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November 8, 2019
10 Cheshvan 5780

Parashat Lech-Lecha
Genesis 12:1 - 17:27

Dear Friends,

“Lech Lecha“ -- Go forth. Avram wasn’t told to leave his father’s house; rather, he was instructed to go forward from his father’s house. We are told that Avram was 75 years old, and until very recent times that was considered quite old. So here we are at the beginning of our story as a people, when an old man is told to make a new start, go to a new place, leave his father’s house, and start all over again.

“Adonai said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

Avram, or as he is called after his name change, Avraham, appears to us without a backstory. Who was he? Why was he chosen to enter into this covenant with the Divine on our behalf? After all, this is our origin story. Shouldn’t we have more information than where he came from and the extent of his family’s journey from Ur to Haran? (Historical note: Ur was a city in the region of Sumer, southern Mesopotamia, in what is modern-day Iraq. While Haran was an ancient city of strategic importance, it is now a village in southeastern Turkey. It lies along the Balīkh River, 24 miles or 38 kilometers southeast of Urfa.)

The rabbis found this lack of information disconcerting, and so they made up midrashim -- tales to give Avram a backstory. The most famous midrash is about Avram proving to his father that there was only one God by destroying the idols in his father’s idol shop, leaving the largest idol untouched, and blaming the destruction on that idol.

The rabbis searched for stories to understand who this man was, with whom God made a covenant. The covenant included a vision of a future for his offspring that would not always be easy. Along with being fruitful and multiplying, they would be struck by adversity.

We live in an age today where at the age of 75, one can still have a living parent, and where women who would have been considered long past the age of having children are having children. It seems that the lessons taught about Avraham when I was a child have been given more complex contours, more shadings, and more possibilities.

The first story about Avram and Sarai is about their sojourn to Egypt to escape the famine. Avram asks that pose as his sister because she is so beautiful, and having a beautiful wife will place him in danger. This famine appears to happen right after they have just unpacked their bags (9 sentences into the parsha).

This story is not exactly a heroic place to begin. In the past, when looking at this story, I described Avram as having difficulty with people and relationships as one of my data points. Taken out of the heroic cast that my first teachers in yeshiva placed him, what do we see? He is 75 years old and he has been asked to begin again in every way possible. He can’t even stay in Canaan because of the famine. This man is being stretched, and adversity will happen over and over again throughout the narrative.

This Sunday is the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass, which happened on November 9th, 1938. Kristallnacht was the day that marked the beginning of the end. It happened in the heart of Nazi Germany, with Jewish businesses attacked, synagogues set on fire, and Jewish men taken to prison -- men who had successfully lived in Germany and fought in her wars, who were placed at the crossroads of history.

The shadow of Kristallnacht continues to linger as we witness acts of hate and malice all around us, directed at people not because of who they are but based on how they can be othered.

So what does Avram have to do with where we find ourselves today, at this moment? We see him at his most frightened in Egypt, grasping at straws; yet, our first introduction to him is of someone willing to go forward yet again. He started his life in Ur, went to Haran with his father and immediate family, and now has journeyed to Canaan at the age of 75. This less than perfect man is an exemplar of courage, an exemplar of moving forward -- sometimes getting it right and sometimes not.

One of my dearly held beliefs is that standing still is simply not an option; we must go forward each day. It does not mean that we do not care for ourselves. It does mean that change is all around us and we cannot hide or sit this one out. Avram certainly didn’t. Neither should we.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Sat, September 19 2020 1 Tishrei 5781