FROM THE TORAH
LECH-LECHA: The Third Sedra of the Torah
In this third portion of the Torah, Sedra Lech-Lecha, the focus of the universal Eternal is directed upon one man, Abram, and his family and descendants. At the age of 75, he must leave his homeland, with his wife Sarai and his nephew Lot, to settle in the land of Canaan, which is granted to his descendants. In his new status he would enable blessing for all the families of the earth. Nonetheless, famine drives Abram and Sarai to find food in Egypt. Aware of his vulnerability under the murderous aegis of Pharaoh, Abram enlists Sarai to deflect potential harm, and the Eternal intervenes to both protect them and enrich Abram. In Canaan wealth undermines the harmony of Abram and Lot and their herdsmen, yet Abram in his role as a warrior lord later rescues Lot from captivity. Abram recognizes the issue of succession, as long as he and Sarai lack a direct heir, but the Eternal assures him of offspring in a disclosing vision of their future, by a covenant, between the halves of animals. Sarai and Abram continue to struggle with Sarai’s childless status as Abram sires a son by Sarai’s maidservant. Further signs of the covenant are represented in the change of the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah, circumcision for all of the males of their household and descendants, and the foretelling of the birth of their son and heir, Isaac, when Abraham is 100 years of age and Sarah is 90.
THE ETERNAL CALLS ABRAM
The Eternal calls Abram to leave his home and homeland for the land of Canaan
and grants the land of Canaan to his offspring.
The Eternal says to Abram: “Get yourself (Lech-Lecha) out of your homeland, out of your father’s house, to the land that I shall show you.” (12:1) I shall make you into a great and renowned nation. I shall bless you and whoever blesses you; whoever curses you I shall curse; all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you. So, at the age of 75, Abram leaves his homeland Charan. He takes Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot, all the property that they have acquired, “and the souls which they made in Charan.” (12:5)
They head to the land of Canaan. Abram crosses into the land as far as Shechem, as far as the Terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanite was then in the land. The Eternal appears to Abram and says, “To your offspring I grant this land” (12:7), whereupon Abram builds an altar there to the Eternal. He moves from there to the hill country, pitching his tent between Beth El on the west and Ai on the east. There again he builds an altar to the Eternal, invoking the name of the Eternal. Abram then journeys in stages toward the south.
ABRAM AND SARAI IN EGYPT
Abram and Sarai go down to Egypt to escape famine,
and the Eternal protects them from Pharaoh.
When there is famine in the land, Abram goes down to sojourn in Egypt to find food. As he draws near to Egypt, he voices to Sarai his apprehension that, as his wife, her beauty would prompt the Egyptians to kill him and capture her. “Say that you are my sister,” he entreats her, “in order that I might live and be treated well because of you.”
Indeed, when Abram enters Egypt and the Egyptians see how very beautiful Sarai is, Pharaoh’s servants tell Pharaoh, and she is taken to his palace. Pharaoh treats Abram well because of her, and Abram acquires flocks, herds, asses, slaves, and camels. But the Eternal afflicts Pharaoh and his household severely on account of Sarai, wife of Abram. Pharaoh cries out to Abram: Why have you done this to me? Why did you not tell me that she is your wife but instead that she is your sister, so that I took her as my wife! Now take your wife and go! Pharaoh had men escort Abram and his wife off along with all that he possessed.
ABRAM AND LOT SEPARATE
Abram and Lot separate for the sake of peace between their herdsmen;
Lot settles in Sodom while Abram remains in Canaan.
From Egypt, Abram returns, together with his wife, his property and Lot, to the south. Rich in cattle, silver and gold, Abram then proceeds in stages from the south to the place where his tent was before, between Beth El and Ai, to the site of the altar that he had established earlier, and there Abram invokes the name of the Eternal. Lot, who went with Abram, also possessed flocks and herds and tents, and the land could not bear the habitation together of two so abundant of possessions. Quarreling breaks out between their respective herdsmen. The Canaanite and the Perizzite were then dwelling in the land.
