On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Lech L'cha: How to Be a Hero

Parashat Lech L’cha tells us the story of the very beginning of Jewish history, when God says to Abraham and Sarah that they are to “go forth” and begin the story of Jewish commitment. We learn a lot about the first Jews from this parashah, but perhaps one of the most important lessons is about what it means to be a hero. Listen to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discuss the part of the story that is too often skipped over, and what we have to learn from it.

Four ways to listen:


[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode 42 of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” the podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. So, talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @ReformJudaism, like us at facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and of course, subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, teaches about Parashat Lech L'cha and he wonders, what does it mean to be a true leader? And how do ordinary people do heroic acts?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on one of the most famous, one of the most inspiring Torah portions in the five books entitled in Hebrew Lech L'cha literally "go forth." It's the beginning of Jewish history. It's the story of Avram and Sarai before they become Abraham and Sarah. They are called from their place somewhere near current day Iraq, from Ur Kasdim, and God says, I want you to go forth and begin the journey of Jewish history, of Jewish commitment.

An extraordinary moment, an extraordinary couple, Avram and Sarai. And I could focus my few words today on the part that everybody looks forward to, that opening call. That's the part that's famous. It's like when you go on a trip to Israel, you've got to go to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. If you go to Washington, DC, you've got to go to see the White House and probably the Lincoln Memorial.

But I actually want to take you on a different part of this parashah. I want to actually focus the attention today on a part that everybody tries to skip over. It's in chapter 14 of the Book of Genesis. We know that Avraham and Sarai are on their journey.

They're making their way to Jewish history, but all of a sudden something unplanned, unpredicted happens. Avram's nephew Lot is captured by one of these mysterious kings from the neighborhood of Cana'an, of Canaan. And Abraham, being the extraordinary person he is, it sounds almost like a Western movie. He hears that the kidnapping took place, and what is our hero, what does Avram do?

He doesn't start to fret, gee, should I help out? What should I do? He just says, let's go, and let's find this wonderful nephew Lot. And so, they literally ride off on their, you know, the equivalent of their horses into the sunset, and they meet up with the kings.

And Abraham, who we think of as a spiritual leader, we think probably he's a brilliant thinker. He's an amazing spiritual practitioner. We don't think of him, usually, as physically heroic, the kind who could go out and literally fight and win the freedom of an individual, but that's our Abraham. He is up to whatever task, and finally, after he recaptures not only Lot but all those who are with him, he has a moment where he could take spoils of war.

He could take all these different things, and our Abraham says, I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours. You shall not say it is I who made Abraham rich. He's so filled with nobility that it doesn't even occur to him that that's what people do in those settings. So, he teaches us, even in this often overlooked chapter of Genesis, that being heroic means to care about people beyond yourself or even your family. Being heroic in our tradition, being a leader is someone who actually stands up for others, who's willing to have backbone, who's willing to fight when a fight is needed, and that's part of the character that we see.

We're at a moment in the history of not just the Jewish people, but probably the United States of America -- We've been thinking a lot about leaders. What is it that makes somebody a worthy leader, an admirable leader? And we think of this narrative from Genesis 14. It is having the heroic within us, the ability to literally step out and step up, and that's who our Abraham is.

Another amazing moment that happens right after this. It is, it is a moment where Melchizedek, who is the -- he's basically a non-Jewish religious leader, he has a chance to offer a blessing to Abraham. And we think a lot about Jews and non-Jews, and who is part of the Jewish family, and who can be a participant in Jewish ritual. Well, this incredible narrative from Melchizedek is a blessing that he bestows upon Abraham when he comes into the territory. And it's a remarkable moment that we the Jewish people can and have been blessed not only by non-Jews, but by leaders of other faith traditions.

So, when many would want to narrow our scope of religious vision to only include not just the Jewish people, but the particular group within the Jewish people that we're a part of, this opening narrative from lech l'cha tells us that basically the field of play for our religious lives is as broad as the world. And those religious moments aren't only the moments in synagogue, aren't only the moment sitting at a Passover table, or shaking a lulav at Sukkot. The territory of religious living is everywhere and every moment. And sometimes, we're not actually thinking that this is a moment where I'm going to express Jewish core values or Jewish leadership or Jewish inclusivity.

I think that opening narratives of lech l'cha show us that wherever we find ourselves, there will be an opening and a moment for us to express something core, as Abraham does saving his nephew, resisting the temptation to take that which is not his, the spoils of war, to accept the blessing of a non-Jewish sage in his midst. This is a character study in what it means to be a leader, what it means to live a deeply committed Jewish life of purpose and depth. So, I hope we won't all be intimidated by Abraham and say, well, who am I? I'm not an Abraham. I'm just a regular person.

But Abraham, remember, was called into leadership. He didn't wave his arm. He wasn't looking for the big appointment.

God saw who this individual was. He saw the potential in Abraham. Abraham is not perfect, makes plenty mistakes, does some in this very portion, but he is our hero because he embodies that which is heroic in an otherwise ordinary person and ordinary life.

So, I hope as we journey forth and we find ourselves in moments where our leadership is going to be required, let's have the courage of Abraham. Let's have the warmth and the embrace of his religious world view, and let's, in everything that we do, shape a more compassionate, a more whole, a more loving world. Lech L'cha go forth, each one of us, and as the Torah says, v'heiyeh bracha and be a blessing.

Don't say a blessing. Don't remember a blessing. Be a blessing. So, in the coming days, as we study the parashah can I say to each one of us v'heiyeh bracha, be a blessing.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – l’hitraot!