Parashat Lech Lecha
Cheshvan 11, 5780 – November 9, 2019
Torah Reading: Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16
Welcome back everyone to this week’s “Torah for the Earth” audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Lech Lecha, which literally translates to “Go for you.” The parashah begins with these words:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
“Hashem said to Abram, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’”
In this opening line of the parashah, G-d is telling Abraham to simply go. He is telling him to depart from everything that he has known, everything that he has done up until that point, everything that he has been comfortable with in his life, and even to leave those closest to him. On the most basic and fundamental level, Abraham is told to take a journey and to trust in G-d. That’s it. Rashi explains to us that, with Abraham, there had been a “profound change in the spiritual nature of [human]kind” (1) and that a new form of creation began with Abraham and his descendants, as they would be charged with upholding a particular variety of living which was designed to disconnect from behavior that had previously been disastrous for the world. This command, from G-d to Abraham, to leave his homeland to be a stranger in the land of Canaan is the first of ten trials that will challenge Abraham’s loyalty to a higher reality that was previously unrealized. Abraham is asked to start again and to question his own understanding of what is possible.
In a sense, this moment in Abraham’s life encapsulates a universal moment that we all must encounter if we are to better ourselves and better the world. In light of the ecological crisis, we are all being asked to question our worldviews and our assumptions about forms of behavior that are ingrained into patterns of everyday life. Rashi says that Lech Lecha, or “Go for yourself,” means “go for your benefit and for your own good.” (2) This benefit and this good is about finding the truth inside of yourself and actualizing your highest purpose. It is literally a return to the higher self and a journey back to a reality that you could not realize on your own, without G-d. One of the main messages from last week, contained within Parashat Noach and the story of the Flood, is the idea that humanity is given another chance to live again and to correct modes of behavior that would have otherwise been fatal. This same message pertains to us, here and now, and the actions that are driving the earth to a point where it may no longer be able to viably support us. The reality is that there are certain elements of modern life that are not serving our highest good, on both the collective and individual levels. The story of Abraham, and the message of lech lecha, is that we are all confronted with decisive moments that have the power to initiate positive change in our lives. If we are willing to abandon certain conceptions about how to live, or ideas about what we may want, then a new path will unfold before us. None of us can know what the future looks like, but until we sever all ties with social environments and practices that are destructive, then we cannot grow into a higher truth that is closer to our authentic, fundamental selves.
In the beginning of Parashat Lech Lecha, G-d calls to Abraham and commands him to journey to Canaan (12:1). Abraham, his wife Sarah, and Abraham’s nephew Lot all settle in this new land, but are immediately faced with the reality of a famine, and are forced to descend into Egypt (12:10). Sarah is taken by the Egyptians (12:14), a plague ultimately convinces Pharaoh to return Sarah to Abraham, and Abraham is compensated with livestock, silver, and gold. Abraham and Sarah then return to Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel) (13:1), after which Lot leaves them to settle in the corrupt city of Sodom (13:5). Lot is taken captive, and gets caught in the middle of a war involving the major kingdoms of the region (14:12). This, then, prompts Abraham to set out on a rescue mission to save Lot (14:13), and Abraham defeats the four kings whom have held Lot captive. A critical event known as “The Covenant Between the Parts” then occurs whereby Abraham is told about the future exile in Egypt that his descendants will endure before inheriting the land of Canaan. After dwelling for ten years in the land of Canaan, Abraham and Sarah were still childless, so Sarah told Abraham to marry their maidservant Hagar. Hagar conceives, and then flees after Sarah treats her harshly. An angel visits Hagar by a spring and tells her to return, after which Ishmael is born (16:3). Thirteen years later, three pivotal moments then occur: G-d changes Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah (17:3), G-d promises Sarah that she will give birth to a son and name him Isaac (17:16), and Abraham circumcises all the males of his household as a sign of the covenant (17:23).
There is one moment of this parashah that is particularly interesting in relation to religion and ecology, and that is when a famine forces Abraham and Sarah to descend into Egypt. The descent into Egypt, and ascent up to Eretz Yisrael, is a spiritual movement of much significance that occurs throughout pivotal moments within the Torah. While the individual, or group, very literally moves locations, the geographies of both Egypt and Israel represent states of the soul that are metaphorically experienced as either lower or higher degrees of spiritual conditions. (3) What I find fascinating is that the spiritual transformation the soul must undergo to return to its truest self is often preceded by a very literal crisis – in this case, an environmental crisis: a famine. The ecological message here is that we can view our present situation in a similar respect, and work with the environmental crisis as a catalyst for our own spiritual development. While environmental disasters can quite literally displace people, they can also catalyze a metaphorical descent of the soul into the depths of the human condition, which is what provides a setting for transformation. This is not to say that an environmental crisis is a prerequisite for spiritual renewal. Instead, I wish to suggest that an environmental crisis often occurs due to some variety of spiritual deficiency that needs healing.
While there are many momentous moments within this parashah, I’d like to close by addressing Abraham’s circumcision and its effect on time-bound action. Circumcision, as we all know, is a sign of the covenant, which sealed the promise from G-d to Abraham that nations would descend from him in the future. It’s not that Abraham’s life or prior actions up to that point, were diminished by his lack of circumcision. In fact, it is quite the opposite, because the circumcision was an event with the power to transform Abraham’s previous reality and empower him to serve G-d in the future as an av hamon: a father of a multitude. The ecological message here is that just as we have interacted with the Earth in a certain way up to this point, we still have the power to redeem our prior actions by changing how we move forward into the future. Knowledge of the past can only serve us insofar as it enables us to enact a variety of ecological action that can sustain the conditions which support our mission on earth. Put another way, the future and the past can each be transformed by what we do – and how we behave – within the present moment. The most meaningful, and thought-provoking, aspect of this notion is trusting in G-d’s will as we journey to progress beyond our own abilities, and perpetuate sustainable actions that can uphold a healthy future for the earth.
Thank you all for listening and catch you next week!
(1) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.54
(2) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.55
(3) Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.59
Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).
The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.