Abram entreats Lot: Let there not be quarreling between us brothers. “Is not all of the land before you?” Let us separate: “If you go to the left, I will go to the right; if you go to the right, I will go to the left.” (13:9) Lot chooses the well-watered plain of the Jordan. This was before the Eternal destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Then it could be likened to the garden of the Eternal. It was like the land of Egypt, all the way to Zoar. Thus Lot journeys eastward, while Abram remains in the land of Canaan. Lot settled in the cities of the plain, pitching his tent near Sodom, whose people were exceedingly evil and sinful against the Eternal.
PROMISE OF THE LAND REPEATED
The Eternal promises the land to Abram and his numerous offspring;
Abram moves to the Terebinths of Mamre in Hebron.
After Lot separated from Abram, the Eternal said to Abram, “Lift up your eyes and look from where you are, to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west; all that you see, I give to you and to your offspring for ever.” (13:14-15) Your offspring, said the Eternal, shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth is uncountable: walk the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you. Abram then moves his tent to dwell at the Terebinths of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and there he builds an altar to the Eternal.
WAR OF THE FOUR KINGS AGAINST THE FIVE KINGS
Abram rescues the city of Sodom and his nephew Lot;
Malkitzedek blesses Abram in the name of “God Most High”;
Abram refuses to keep the recaptured property of Sodom for himself.
The four kings—Amraphel of Shinar, Arioch of Ellasar, Kedorlaomer of Elam, and Tidal of Goyim—made war on the five kings—Bera of Sodom, Birsha of Gomorrah, Shinav of Admah, Shemever of Tsevoyim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar. All of the five kings joined together at the Valley of Siddim, which is the Dead Sea: for twelve years they served Kedorlaomer of the four kings, but in the thirteenth year they rebelled.
In the fourteenth year, the four kings, under Kedorlaomer, subdue the Rephaim, the Zuzim, the Emim, and the Chorites, in their respective territories. On their way back from that campaign, they subdue the Amalekites and the Amorites in their respective territories.
Then the five kings–of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Tsevoyim, and Bela–engage the four kings in battle in the Valley of Siddim. But the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah flee and fall among some of the numerous bitumen pits in the Valley of Siddim, while the others flee to the hill country. The victorious four kings make off with all of the wealth of Sodom and Gomorrah and all of their food, along with Lot, the son of Abram’s brother, who had settled in Sodom.
Abram the Hebrew was dwelling at the Terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, whose brothers Eshkol and Aner were his allies. When a fugitive brings Abram word that Abram’s own kinsman Lot has been captured, he leads forth his followers, born in his household, three hundred eighteen, as far as Dan. They attack at night and pursue the four kings under Kedorlaomer as far as Chovah, which is north of Damascus. Abram brings back all of the property, his kinsman Lot, the women, and the people.
The king of Sodom comes out to meet Abram in the Valley of Shaveh, which is the Valley of the King, and Malkitzedek, king of Salem, a priest of El Elyon, “God Most High” (14:18), brought bread and wine. Malkitzedek blesses Abram with the words, “Blessed be Abram of El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be El Elyon, who has delivered your foes into your hand” (14:19-20), and he gives him a tenth of everything.
The king of Sodom demands that Abram return to him the people whom Abram rescued, while the king cedes to Abram the property that Abram recaptured. Abram responds, “I raise my hand to the Eternal…that I will take neither thread nor sandal strap of any that is yours, so that you may not say, ‘I have enriched Abram!’” The only exception was what his servants consumed and the share of Abram’s allies–Aner, Eshkol and Mamre.
GOD COVENANTS ABRAM’S ESTATE
God reassures Abram of future progeny,
but He also foretells exile, oppression, and eventual return,
in the covenant between the pieces.
Then came the word of the Eternal to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield (magen), your reward will be very great.” (15:1) But Abram laments his childless state and observes that his heir was currently his servant Eliezer of Damascus. The Eternal assures him that his own progeny would yet inherit him. He takes him outside and compares the number of his offspring to the uncountable stars of heaven. Abram then puts his trust in the Eternal, and it is considered tzedakah (15:6), righteousness transcendent.
