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Torah Sparks

November 5, 2011 – 8 Heshvan 5772

Annual: Genesis 12:1-17:27 (Etz Hayim p. 69; Hertz p. 45)
Triennial Cycle: Genesis 14:1 – 15:21 (Etz Hayim p. 77; Hertz p. 50)
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16 (Etz Hayim p. 95; Hertz p. 60)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


With this parashah, the Torah shifts from the history of the world to the experience of Israel. Abram and his wife Sarai are now the focal characters of the biblical text. God calls upon Abram 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. Dismayed, Pharaoh returns Sarai to her husband, and the two them, along with Lot, return to Beth El.

A conflict develops between Lot and Abram. The two kinsmen go their separate ways at Abram's suggestion. God renews his covenant with Abram, promising him the land in perpetuity and a legacy of innumerable descendants. Despite the earlier falling out with Lot, Abram takes an armed force of 318 troops to rescue his nephew, who has been taken captive in a conflict pitting four kings against five others. Upon his victory and Lot's safe return, Abram exchanges diplomatic pleasantries with Melchizedek, but refuses material consideration or any spoils of war, both to preclude political indebtedness and to emphasize God's providence in securing his success.

God's repeated promises of blessing, land, and progeny are followed by the dramatic "covenant between the pieces." Abram's long-awaited son is born – Ishmael, born to 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 chosenness.

When God assures him of the birth of a second son, to be named Isaac and to serve as heir to the covenant, the elderly Abraham laughs at the idea. In response to Abraham's paternal concern - "Oh that Ishmael might live by Your favor!" - God bestows a blessing on Abraham's firstborn: "He shall be the father of 12 chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation." Abraham and Ishmael are circumcised, signifying their covenantal status and fealty, and so are all the men in Abraham's household.

Theme #1: "Footing the Bill"

"Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the people, and take the possessions for yourself.' But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of Heaven and Earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.'" (Genesis 14:21-23)

Derash: Study

"Let us understand the message Abraham wanted to convey to the king of Sodom. He was not claiming that he had no desire to be wealthy, as people sometimes say when rejecting gifts on the grounds that wealth is harmful. To the contrary, Abraham recognized the proper use of wealth, but did not want to receive his wealth from the king of Sodom, who would boast that he enriched him, but rather from God, who had promised to do so." (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein)

"Abraham, true to nomadic tradition, does not wish to be beholden to anyone. Besides, as a trader, he need not rely on plunder as a source of income. It is also possible that his briskness signifies some contempt for the king of Sodom." (Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary)

"Abraham kept himself far away from the ease and comfort which appealed to his nephew, Lot. Abraham struck out for a place which would challenge his creative potential. The choice which Abraham made all of us have to make somewhere along life's highway. The alternative is Sodom." (Rabbi Frederick C. Schwartz)

"Abraham is clearly the hero of this story. His military victory has brought him honor and respect. But the focus of the story is not on Abraham's martial prowess but on his skill as a diplomat and peacemaker. It is in Abraham's responses to the challenges of war and peace, that we see the framework for a Jewish understanding of war. There are times when war cannot be avoided. Abraham enters the conflict only after Lot's capture to rescue his nephew. There are times when we need to go war to defend ourselves and protect our families. One should not enrich oneself through warfare. The conventions of his day allowed Abraham to keep the riches he seized from the defeated invaders. Abraham, however, wisely refused all riches. He did not take advantage of his neighbors' weakness to enrich himself and plant the seeds for future conflicts. Abraham demonstrated that one needs to be magnanimous in victory. Wisdom often dictates that one should not keep all that one has conquered." (Rabbi Lewis Eron)

Questions for Discussion

How do Abraham's participation in war and his behavior thereafter make him an especially apt model for contemporary Jews?

It is no coincidence, as Rabbi Schwartz demonstrates, that the spoils of war that Abraham declined were offered by the king of Sodom – a city state associated with moral corruption and xenophobia. Would Abraham have acted any differently if a less unseemly ally had sought to enrich him, as Rabbi Plaut seems to suggest? What are the dangers inherent in entering into alliances with despotic leaders and corrupt regimes? What are the moral justifications for such alliances?

What motivated Abraham to decline wealth to which arguably he was entitled? Strategic foresight? Nomadic tradition? Faith in God? A lack of material ambition? More attractive commercial opportunities?

What would Rabbi Feinstein say to the possibility that the king of Sodom was God's providential agent for providing Abraham with his promised wealth?

