Posted by: Subway Conductor | October 30, 2020

A Derasha for Parshat Lech lecha

In this week’s Torah reading we really get into the subject matter that is at the heart of the Book of Genesis – the story of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. We look at the narratives about these biblical figures to learn what it means to be a Jew and a human being. They are models for us of how we should behave.

In this parsha we have a very problematic episode. Abraham decides to leave Canaan and go down to Egypt because of a famine. He tells his wife Sarah, who was a very beautiful woman, to say that she is Abraham’s sister not his wife. Abraham is fearful that the Egyptians will kill him in order to take her.  Indeed, Sarah does end up being taken into the house of Pharaoh who gives Abraham great possessions. G-d sends a plague against Pharaoh and he realizes that Sarah must be Abraham’s wife. He sends the two of them away. But the vexing question remains. Why did Abraham ask his wife to lie. The midrash and commentaries offer explanations that whitewash Abraham’s questionable behavior. One can explain that when Abraham told Sarah to say that she is his sister, that was not really a lie because “sister” does not have to be taken literally, but can mean a relative. And the fact is, there is a tradition that Sarah was Abraham’s niece. One can also rationalize that Abraham was justifiably afraid of the Egyptian’s behavior towards his wife since Egypt was well-known for its immorality. However, the Ramban provides a comment on this episode that is very important for what I see as a proper understanding of these biblical narratives. The Ramban – rabbi Moshe ben Nachman or Nachmanides, lived in Spain in the 13th century and is, after Rashi, perhaps the most important rabbinic commentator on the Torah. He states explicitly concerning this episode that Abraham sinned. As a matter of fact, he committed two sins. First, he should not have left the land of Canaan to go down to Egypt. This showed a lack of faith in G-d on Abraham’s part. Did he not believe that G-d could provide sustenance during the famine? Second, he also sinned by telling Sarah to lie for him. Again, this showed a lack of faith. Did Abraham not believe that G-d could protect him and his wife? The Ramban’s comment brings us to reconsider just what we mean when we say that the patriarchs are models of behavior. For many this means that they must be models of perfection. We can remember the medieval paintings of biblical figures with halos over their heads. For many, both Christians and Jews, the biblical heroes are angelic. They were born perfect and everything they did must be understood as illustrating their purity and blamelessness. But this is not necessarily a particularly helpful model. Most of us cannot aspire to perfection. Rather, if we see the biblical figures as human beings with all of the problems, shortcomings, and character flaws of real human beings, then we can see them as models of people who strive to overcome their innate nature. The great figures of the Bible were not born great, they became great because they struggled to improve themselves. This is a model that we can indeed learn from. Life is a constant struggle to master ourselves, to restrain our instinctual impulses. This does not happen easily and the stories of the patriarchs show us how they grew over time.

There is an enigmatic statement in the Talmud that highlights this same view. “The greater the person, the stronger is their yetzer harah (their evil inclination).” A great person is not someone who is born perfect, rather a great person is someone who was born with even stronger character flaws than most and struggled to overcome them. This is what we see in the stories of the patriarchs. The comment of the Ramban which points out the sins of Abraham rather than attempting to cover over them makes us aware of this struggle. We will see this perspective on life illustrated repeatedly in the Torah portions that we read over the coming weeks.

This idea that life is a perpetual struggle is really central to the entire narrative of the Torah. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Abraham first encounters G-d and the first command given to the first Jew was “Go forth!” That is the meaning of the words lech lecha. Abraham’s life as a Jew and as a human being who encounters G-d is to get going. And notice that G-d does not even tell Abraham what his goal is. He says to him, “go to the land that I will show you.”  The central charge of the command is to go, not to specify a goal. And we see that Abraham continues to move. He comes to the Land of Canaan and does not settle down in any place. He moves from one locale to another. He goes down to Egypt and comes back up. By the time his wife Sarah dies (several Torah portions hence) he does not have any possession in the land. He is “a resident alien”. Indeed, we can look at the Torah as a whole and see it as the account of a journey. Mostly the Torah is taken up with the account of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. At the end of the Torah, the Jewish People are still on the other side of the Jordan, they have not crossed over into the Promised Land. The goal is always out in front of us. The essential thing is to be moving. We are to constantly be in a state of flux, striving to become better than we are now. There is no end point. There is no state of perfection. There will always be new challenges that we must struggle to meet. This is the great lesson of the Torah and it is the view of life for which the lives of the heroes of the Bible are models.

Good Shabbos!

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