With respect to the land, He says to Abram, “I am the Eternal, who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to grant you this land as an inheritance.” (15:7) At Abram’s request, the Eternal provides Abram a way to know that he would inherit the land. He has him bring three heifers, three goats, three rams, a turtledove, and a young dove. Abram cuts them in two, placing each half opposite the other, but he does not cut up the bird. Birds of prey descend upon the carcasses, but Abram drives them away.
As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread. The Eternal says to Abram:
“Know well that your offspring will be a stranger in a land not theirs,
and they shall serve them, and they shall oppress them, for 400 years.
“But, indeed, the nation that they serve I shall judge,
and afterwards they shall emerge with much wealth.
“You shall come to your fathers in peace,
and you shall be buried in good old age.
“The fourth generation shall return here,
for the iniquity of the Amorite shall not be complete until then.”
Then the sun set. It became very dark. A smoky furnace and a fiery torch passed between the pieces. On that day the Eternal made the following covenant with Abram:
“To your offspring do I grant this land,
from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the River Euphrates:
the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,
the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,
the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
BIRTH OF ISHMAEL
Abram begets his own son
through the surrogacy of his wife’s Egyptian maidservant.
As Sarai had not borne a child to her husband Abram, she offered him her Egyptian maidservant Hagar as a surrogate. “Perhaps I shall be ‘builded/childed’ through her” (16:2), she says. Abram agrees, so Sarai gives her to Abram as a wife, after Abram has lived in the land of Canaan for ten years. Abram cohabits with her, but when Hagar conceives, her mistress is lowered in her esteem. Sarai blames Abram for Hagar’s attitude, and Abram insists that Sarai deal with her maidservant as she sees fit. Sarai treats her harshly so that Hagar runs away.
An angel of the Eternal finds Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness on the road to Shur. When the angel asks Hagar for her origin and destination, she answers, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” (16:8) The angel orders her to return to her mistress and submit to her harsh treatment, promising her abundant offspring. The angel foretells the fulfillment of her pregnancy: she will bear a son and name him Ishmael, the name implying, “The Eternal pays heed to your suffering.” (16:11) Regarding the child’s character, the angel says: “He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; alongside all his kinsmen shall he dwell.” (16:12)
Hagar calls the Eternal, who spoke with her, Attah El Roi, “You are My Seeing God,” thinking, “I saw God as God saw me.” (16:13) Therefore the well was named Be’er Lachai Roi, “Well of the Seeing for the Living,” between Kadesh and Bered. Hagar bears a son to Abram. Abram names him Ishmael. Abram was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.
SIGNS OF THE COVENANT
God changes the name of Abram to Abraham.
When Abram is 99 years old, the Eternal appears to him and says, “I am El Shaddai, ‘God Almighty’; walk before Me and be blameless.” (17:1) The Eternal promises to establish His covenant between them and to make Abram exceedingly numerous. Abram throws himself down and receives from God a change of name: “No longer shall your name be Abram; rather shall it be Abraham,” the new name signifying, “father of a multitude of nations,” and “kings will come forth from you.” (17:4) God promises to maintain an everlasting covenant with future generations of Abraham’s descendants, to be their God, and to grant them the land of their sojourning, the land of Canaan, as a permanent possession.
God commands circumcision for Abraham,
the males of his household, and his male descendants.
God enjoins Abraham and his offspring throughout their generations to observe His covenant through circumcision of the male foreskin at the age of eight days: “It shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” (17:11) It would apply to every male, whether born in the household or acquired from outside. “Thus shall My covenant be in your flesh as a permanent covenant.” (17:13) Whoever fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people: “He has violated My covenant.” (17:14)
God changes the name of Sarai to Sarah
and foretells the birth of Isaac.
