HaMirpeset Shelanu 195: From Joseph Eskin

Parashat Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha,” the phrase with which God calls upon Abraham to leave his home, his father’s home, the land of his birth, has become a maxim for those intrepid individuals who, bolstered by faith, set out on journeys into the unknown. Abraham is celebrated for his willingness to sacrifice the comfort and stability of home for the chance to fulfill the destiny God sets out for him. Those doing the celebrating, though, conveniently forget the lines that God adds shortly after: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse…” (Genesis 12:2-3). I have to be honest: with terms like that, I’d be a lot more intrepid myself. Is there anything particularly special or worth emulating about an individual who agrees to a mission knowing with certainty that it will turn out overwhelmingly in his favor?

Rashi picks up on this question in his interpretation of Verse 2, pointing out that since traveling diminishes one’s ability to procreate, decreases one’s wealth, and lowers the recognizability of one’s name, Abraham required these three promises from God. Because these were the most frightening elements of leaving home, Abraham needed reassurance that he would not be left with nothing if he agreed to follow God’s command. This comment from Rashi does little to reawaken our admiration for Abraham; his journey into Canaan seems like a pretty cushy deal. The situation does not improve as the chapter continues and Abraham descends into Egypt along with his wife, Sarah, to avoid the effects of a famine. As they approach, Abraham explains his fear that the Egyptians will be taken with Sarah’s beauty and will slay him as a result. “Please say that you are my sister,” he begs Sarah, “in order that it go well with me because of you” (Genesis 12:13). Rashi comments that Abraham’s somewhat cryptic phrase – “in order that it go well with me” – is a way of saying he wants gifts. So we have a pattern: Abraham is willing to leave home, to travel to a new land, and even to part with his wife – all as long as there is a payoff for him in the end. This is the heroic “faith” that we are told to emulate? What are we to do if our role model extraordinaire, our original founding father, appears to be so cynical?

To find relief, we have to travel forward to Chapter 13, where tensions build between Abraham and his nephew, Lot, as it becomes clear that the land in which they are dwelling is not big enough for the both of them. Selflessly, Abraham offers Lot the chance to choose any area as his own; whatever scraps he chooses to leave Abraham, he will take. Lot chooses the bountifully watered Jordan plain, or in Hebrew, kikar, leaving Abraham a less desirable portion of Canaan. This is no small bounty that Abraham is giving up. The kikar that he allows Lot to take is the early-June kikar of Conover – beautiful, lush, green, undisturbed by camp life. Just as the kikar fades over the course of the summer as a result of frisbee games, pre-Shabbat dancing, and Ramah-kehla performances, so too will Lot’s kikar one day fade away (albeit due to God’s wrath in response to the evil of Sodom), but at this point in the story, the economic loss Abraham incurs is significant. What explains the disconnect between the greedy, cynical Abraham of Chapter 12 and the generous Abraham of Chapter 13?

The answer will be familiar to any counselor, coach, or CIT: over the course of this story, we are witnessing God’s gentle shaping of Abraham’s attitude into the true faith for which he would become famous. It would be unreasonable for God to expect perfect faith out of Abraham in their initial encounter, so though Abraham is not yet ready to sacrifice wealth and comfort as he commits to God, God rewards him for being willing to take even the first step. As their relationship deepens, the traits that God expects of Abraham – kindness, generosity, faith – are drawn out more clearly. As many of us have experienced at camp and at home, those around us do not always live up to the lofty ideals we set for them, and we ourselves often fall short of expectations others have set for us. In moments like this, may we have the wisdom and patience to take a page out of God’s book, providing positive feedback, working to strengthen our relationships, and continuing to work toward the moment when reality meets with the highest of expectations.

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