Sunday, October 30, 2011

Becoming a Blessings

Parshat Lech Lecha

Bereshit 12:1 – 17:20
8 Cheshvan 5772 / Nov. 4-5, 2011

Becoming a Blessing

By Sarah Curtin, MHSF

This week’s parsha is when Abram (not yet Abraham) is told by G-d to venture from his father’s country and into a new place that G-d will show him. G-d sends him on this journey before making Abram the father of the Jewish nation. Much has been written about this journey, and the specific command from G-d “Lech Lecha” – go yourself, go into yourself, go with yourself… and how this may mean: become yourself; be true to yourself; get to know yourself; journey into your soul; etc.

I think this is an important piece of the story here because at the start of Lech Lecha, Abram really doesn’t seem like someone worthy of being a blessing and a great father of nations. As you shall see, he comes across as quite selfish, and insensitive, even towards the wellbeing of his wife. It takes him years of suffering, and a lot of soul-searching and growth to be ready for a covenant with G-d. This torah portion comes only weeks after Yom Kippur, and I see a connection between our annual rituals absolving our communities of sin, and Abram’s journey in this week’s parsha.

So, back to the story. Abram hears G-d’s voice, and leaves his homeland as directed. During his subsequent journey, there is a famine in Canaan. As Abram heads towards Egypt for food he stops and asks a favor of his wife. Abram knows that his wife is fair and beautiful, and is worried that out of jealousy or lust the Egyptians may kill him to gain access to Sarai (not yet Sarah). So, Abram asks Sarai to lie and say that she is his sister:

“And it will come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see you that they will say: This is his wife… and they will kill me, but you they will keep alive.” “Say, I pray you, that you are my sister; that it may be well with me, and that my soul may live because of thee.” (Genesis Chapter 12, verses 12, 13).

Abram is thinking very selfishly at this point, looking out for his own safety and security, and not his wife’s. Although he thinks there is no chance Sarai will be killed by the Egyptians, he must know that because of her great beauty she might be ‘taken’ and married off to another man if she is falsely presented as single. Which, in fact is precisely what happens:

“And the princes of Pharaoh saw her, and praised her to Pharaoh and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house.” (Genesis, Chapter 12, verse 15)

Not only is Sarai taken, but Abram accepts payment in exchange for his wife! Abram is given cattle, camels, and servants, and becomes a rich man. How can a man who will become a blessing to the world, who will make the covenant with G-d, and who is the forefather of the Jewish people, be effectively pimping out his wife? I’m not even a very ardent feminist, but reading this gives me the chills. I’m named after this great Matriarch who became pregnant in her 90s with Isaac, the next man in our people’s shared family tree… and I don’t like thinking that she was traded for goods. Why would Abram do this? And the even bigger questions are why does G-d punish Pharaoh for this and not Abram, and how does this man then change and become his true self?

“And the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram’s Wife.” “And Pharaoh called Abram, and said: ‘What is this that you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife?” “Why did you say: ‘She is my sister?’ Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife?” (Genesis, Chapter 12, verses 17, 18).

What is the message here? Why is Abram portrayed in such a negative light?

At this point, Abram isn’t acting with the depth of humility and loving-kindness for all that I’d like to expect of my forefathers or any religious, righteous, Jewish person. In truth, it takes him years, and a lot of suffering, to be ready for a covenant with G-d. Abram lives through the fighting between kingdoms and the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, lives through the kidnapping of his brethren, and lives with the sadness of an infertile wife. He doesn’t know if he can believe G-d’s promise that he will be the father of a great nation, because he doesn’t have an heir to inherit even his own accumulated wealth. He fathers Ishmael, but has to suffer the tension between his wife Sarai and her maidservant Hagar, the mother of his firstborn son. What is the message here?

After struggling with this piece of Abram’s history, I’ve come to realize that the Torah shows us that we have a forgiving G-d, we have a G-d that doesn’t expect us to always act as holy, perfect beings. I don’t think that the Torah is condoning the selling of women, or that any crime can be excused, but it does show that even the heroes of great stories are fallible. We need to strive to be the best that we can be, but if and when we fail, and if and when we don’t think about the consequences of what we are doing, we can still get back up and try again. We can go into ourselves (Lech Lecha), and become our better selves. We are not forever ‘evil.’ In G-d’s eyes we can still be a blessing.


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