As for Sarai, God says to Abraham, “Do not call her Sarai; rather, Sarah shall be her name.” (17:15) God promises to bless Sarah and foretells the birth of a son by her. She will become nations, and kings will come from her. But Abraham falls upon his face and laughs, doubting that a son could be born to a 100-year-old man or a 90-year-old woman. “O that Ishmael would live before you!” (17:18) he entreats God. God reassures Abraham that a son will be born to them, that he will name him Isaac, which means “laughter,” and that God will maintain His covenant through Isaac and his descendants.
God heeds Abraham’s prayer for Ishmael
and predicts the time of Isaac’s birth;
Abraham carries out God’s instruction for circumcision.
God will heed Abraham’s prayer regarding Ishmael: He will bless him and make him fruitful, the progenitor of twelve princes and a great nation. Isaac will be born at this time next year. Thereupon God ceases speaking with Abraham and is gone from his presence.
Then Abraham circumcises Ishmael and all the other males of his household on that very day as God has instructed him. Abraham himself is 99 years old when he is circumcised, and Ishmael his son is 13 years old when he is circumcised. All of them were circumcised on that very same day.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Lech-Lecha
Why should you doubt, O Jacob, that God is aware of your claim? Do you not know, O Israel, that the Eternal is the infinite God, Creator of the entire earth, who never tires, whose understanding is without limit? Likewise God gives strength to the weary. Even the young become exhausted and fail, but those who trust in the Eternal renew their strength, soaring on wings like eagles, running and never growing faint.
O ends of the earth, do listen! Let peoples renew their strength! Speak not, but draw near to judgment! Who has aroused our champion from the east, whose every step is triumphant, who vanquishes nations and kings, whose sword and bow make them as dust and driven straw? It is I, the Eternal, First and Last.
Far off, they see and are afraid. The ends of the earth do tremble. They approach, drawing near, each holding the other for support and assurance. Artisans compliment each other and nail their work to the ground. But you, O Israel My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham my faithful friend, I embrace you and welcome you from the far corners of the earth. I say to you: you are My servant, I have chosen you and not rejected you!
Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. My victorious right hand is all the support that you need. Your angry opponents will vanish in their shame. Though they would crush you as a worm, I, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, will help you. I shall make you a sharp threshing sledge: your fresh sharp teeth will thresh mountains to dust and render the hills like chaff. You shall winnow them so that the wind carries them away. Then shall you rejoice in the Eternal and engage in praise of the Holy One of Israel.
FROM THE MIDRASH
Rabbi Abin taught: Abram in his homeland and in his father’s house can be compared to a bottle of perfume that was alone in a graveyard, where there was no one to smell its fragrance. If it was taken and carried from place to place, then its fragrance would be known throughout the world. Abram lived in the midst of idolators. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: “Get yourself out of your homeland, out of your father’s house” (12:1), and I will make your redolent goodness known to all the world. Tanchuma Lech-Lecha 3
BEAUTIFUL IN HIS NEW WORLD
The Eternal said to Abram: “Get yourself out of your homeland, out of your father’s house, to the land that I shall show you.” (12:1) Similarly, the Psalmist imagined a king’s foreign bride, “Listen, O daughter, and see…forget your people and your father’s house, for the king desires your beauty; he is your lord, bow down to him” (Psalms 45:11-12). The Psalmist alludes to Abraham. Rabbi Isaac explained: The world that Abraham knew was being consumed by idolatry and immorality, so Abraham wondered, “Is this world without an ultimate Ruler? Is no one in charge?” At that point God intervened, “I am in charge: ‘Get yourself out of your homeland, out of your father’s house….’” The ultimate King desired to make Abram, like the human king’s bride, beautiful in his new world and to bring him to a place where he could bow down in worship to his Lord, the ultimate Ruler, “…to the land that I shall show you.” Genesis Rabbah 39:1
HONORING FATHER AND MOTHER
