The story of our ancestors begins in earnest in Lech L'cha. Abram is promised he will be the father of a great multitude if he follows God's call. At the age of seventy-five, Abram leaves Haran for Canaan with Sarai and his nephew Lot under God's protection. Lot and Abram part ways when their flocks grow too big to graze together, but Abram remains protective of his nephew and goes to his aid when needed. Sarai gives her handmaid, Hagar, to Abram to bear a son for him. Then, sensing Hagar's pride at becoming pregnant, Sarai asks Abram to send Hagar away. God promises Hagar that her son, Ishmael, will be the father of many nations. At the age of ninety-nine, God promises Abram and Sarai a son of their own named Isaac through whom the covenant will be fulfilled. As a sign of the covenant they each receive a new name, Abraham and Sarah. Abraham then observes the covenant of circumcision along with Ishmael and all the males in their household.
This week's selection, God's call to Abram, is taken from the first aliyah:
The Eternal One said to Abram, "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father's house, to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing." (12:1-2)
Commentators have offered different ideas as to why God's call specifies mei-artz'cha—from your land, u'mi-molad'tcha—and from your birthplace, u'mi-beit avicha—and from your father's house, because on its surface it seems to be in reverse order. About this verse, Ramban teaches,
"The reason…is that it is difficult for a person to leave the country wherein he dwells, where he has his friends and companions. This is true all the more if this be his native land, and all the more if his whole family is there."
Ramban underscores the psychological difficulty of God's call to Abram.
Rashi asks, "Had he not already departed from there (his birthplace) together with his father and reached as far as Haran?" In so doing he refers back to the end of the previous parashah, where it is written,
"Then Terah took his son Abram and his brother's son Lot son of Haran and his daughter-in-law Sarai, and they all left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Cannan; but they got as far as Haran and settled there." (11:31).
Answering this question, Rashi teaches that God is commanding Abram to continue the journey his father began.
"Thus, in effect, did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to him, 'Go still further away from thy father's house.'"
Abram began the journey with his father, but the rest he had to make alone. Our parents give us a foundation but ultimately we need to strike out on our own to realize our destinies and to establish a name for ourselves. This is true psychologically, whether or not we physically move from our home towns.
It is said that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, that our achievements are only possible because of the work of our parents and grandparents. This concept in Judaism is called z'chut avot—the merit of our ancestors. The central prayer of our liturgy, the Amidah, opens with a blessing linking us to our patriarchs and matriarchs in the hopes that God will be more open to hearing our petitions because of the special relationship each of them had with God.
The recognition of the path forged before us only enables us to take the first steps; it opens doors of opportunity. The second verse in our selection states that God will bless Abram, but only after he has made his own way. When we achieve great things it is partly because of the example set by our parents. When we fall short, however, no matter how much we may feel our upbringing may have served or failed us, the ultimate responsibility is our own. Torah makes it clear that whether or not we follow Abram and Sarai in responding to God's call to be a blessing is up to us.
- In what ways do you think it is important to break with the past, and in what ways must we maintain ties?
- The last two words of verse 2 can be translated as it (your name) shall be a blessing, or as you shall be a blessing. What is the difference? Think of one of your ancestors. How was he or she a blessing to you? How has his or her name been a blessing to you?
- Abram might have found it difficult to leave family and friends behind, as Ramban suggests, but he packed up and settled in Canaan. When is the draw of a new place strong enough to outweigh ties to a place you've lived? Would you ever consider moving to Israel, as Abram did?
For further learning
Consider the following Marge Piercy poem as an alternative reading for the Avot V'imahot prayer mentioned in the above commentary. Does the sentiment expressed here capture what you think about when you say this prayer?
The Art of Blessing the Day
Bless what brought us through
The sea and fire; we are caught
in history like whales in polar ice.
Yet You have taught us to push against the walls,
to reach out and pull each other along,
to strive to find the way through
if there is no way around, to go on.
To utter ourselves with every breath
against the constriction of fear,
to know ourselves as the body born from Abraham
and Sarah, born out of rock and desert.
We reach back through two hundred arches of hips
long dust, carrying their memories inside us
to live again in our life, Isaac and Rebecca,
Rachel, Jacob, Leah. We say words shaped
by ancient use like steps worn into rock.
Baruch Atah Adonai, magen Avraham v'ezrat Sarah.