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Home > Religion > Parsha > Torah portion


Lech Lecha

12:1 - 17:27
Haftorah: Isaiah 40:27 - 41:16

Shabbat, November 11, 2000 - 13 Cheshvan 5761

By RABBI MATTHEW BERKOWITZ
Jewish Theological Seminary

Parashat Lekh Lekha opens with a paradox: the divine promise of blessing and fulfillment amidst a reality of famine and emptiness. God commands Abram, "Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, 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 . . ." Soon after reaching their destination, the Land of Canaan, they are confronted with a reality diametrically opposed to the one God had promised. Famine strikes, and out of concern for their survival, Abram and Sarai flee to Egypt. Regrettably, their escape spirals into further trouble. We read , "as he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, 'I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you, and think, 'She is his wife,' they will kill me and let you live. Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you and that I may remain alive thanks to you.' "

How are we to understand Abram's ethically questionable behavior?

Peter Pitzele, author of Our Fathers' Wells and professor at Union Theological Seminary, writes of an encounter in an interactive midrash group when one of his students took on the role of critiquing Abram's behavior. She abruptly placed a chair in the center of the group and began addressing this empty chair as if Abram was sitting right there. She exclaimed: "This incident with your wife in Egypt is outrageous . . . You think of nothing more than saving your own skin; your woman is an object in a barter for your life. You don't even wait for her to offer; you don't sit down with her to examine alternatives. It's as if you want to get rid of her. And why? It's obvious. You've become infatuated with this vision you have of siring a great nation and being a household word . . ." (Pitzele, Our Fathers' Wells, 99). Unwilling to give Abram the benefit of the doubt, the student expresses outrage at Abram's selfishness. Taking her cue from Sarai's silence in the text, this woman condemns Abram for not taking his wife's fear and misgivings into account. Moreover, Abram is nothing more a visionary blinded by a promise. So focused is he on God's promise of blessing that he ignores those beloved in his own life.

Though not quite as visceral in his disapproval, Nahmanides likewise condemns our forefather Abram. For this medireview commentator, Abram was not only guilty of placing Sarai in a morally compromised position but he was also guilty of leaving the land to which God had brought him. Nahmanides softens his disapproval, however, by calling Abram's actions unintentional. He writes, "Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling block of sin on account of his fear for life. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save. His leaving the Land, concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning, on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in famine God would redeem from death. It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children." Nahmanides believes that despite the trials and tribulations confronted in the Land of Canaan, Abram should have trusted in God's promise of blessing. His flight to Egypt testifies to a lack of trust in God. Moreover, of such great import was Abram's transgression that Nahmanides sees it as the root of the nation's ultimate exile and slavery in Egypt.

Another medireview exegete, Radak, Rabbi David Kimche, is less willing to take the categorical position advocated by Nahmanides. Kimche argues quite persuasively that the situation is not as clear cut as Nahmanides would like us to believe. Radak writes that Abram's level of fear in his strange surroundings began to rise as they approached Egypt: "Abram feared as they approached Egypt and its border, for when he saw the strange-looking people, he feared that they would see his wife and desire her. For if he had known this from the beginning of his journey, he would not have chosen to flee to Egypt. Rather, he would have preferred to suffer in the midst of famine than to abandon his wife. . . Abram feared that the people would kill him, leaving Sarai free to have relations with them; he chose not to rely on the promise that God had made. . . and this is appropriate behavior for a righteous individual, that he should not rely on miracles in a place of danger and that he should guard himself from every plot that he can." For Radak, Abram was a victim of desperate circumstances. His situation forced him to flee out of a sense of survival. But had he taken into account the danger of being a stranger in the land of Egypt and possible danger he would cause his wife, perhaps he would not have left Canaan. As Abram came closer and feared for his life, he sought to act responsibly, in his own mind. He realized that although God had promised him a future of blessing, the exigencies of the present reality demanded that he turn to self for protection.

The responses to Abram's behavior cover the spectrum from categorical condemnation to admiration for his instinct for self-preservation. Much can be learned from the three voices quoted above. First, Peter Pitzele's insightful student teaches us the pitfalls of prophecy. Too often we can become so blinded by a vision that we forget those who we cherish in our own lives. The promise of blessing should envelop not just the larger world around us but also the worlds nearest and dearest to us. Second, Ramban teaches us that even a forefather as great as Abram is not beyond rebuke. Abram should not have forced Sarai into this devastating situation; neither should they have left the Land of Canaan. Uncompromising devotion to one's principles and devotion to the promise of God's blessing ought not to be won at the expense of another's integrity. Third, David Kimche proves himself to be a bridge between the ideal and the real. Though the most ideal world would have us invest our entire trust in God's Promise, the reality of this world dictates otherwise. We must be proactive, trusting in God's Blessing but also seeing ourselves as God's partner. Kimche also encourages the reader to always be mindful of the complexity of the situation ' not to leap to judgment but rather to give our ancestors and one another the benefit of the doubt.

May we tread the fine line between the ideal and reality, making sure that as we pursue our dreams and our visions of God's Promises we do not trample others along the way. And may we be attentive to the many interpretive voices of our tradition, voices which demonstrate the value of wrestling with our texts and eschewing easy answers.

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz is a rabbinic fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Jewish university committed to promoting Jewish learning for all, and the academic and spiritual center of Conservative Judaism. The Jewish Theological Seminary grants undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees and offers enriching programs for the Jewish community in the US and around the world. Study more with JTS at http://www.learn.jtsa.edu.

Copyright © 2000 Jewish Theological Seminary. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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