Did Abram observe God’s commandment to honor his father and mother when he departed from his father’s house in Charan? Rabbi Isaac noted: Abram’s father Terach was 70 years old when he begat Abram (11:26), and Abram was 75 when he left for Charan (12:4). So elderly Terach was 145 years old when Abram left! Since Terach died in Charan at the age of 205 (11:32), he must have lived another 60 years [205 minus 145] after Abram left him. Abram worried that he might be accused of profaning God’s Name for abandoning his father in his old age. That is why the very last words of the preceding sedra announce Terach’s death: “Terach died in Charan,” then, “The Eternal said to Abram: Get yourself out of your homeland, out of your father’s house…” (11:32-12:1): to teach us that even though Terach lived another 60 years, the wicked are considered dead even while they are alive. Said the Holy One blessed be He to Abram: With Terach’s death, as it were, I exempt you from honoring father and mother, but I do not exempt anyone else, for as long as your parents are alive, you cannot forget them. Genesis Rabbah 39:7
THE HONOR OF THE RIGHTEOUS
Rabbi Jeremiah taught: The Holy One blessed be He protects the honor of the righteous more than He protects His own honor. With respect to His own honor, God said, “Those who honor Me, I shall honor; and those who demean Me shall be held in low esteem.” (I Samuel 2:30) But with respect to the righteous, He said to Abram, “I shall bless those who bless you, and I (Myself) shall curse anyone who curses you.” (12:3) Fittingly, for the Eighteen Benedictions, that are part of every service, we are taught to bow at the beginning and end of the benediction which mentions the Patriarchs, but we do not do so for the benediction that mentions God’s power. Genesis Rabbah 39:12
“THE SOULS WHICH THEY HAD MADE”
When Abram left for the land of Canaan, he took his wife, his nephew, all of their property, “and the souls which they had made in Charan.” (12:5) Rabbi Elazar observed in the name of Rabbi Yosi ben Zimra: If all the inhabitants of the world got together to create even a single simple gnat, they would not be able to instill within it a soul, yet you say, “and the souls which they had made?!” (12:5) Rather, these words refer to the souls whom Abraham and Sarah redeemed from idolatry. If so, why “made?” To teach us that one who brings an idolator near to the Holy One blessed be He, it is as if he has created that soul anew. And why say, “the souls which they [in the plural] had made? Rav Huna explained: “They” refers to both Abraham and Sarah, for Abraham redeemed the men while Sarah redeemed the women. Genesis Rabbah 39:14
CONFIDENCE AND OPTIMISM IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY
When there was a famine in the land, Abram went down to sojourn in Egypt to find food. (12:10) Said Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Chanin of Sepphoris, Abram’s response to adversity teaches us the lesson found in Psalms: “Happy is the one whom You chasten, O Eternal, whom You teach from Your Torah.” (Psalms 94:12) Abram might have complained, “You just promised me greatness and blessing!” but instead he accepted God’s chastening and found within himself the strength to overcome it. This incident stands as the lesson implied in Psalms: we can maintain our confidence and our optimism in the face of adversity and learn from the Torah the example of Abram. Genesis Rabbah 40:2
IN THE EYES OF HER HUSBAND
As they drew near to Egypt, Abram said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a beautiful woman.” (12:11) We assume that Abram married in his youth, like his brother Haran (11:27-30), so Abram and Sarai had already been married for many years. Yet Abram recognized his wife’s unfailing beauty notwithstanding the years that they had been married. Genesis Rabbah 40:4
ON ACCOUNT OF SARAI’S WORDS
Pharaoh treated Abram well because of her, when he thought that Sarai was Abram’s sister. But the Eternal afflicted Pharaoh and his household severely on account of Sarai, Abram’s wife (12:17), that is, because of Sarai’s words as Abram’s wife. Rabbi Berechia explained: All that night Sarai lay prostrate upon her face and cried out, “Master of the universe, Abraham went out from Charan with your promise, but I went out only in faith; Abraham went out free of thorns, but I am in the midst of thorns!” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to her, “All that I have undertaken with Abram, I have undertaken on account of you, Sarai, Abram’s wife.” Genesis Rabbah 41:2