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Torah Sparks

October 23, 2004 - 8 Heshvan 5765

Annual: Genesis Genesis 12:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 12:1 - 13:18 (Etz Hayim, p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 95; Hertz p. 60)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
Little Neck Jewish Center, Little Neck, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


With this Parshah, the Torah shifts from the primordial history of the world to the particular experience of Israel.

Abram and his wife Sarai are now the focal characters of the Biblical text. God calls upon Abraham to leave the land of his origin, promising him a life of blessing and greatness. Abram and Sarai leave Haran for Canaan, where God appears again to the Patriarch, reaffirming their covenantal bond and promising him the Land as his own. Abram constructs an altar at Beth El - "calling on the Name of God." A famine in Canaan impels Abram, Sarai, and Lot to travel to Egypt. Sarai is taken into Pharaoh's household where, at Abram's express instructions, she identifies herself not as his wife, but as his sister. Abram benefits materially from this deception, although God afflicts Pharaoh and his household with plagues. A dismayed Pharaoh returns Sarai to her husband, with whom, along with Lot, he returns to Beth El.

In time, a conflict develops between Lot and Abram and their respective shepherds. The two kinsmen go their separate ways at Abram's suggestion. God renews his Covenant with Abraham, promising him the Land in perpetuity and a legacy of innumerable descendants. Despite the earlier falling out with Lot, Abram goes to war (with an armed force of 318 troops at his command) to rescue Lot, who has been taken captive in a conflict pitting four kings (and their nation states) against five similar powers. Upon his victory and the safe return of Lot, Abram exchanged diplomatic pleasantries with Melchizedek, but refused material consideration or spoils of war - both to preclude political indebtedness and to emphasize the Providence of God in securing his success.

God's repeated promises of blessing, land, and progeny are followed by a dramatic "Covenant between the Pieces." Abram's long-awaited offspring arrives with the birth of Ishmael, born by Hagar, Sarai's servant and "surrogate." The Covenant of circumcision is prescribed. God changes His covenant partners' names to Abraham and Sarah, signifying their elevated stature and choseness.

When God assures him of the birth of a second son, to be named Isaac and to serve as heir to the Covenant, an aged Abraham laughs at the prospect of further fertility. In response to Abraham's paternal concern - "Oh that Ishmael might live by Your favor!" - God bestows a blessing on Abraham's first-born: "He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation." Abram and Ishmael are circumcised, signifying their covenantal status and fealty, together with all the men (the servants) in Abram's household.

Theme #1: "Prediction of Benediction"

"The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to a land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.'" (Genesis 12:1-3)

Derash: Study

  • "When an ordinary man becomes rich and famous, he may become estranged from his less fortunate kinsmen and friends; he will keep aloof from them and make no effort to help them. As a result many will curse him and wish him ill. Therefore God reassured Abraham, saying: 'Even after I have made your name great' you will be a blessing. You will continue to do good and heretofore all will bless you.'" (Ha-Drash v'Ha-Iyun)
  • "The root barekh (blessing) occurs five times in the opening verses of the sidra… This abundance of blessing corresponds to the fivefold abundance of light created on the first day of Creation (where the word 'or - 'light' occurs five times). Here we have a second world created with the advent of Abraham, a world of blessing...." (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis)
  • "The Avraham cycle begins decisively, with a command from God to leave the past behind and go to an unnamed land. Prominent in this speech, clearly, is the concept of blessing. The classic mythological motif of the journey, where the hero meets such dangers as monsters and giants, has here been avoided. All that the text wishes us to know about is God's speech and Avram's immediate obedience." (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)
  • "After the string of curses that begins with Adam and Eve, human history reaches a turning point with Abraham, as blessings instead of curses are emphatically promised." (Robert Alter, Genesis)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. While promising Abraham ample blessing, God makes it clear that securing his destiny requires severing past ties and moving away from a familiar past. Does this make Abraham an appealing model for Jews seeking spiritual fulfillment today? Is it necessary to leave behind "your native land, your father's house" in order more intimately to embrace God and God's plan?
  2. Both Nehama Leibowitz and Robert Alter relate Abraham's call to the Creation narratives of Genesis. How else is Abraham similar to (or distinguished from) Adam? What do these parallels suggest about the People Israel, to whom Abraham will be progenitor?
  3. In what ways has the Jewish People fulfilled God's promise to Abraham to "be a blessing?" What moral obligations devolve on the Jewish People from the effusive divine blessings given Abraham?
  4. What does it mean for a person (or a nation, or a Congregation) to be a blessing? In what ways can we and our communities strive to be more effective sources of blessing?
  5. There are an abundance of individuals, organizations, and nations among Israel's detractors. God's call to Abraham seems to anticipate this reality without explaining its cause. Are the "curses" of mortal detractors the necessary concomitant of claims to divine blessing? How has God's promise to deal harshly with "him that curses you" been reflected in the historical record?
  6. What is the difference between "being a blessing" and others blessing themselves "by" us?

Theme #2: "The Catalytic Converter"

"Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan." (Genesis 12:5)

Derash: Study

  • "Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women." (Rashi)
  • "Whoever teaches someone else's child Torah, Scripture esteems him as if he actually created the child, as it is said: 'The souls they had acquired (asu, literally "made").'" (Talmud, Sanhedrin 99B)
  • "It is a positive commandment to love God with all one's heart, with all one's soul, and with all one's might… Included in this Mitzvah is the obligation to attract human beings to the worship of God, and to make Him beloved among his creatures, as did our Father Abraham, peace be upon him, as it is said: 'The souls they had acquired (asu, literally "made") in Haran.'" (Rabbi Yisrael Mayer ha-Kohen Kagan, the Chafetz Chayim, Sefer ha-Mitzvot ha-Katzar)
  • "Why not open our arms to those who seek a spiritual way of life? …The logic is clear and so is the theology. Judaism is not an exclusive club of born Jews. It is a universal faith with an ancient tradition that has deep resonance for people today… If Judaism is a world religion, then it has something valuable to offer the world." (Harold Schulweis)

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Is religious faith an entirely private affair? Is a "believer" compelled to articulate his beliefs and values to others? How does one communicate matters of faith differently to fellow Jews (whether more or less committed than we)? To adherents of other faiths? To skeptics? To principled secularists? To our own families and loved ones?
  2. Abraham and Sarah's first act following God's call is linked by the Midrash to their involvement in the process of proselytism. What programmatic and theological implications does this have for Jewish communities today? Discuss the Jewish People's historic reluctance proactively to "evangelize" among those not born to the Jewish tradition.
  3. The Chafetz Chayim, a pre-eminent, twentieth century ethicist, lists the obligation "to attract human beings to the worship of God" as the third Positive Commandment, following only the religious obligations to believe in God's existence, and to accept monotheism (that God is One, unique). By citing Genesis 12:5 in this context, he frames this obligation in terms traditionally associated with conversion to Judaism. Why would this European rabbi, writing in the 1930's, codify such a system of spiritual priorities? How might this relate to his mission as an ethical guide?
  4. How do Abraham and Sarah offer us a model of how to relate to newcomers to Judaism? To lifelong Jews seeking greater levels of knowledge and involvement? What special obligations do we, our congregations, and their own Jewish family members have to those who convert to Judaism? In what ways does the institution of conversion strengthen the Jewish community?

Historical Note

We read of Abraham's victory in the War of the Four Kings Against the Five on the anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein. On October 23, 1942, British forces under General Bernard Law Montgomery stopped the Nazi conquest of North Africa during World War II.

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