choice is linked to Abram’s response to the divine call, if only in the person of Lot. The journey toward Canaan is interrupted in the city of Charan, where the family clan settles and Terah dies. At this moment, God appears to Abram and the journey is renewed. Did Abram feel that he was starting fresh or was he continuing in his father’s direction? Like the query about Terah, both answers may be right at the same time.
After Terah dies, Lot continues this harrowing voyage with Abram and Sarai, and the Torah gives us limited clues about his mindset. In Genesis 13, the clan arrives in the Holy Land for the first time, and both Abram and Lot are now people of means. Sadly, however, this does not bring out the best in the family. In 13:5-6, we are told: “Lot who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together…” Was this land really not big enough for the two of them? If not, it seems to be less an issue of territory than of a lack of empathy. After the herdsmen of Abram and Lot engage in conflict, Abram suggests that one of them take the north of the land and the other take the south, seemingly allowing Lot to choose. As we read in 13:11, “…Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward. Thus, they parted from each other.” After such a long and complicated voyage, these family members part ways.
While mystical commentaries such as the Zohar see an inner goodness in Lot and his role here, the Torah tells a much more common story. After Abram sees a life of mission and purpose, Lot is distracted by his material status and the matters right before his eyes. While looking with our eyes is important, we must also look with our memories, our values, and our sense of purpose. Whether we seek to resolve family issues or address tensions among nations, we have much to learn. We are privileged to have our Torah as our guide and companion as we go forth!