LECH LECHA – on journey, on biblical sexism, on circumcision, and on the power of choice.

Lech Lecha means “go forth” and in this parshah God tells Abraham to leave his home and venture forth (to an unnamed destination). In return he promises Abraham a progeny numbering greater than the stars. Abraham, his wife (Sarah), and nephew (Lot) in tow, makes the journey. Religious authorities have always viewed Abraham’s “wandering” as a precursor to the larger Jewish wandering in Exodus, and also a sign of his extreme faith. The text foretells that the Jews will be enslaved but then set free (later
confirmed in the book of Exodus – a sign that God had a plan all along).
What can Humanistic Jews learn of this biblical scene? Perhaps not that we are all living according to a divine plan, but that sometimes there is no plan and things have a way of working out. Abraham does not know where he will end up, but he makes his journey with courage. This may resonate with many Jews whose families had to journey to new lands for the good of their future descendants. Abraham is promised a nation, but the average Jew who moved to North America, Israel, or another country of refuge, did
so with the hope of prosperity for the benefit of their children and grandchildren. My grandparents, for example, fled Europe after the Holocaust and settled in Uruguay. It is hard to imagine the culture shock of leaving Poland – and Poland under war, at that – to move to South America. Their journey to an unknown place was made with their future progeny in mind. My father was born there immediately after their arrival. In Julius
Caesar, there is a famous line in which Caesar, ignoring warnings concerning the Ides of March, decides to follow his plan no matter what. His story does not end happily. When his henchman bemoan that “Caesar shall go forth,” it is with much trepidation. But Caesar was determined to make his own plan, to chart his own course. In “Lech Lecha” we are asked to think of all of the myriad ways in which journey is metaphorical for transformation. We are empowered to decide how and when we “go forth.” Also important in this passage are the sections pertaining to Hagar (who is also promised that her son will have descendants in great number), and her suffering. This is
the torah portion in which the birth of two nations is signified in text. They are born in conditions of uncertainty and suffering.
Sarah’s infertility is the reason Hagar mothers Abraham’s first child. The story of the jealousy between the women is exemplary of a male chauvinism inherent to the biblical text: the struggles of women are petty, but those of men are heroic. Sarah is jealous of Hagar, and wants her banished. God tells Hagar that if she returns, and submits to Sarah’s harsh treatment, then she will bear a son Ishmael in return for her suffering. The image of Sarah here is hardly positive – striking for the first matriarch Jews revere. The story here establishes the basis for the lingering conflicts between the descendants of
Ishmael (Islam) and those of Isaac (Judaism). But we can find compassion for the matriarchs who ignite this conflict. They are both powerless in a world in which their fertility is the sum total of their worth. They must vie to carry on the Abrahamic promise.
In “Lech Lecha” God and Abraham form their “sacred covenant” in which
Abraham promises that the future generations of males that spring forth from his line with be circumcised. Circumcision is an issue with which many Humanistic Jews wrestle. We do not believe in the “Brit” part of the “Brit Milah” – this covenant with God does not hold meaning for us. While many choose to circumcise due to affiliation with the Jewish community and its historical legacy, as well as for other reasons, this Torah passage no
longer provides the sole reason behind the choice. This is a reminder that throughout the generations Jews have accepted, adopted, and also altered aspects of their heritage. Previous generations were able to chart a course for us – we have followed in the figurative footsteps of our forebears – but we also get to chart our own course as we become fully engaged Jews, citizens, people. As we “go forth” we must decide which elements of tradition we wish to retain, wish we wish to alter, and which we wish to
exclude. These are not always easy choices, but they are ours to make.

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