Theme #2: "Operation Over Lord"

"God said further to Abraham, ‘As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow that you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.'" (Genesis 17:9-12)

Derash: Study

"The significance of the eighth day is illuminated by a singular prohibition in Leviticus: ‘When an ox or sheep or goat is born, it shall stay with its mother, and from the eighth day on it shall be acceptable as an offering by fire to the Lord.' Similarly, circumcision is delayed to the eighth day, as if to say that is the very first time when the male child may symbolically be dedicated to the service of God. The rite is a pledge of fealty and the mark is a lifelong external sign of apartness. Male Jews spend the rest of their lives moving from fate to faith, turning ‘the covenant in the flesh (berit milah)' into a testimonial of spiritual nobility." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

"Jews should be proud of how different we are. In an era of unprecedented individualism and hedonism, Jews declare that community is critical, even for an eight-day-old baby. We take pride in a ritual that affirms that sexual desire is not meant to be left unrestrained, but must be shaped by values of fidelity and devotion. When others seek endless comfort, we are willing to say that doing the right thing might be painful, but it's still worthwhile." (Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz)"Berit milah is our classic ceremonial acknowledgment that we, descendants of Abraham, consider ourselves a community set apart from all others and set aside in covenant with God. That is the story we have always told, and continue to tell, about ourselves. To assert our sense of particular Jewish identity as Jews is therefore in and of itself a mitzvah of the first rank. And of all the ritual practices by which we have historically made that declaration, none is more physical, more visceral, or more tangible than berit milah. In an era when the forces of cultural assimilation pose such a daunting challenge to our continued existence as a distinct people, this admittedly ancient tribal custom bears a message that we do well to hear." (Rabbi Mark Washofsky)

"God's promises demand an active response from their recipients. Circumcision is both a token of God's covenant and a symbol of the Jew's consecration and commitment to a life lived in the consciousness of that covenant. The law of circumcision is the first mitzvah in the Torah that is specifically directed to Abraham and his descendants." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"As long as Israel observes the practice of circumcision, heaven and earth will go on their appointed courses, but if Israel neglects the covenant, heaven and earth are disturbed." (Zohar)

Questions for Discussion

Chancellor Ismar Schorsch calls upon us to spend our lives "moving from fate to faith" – infusing religious forms with meaning and belief, transcending the accident of birth by which we become Jews. Of the various "meanings" proffered for the practice of circumcision, which should be emphasized as a tenet of faith? Which is the most compelling response to detractors and critics of infant circumcision – as in the current controversy in San Francisco? What is the most compelling response to Jewish parents who are ambivalent about this observance?

If the symbolic significance of ritual circumcision is widely acknowledged and understood, why does the ritual itself remain necessary? That is, why do we need the form if we already embrace the message?

The sources provided above represent a wide spectrum of the Jewish community: Reform (Washofsky), Orthodox (Steinmetz), and Conservative (Schorsch). On what points do these diverse religious authorities seem to agree? What unique insight does each offer?

How are we to understand the Zohar's assertion that fidelity to the practice of circumcision has cosmic implications? What consequences hang in the balance in regard to this mitzvah?

Halachah L'Maaseh

Commenting on its long history and the religious emphasis placed on ritual circumcision, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch has observed: "The challenge of our egalitarian age is to shape a worthy initiation rite for our newborn daughters." Brit milah is in fact quite egalitarian, however, to the extent that women have long been permitted to perform the ritual procedure – at least in part based on the Biblical precedent of Tzipporah (see Exodus 4:25; see also Talmud Avodah Zarah 27A). Maimonides (Hilchot Milah 2:1 ) and the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 264:1) both codify the principle that a woman may serve as a mohelet. Though permissible in theory, women serving as mohalot has become common in practice only in the past 25 years or so. A moving historic account of a woman circumcising her son, with at least one rabbi in attendance (and who survived to recount the incident with emphatic approval), is included in Yaffa Eliach's Tales of the Holocaust (p. 151).

Historical Note

Read on November 5, 2011, Parashat Lech Lecha portrays Abraham as both warrior and diplomat. The patriarch travels to Egypt, where he interacts with Pharaoh, the despotic leader of a nation with which, Abraham is told, Israel's history long will be intertwined. Abraham is also the covenant partner whom God promises "To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates." On November 5, 1956, the Israel Defense Force captured Sharm el Sheikh from Egypt during the Sinai campaign. The city on the coast of the Red Sea was returned to Egypt the following year. Israeli forces retook the city during the Six Day War, in one of the fiercest and bloodiest battles of that conflict. Despite established Israeli policy pledging to retain the city, amid painful national recriminations Sharm el Sheikh was returned to Egypt in 1982, as part of an unprecedented peace treaty. During the 15 years Israel held Sharm el Sheikh, the area, which is celebrated in popular song and plays a particularly emotional role in the national psyche, was transformed into an international resort destination.

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