The portion Lech Lecha, literally “Go, for yourself,” opens with God’s command to Abraham to “go” out of his land, and to head toward some place that God will show him later. The rest of the portion is filled with interesting narratives, conflict resolution (think of Abraham’s and Lot’s shepherds), war, travels to Egypt and the commandment of circumcision – quite a bit of drama and suspense.
In a way, one could state that this parashah could be called the “Start of it All” portion. Since the story of creation, we have had a number of incidents that had a start and a finish. The world started out being null and void, and ended up as an orderly, balanced and harmonious cosmos. Adam and Eve started in the Garden of Eden, where they had everything at their disposal, and ended up being cast out of the garden, where they (and we) were destined to work for every crumb. The world originally was supposed to be inhabited by people, and it finished with a handful of flood survivors leaving the ark. And Judaism, as we know it today, began when God told Abraham to leave his country, and, well, thankfully it has yet to end, and hopefully it never will.
The story of that first Jew, Abraham, was the “start of it all,” which began more than 3,500 years ago, when not very much was going on. People were plowing their fields, building a few cities, inventing a few neat things like the brand-new, all-purpose Sharpo Flint Sharpener (not a favorite item for Moses’ son – look it up) and otherwise just sitting around the campfire telling stories of days gone by.
One of those families became distinct by virtue of God’s words to Abraham. We don’t know much about his family. His father’s name was Terach; we don’t know his mother’s name. One of his brothers, Haran, may have died as a young man, but not before begetting a famous son named Lot, whose wife, many years later, turned into a pillar of salt. The other brother, Nahor, married, had loads of kids, and that’s all we know about him.
Abraham’s life, by far, was the most interesting of the siblings. Somehow, somewhere, under circumstances we may never know, God appeared to him and told him to pick up his wife, his belongings, walking gear, traveler’s checks, GPS and leave his father’s house, the city where he grew up, the country of his birth. Where was he going? California? Hawaii? The Virgin Islands? He did not know, and, interestingly, seemed not to be too concerned. You see, God struck a pretty good deal with Abe. God said: “Go where I tell you and as a reward, you will become the father of a great nation.” Such a deal, who could refuse! Well, many, many, many years later, that great nation is made up of you and me and millions of other Jews. And who started it all? Avraham Avinu, Abraham, our (fore)father.
The portion continues the story of Abraham and his wife Sarah. (His name was originally Avram, and hers Sarai – until changed by God, indicating they would become the father and mother of a multitude.) They leave their homeland, and ultimately head toward Canaan, their new home. As the narrative unfolds, Abraham becomes a wealthy well-known community person who is only lacking a child, without whom it is nearly impossible to become a forefather and start a great people. And, as luck would have it, Sarah was barren, inconceivable as it sounds, and prospects for a great nation emanating from his loins seemed to be dim at best. Until one day. …
Sarah goes to Abraham and states – look, I cannot have a child. However, my handmaid Hagar looks fertile (don’t ask me how she could tell), so have a child with her, and I will consider it as if it was mine (that’s how they did it in those days). The idea sounded good to Abraham (no comment) and sure enough, in time, Ishmael came into the world.
What I find interesting is the way Sarah posed her plan to Abraham. She explained that when Hagar has her child, hopefully a boy, she, Sarah, will be “built” by it. It would be as if Hagar’s child would “build” Sarah. What an amazing notion! As if nothing could give Sarah strength, stability and a sense of grounding like a child, even one who is not biologically hers. Sarah certainly had the characteristics of love, and devotion and maternal instincts. But it would be the child who would hold it all together, and “build” her up.
Throughout the generations, we have always placed our children as the highest priority. The Talmud reminds us that “childhood is a garland of roses.” It also states that “the very breath of children is free of sin.” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 152, 119.) The Book of Psalms proclaims that “children are an inheritance from the Lord.” (Psalm 127.) And, we bring to mind the story of a man who planted a carob tree, which is known to bear fruit only after 70 years. When asked whether he thought he would live to eat from the tree, the man replied: “I am doing as my ancestors did. Just as they planted a carob tree for their children, I am planting for my children.”
So, the chain of Judaism began when God spoke to a human being and promised him eternal progeny. May we continue to add to that link, strengthening that chain whose first link was born so many years ago.
ETHAN ADLER is the rabbi of Congregation Beth David in Narragansett.