Saturday, October 28, 2006

Thoughts on Parashat Lech L'Cha

Parashat Noach ends telling us:

וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת־אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־הָרָן בֶּן־בְּנוֹ וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנ֔עַן וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד־חָרָן וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם. . . וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח בְּחָרָן

And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. . . and Terah died in Haran. (11:31-2)

We do not know why Terach packed up his family and set out to Canaan, but we do know that this was Terach's goal. We also know that Terach settled in Haran, again we don't know why. Then Parashat Lech L'Cha begins with:

וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת־שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת־לוֹט בֶּן־אָחִיו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת־הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר־עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. (12:3)
One cannot help but note that Avram is undertaking the journey that his father failed to complete. The journey from Ur to Canaan takes two generations. This puts one in mind of the words of Rabbi Tarfon from Pirke Avot: "It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, yet you are not free to desist from it." (Avot 2:16)

It is of Torah study that Tarfon is speaking, and as we look at the history of Jewish tradition from Torah to Prophets to Writings to Mishnah to Talmud to the Law codes and commentaries and responsa literature, we see a multigeneration conversation taking place.

As individuals faced with a daunting task we may become overwhelmed, but the work is carried out not in a single lifetime, but across the generations. And one of the tasks we face in every generation is the preparation of the next generation to take up the work that we cannot complete.


When I consider:

וַיִּרְאוּ אֹתָהּ שָׂרֵי פַרְעֹה וַיְהַלֲלוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַתֻּקַּח הָאִשָּׁה בֵּית פַּרְעֹה: וּלְאַבְרָם הֵיטִיב בַּעֲבוּרָהּ וַיְהִי־לוֹ צֹאן־וּבָקָר וַחֲמֹרִים וַעֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחֹת וַאֲתֹנֹת וּגְמַלִּים

And Pharaoh's officers saw her and they praised her to Pharaoh and the woman was taken to the house of Pharaoh. And for Avram it went well because of her, and there was to him flock and herd, asses and bondsmen, maidservants and she-asses and camels.
What I find interesting is that it went well for Avram "because of her" his wife/kinswoman "on the inside" so to speak. I cannot help but be reminded a little of Mordechai and Esther - because of her beauty she was taken into the king's house, and because she was taken into the king's house it went well for the Jews of Shushan.
A curiosity in the changing of names:
וְלֹא-יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת-שִׁמְךָ, אַבְרָם; וְהָיָה
שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם
No longer will you name be called Avram; but your
name will be Abraham . . .(17:5)

Here it looks like God is renaming Avram. Your name was Avram, now it is Abraham. Contrast this with the Sarai/Sarah shift:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם, שָׂרַי אִשְׁתְּךָ לֹא-תִקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמָהּ שָׂרָי: כִּי שָׂרָה, שְׁמָהּ
And God said to Abraham, "Sarai your wife - don't call her name Sarai, because 'Sarah' is her name." (17:15)
Here it looks almost as if God is chiding Abraham for having called her by the wrong name all this time. Whereas when Avram becomes Abraham, a converted perfect is used for time-setting, here, we have a simple copulative. It seems almost as if the name Abraham is given - Avram has been transformed into Abraham, but that Sarai has been Sarah all along, and Avram could not know that, but Abraham can.

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