So, what does it mean to be a blessing amidst all this strife?
Lekh Lekha 5784 (2023)
Note: These words come during the 2023 Israel-Hamas War, sparked by a terror attack on Israeli innocents that became the world's most lethal day for Jews since the Holocaust. Because current judicial ethics rules ban me from discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I focus instead on some of the emotional and spiritual implications for us and our Judaism.
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Among Hazzan Debbie Friedman's many beloved songs is the famous Lekhi Lakh, inspired by the opening words of this week's Parashat Lekh Lekha. After the Creation and the Flood, this week's Torah portion emerges from pre-history and launches monotheism through the legacy of Avram, a resident of the Babylonian city of Ur Kasdim. The journey begins (Gen. 12:1-2):
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יהו''ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם
אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔
YHVH said to Avram,
“Go from your land,
and from the land of your birth,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you,
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing."
When Avram reached the Land of Canaan, he heard God promise it to Avram's descendants.
Note: It is nearly impossible to read any sacred text's narrative of land by divine right without harkening to the geopolitics of current Mideast events. Whatever one's perspectives on the history, spirituality, and political legitimacy of national claims to what today is the Land of Israel, it is notable that this Torah portion records a divine promise assigning the Land to Avram's "offspring" (Gen. 12:7). While later Torah portions clarify this promise for the "Children of Israel," at this early point in Torah's narrative there are no "Children of Israel." Instead, the next Torah portion (Vayera) will feature a renamed Avraham fathering both Yishmael and Yitzhak (Isaac) – his "offspring" who would become ancestors of the Arab-Muslim and Israelite-Jewish peoples.
Back to Avram. I can imagine Avram hearing this promise and saying to himself, "Great! This land will belong to me, or at least to my descendants. Is this what it means to be blessed? Is this what it means to become a blessing?"
The emphatic answer of this Torah portion is no. That's not the blessing. Indeed, soon after Avram heard the promise, Avram was rocked by one seeming anti-blessing after the next.
A famine broke out (Gen. 12:10). Avram and his wife Sarai (later Sarah) became refugees in Egypt (Gen. 12:10-11). Fearing that Egyptians would kill him to take his wife, Avram told Sarai to say she was Avram's sister (Gen. 12:11-13). (It wasn't a lie – Sarai was Avram's half sister – but Avram's words exposed Sarai to seeming "available.") Just as Avram predicted, Egyptians took Sarai all the way up to Pharaoh, who took Sarai as his own (Gen. 12:14-16). "On account of Avram," God plagued Pharaoh (Gen. 12:17), who excoriated Avram for not trusting Pharaoh and instead withholding the truth about Sarai, and exiled them from Egypt (Gen. 12:18-20). Avram then had a falling out with his nephew, Lot (Gen. 13:7-11). Lot separated from Avram and resettled in Sodom, where invaders took Lot hostage (Gen. 14:11-12). Avram then had to battle to free his kidnapped nephew (Gen. 14:14-16).
So what happened to Lekhi Lakh? What happened to "and you will be a blessing"? So far, Torah's narrative seems the very opposite of the divine blessing that Avram heard a Voice promise him.
One possibility is, "Wait for it." This approach is what theologians call an eschatological time shift. Essentially it's actress Maggie Smith's closing line from the movie Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: "It'll be all right in the end. And if it's not all right, it's not yet the end." This approach looks beyond current travails and projects hope into the future. It spawns aphorisms like "It's always darkest before the dawn," and recasts strife as a prelude to betterment and salvation.
There's plenty of wisdom in this approach. As we discussed on Erev Rosh Hashanah, hope is a Jewish superpower. Hope is part of what helped our spiritual ancestors defy tremendous. Hope the very title of Israel's national anthem, Hatikvah / "The Hope." Psalm 27 presses us to "hope for God" (or, something bigger than us). When times or circumstances are bleak, we need hope for a better future to redeem the present.
This week's Torah portion, however, does not rest laurels on hope alone – and certainly not a passive hope. Torah's very next narrative about Avram, after all the un-blessings, underscores why (Gen. 14:17-20):
וַיֵּצֵ֣א מֶֽלֶךְ־סְדֹם֮ לִקְרָאתוֹ֒ אַחֲרֵ֣י שׁוּב֗וֹ מֵֽהַכּוֹת֙ אֶת־כְּדָרְלָעֹ֔מֶר וְאֶת־הַמְּלָכִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתּ֑וֹ אֶל־עֵ֣מֶק שָׁוֵ֔ה ה֖וּא עֵ֥מֶק הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ וּמַלְכִּי־צֶ֙דֶק֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ שָׁלֵ֔ם הוֹצִ֖יא לֶ֣חֶם וָיָ֑יִן וְה֥וּא כֹהֵ֖ן לְאֵ֥ל עֶלְיֽוֹן׃ וַֽיְבָרְכֵ֖הוּ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר בָּר֤וּךְ אַבְרָם֙ לְאֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן קֹנֵ֖ה שָׁמַ֥יִם וָאָֽרֶץ׃ וּבָרוּךְ֙ אֵ֣ל עֶלְי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁר־מִגֵּ֥ן צָרֶ֖יךָ בְּיָדֶ֑ךָ
When [Avram] returned from defeating [Lot's kidnappers], Sodom's king came to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh [Ed. - shaveh means equality], Valley of the King. And King Melkhitzedek [=king of justice] of Shalem [=wholeness], a priest of God Most High, brought bread and wine. He blessed [Avram], saying, “Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.”
I can't pretend to know the whys and wherefores of Mideast events. And it's easy to see in this Torah portion a validation for tribalism, a vindication for one's pre-existing sense of right, and a claim that God is on our side. The deeper message is that the blessing is something else entirely – that, actually, the blessing isn't first and foremost about God being on our side.
We do well to remember the response of President Abraham Lincoln to his general's claim that God was on the Union's side during the Civil War. Lincoln famously answered, "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side."
Whatever life's un-blessings and strife, whatever their source, whatever their meaning, it is by our responses that we wrest the greatest blessings in this messy human life. Perhaps it is by aspiring to be on God's side – and living our lives accordingly - that we become blessings in a broken, striven world. Torah's first blessings aren't about outcomes at all, but about who we become on our journey – not despite challenges, but precisely amidst them.
So too for the State of Israel. So too for the Jewish people. So too for our sacred community. So too for each of us.