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Voices, Visions, and Variety

10/15/2021 11:18:54 AM


       Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Lech-Lecha, in which we start to learn about Abram. God forms a special covenant with Abram in this parasha which serves to effectively be the betrothal with the Hebrews that will develop into the ketubah signed with the Israelites at Mount Sinai. This parasha shows us a momentous moment and relationship for our peoplehood and faith, but exactly what kind of person is our father Abram/Abraham?

       Tradition tells us that Abraham is a true Tzadik, and to be sure there are several moments in this parasha and in the Torah readings we will learn over the next few weeks that illustrate Abraham’s good qualities. In this parasha we see that he is faithful, picking up and moving when and where God tells him to without question or concern. Though this move requires him to leave his father and much of his family behind, we see that he remains loyal to the family through his relationship to his nephew Lot. The two travel together and when their herds and herdsmen cannot maintain peace between them, they go their separate ways in peace so as to maintain the health of their familial relationship before it can be filled with resentment over resource scarcity. Shortly after they split up, Lot is kidnapped by neighboring kings, and Abram is determined to rescue him. At times, Abram shows deference to his wife, and love to both his sons. In a later parasha he will argue on behalf of an unworthy city full of wicked people, worried that some decent people may be swept away in God’s collective punishment. 

      But of course, we only know what the Torah tells us. There are always multiple sides to any story and people are complex. We all could find people to sing our praises and people who would be happy to tell others how terrible we are. We all embody different power dynamics with each relationship we hold throughout our lives, and different responsibilities that go with those power dynamics. We can read trustworthy independent news sources and try to find the truth in any situation, but every reporter and editor has biases and it’s near impossible to present every conflict with complete objective truth and fair voicing to every relevant viewpoint.

     This Torah portion itself does give us a few hints as to Abraham’s less righteous side. Within the first few verses, after the commandment to leave his father’s home, Abram and Sarai come to Egypt looking for famine relief. Abram is worried that Sarai’s beauty will cause Pharaoh to kill him to take her for his own, so he asks Sarai to go along with a lie he constructs that they are brother and sister rather than husband and wife. He allows his wife to be taken into the Pharaoh’s harem and for the hospitable ruler who gave them counself and food to be struck with a plague when God steps in to defend Sarai since Abram won’t. Although on a socio-political level the Pharaoh clearly has power over these hungry migrants from the East, having God on their side sort of tips the scales and Abram seems to abuse his power in this dynamic against both Sarai and even Pharaoh. 

     A very different hint is given a couple chapters later, after Abram has freed Lot from the warring kings. Genesis 14:18 tells us that King Melchitzedek of Salem (that is, the “righteous king” of Jerusalem) is a priest of the Most High. The scene depicts the King greeting Abram after his heroic defeat of the other kings, giving him libations and a blessing. It appears to be the first time the two men have met, but not the first time Melchitzedek has given blessings and honor in the name of God, the creator of all the heavens and the earth. And yet, our tradition tells us that Abram was the first to follow HaShem as the only God. Rashi even comments that Melchitzedek’s actions to Abram in the city that will become our holiest, models for Abram the sacrifices and tithes that will one day be brought to the priests of Aaron and the Temple there. So who is really the first Jew? 

     And finally, in the last section of the parasha, we read about Sarai’s barrenness and her resolve to fix the situation. She gives her handmaiden over to Abram to bear a son to be his heir. When Hagar conceives, the Torah tells us Sarai oppresses her. The word is the same root in the Hebrew used in the previous chapter when God foretells to Abram that his offspring will be many and great but will first undergo a series of oppressions, most clearly alluded to being the enslavement in Egypt. The Torah gives us a direct link here between Sarai’s treatment of Hagar the Egyptian (and Abram’s, too, by omission, as this oppression is happening in him home and he must be abdicating some level of ability to stop it) with the treatment of the Egyptian taskmasters toward the Israelites. Are these the tzadikim who laid the foundations of our peoplehood and faith? 

     Yes, they are. Because people are complicated and bad and good and honest and trustworthy and liars and cheats. Nobody is all bad or all good, even the saintly and the irredeemable have their moments of short-temper and kind gestures, respectively. Every nation has such embarrassing moments in their history, skeletons in their collective closet, foundations built on somebody else’s subjugation. What matters is what we do with those foundations and that information. We must always be seeking to learn more truths, even when they are uncomfortable and at odds with what we knew before. We must be willing to share those truths, in patient and teachable ways, even to people we know don’t really want to hear them. We must be willing to do teshuvah and make amends for the wrongs of the past, and to give up some level of convenience in order to make room for more people, more truths, more equity.

     This Shabbat Lech-Lecha, may we go forth into a new world of complexity and multiplicity. May we open our eyes, hearts, and minds, to worlds we turned our backs on before. And may we be led forward by Divine grace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782