When Enough is Enough – Parshat Lech Lecha 5783

At least once a week, I look around our house and wonder, “How do we have so much stuff?” It feels like as the kids get older and our lives get busier, we accumulate more and more stuff. Some of the stuff is reasonable: new toys, games, clothes. The problem with this is that we tend to fall behind on getting rid of the outdated, outgrown, unused items, causing clutter and stress for me. As I write this, I look out at a sea of old or half-finished art projects and toys that haven’t been played with for years.

It’s not that we’re hoarders (at least Duncan and I aren’t) but we do have packrat tendencies that make us yearn for more space. However, we can’t add on to our house every time we feel like we’re cramped. Instead, we have to make choices about what stays and what goes, and we have to figure out how to make the space livable for all four of us. 

This feeling certainly isn’t unique to our family. In fact, Avraham and Lot teach us about some of this in our Torah portion this week. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are finally introduced to Avram and Sarai – later Avraham and Sarah – who become the great patriarch and matriarch of the rest of our narrative. We learn that Avraham follows God with full intent, without questioning, and that Sarah goes with him. God tells him to leave his home, leave the only house he’s ever known, and go to a place he knows nothing about. 

Following God’s voice and taking a leap of faith, Avraham goes on the journey with his kinsman, Lot. When they left for Egypt they had relatively few possessions, but as they made alliances and moved through Egypt they both amassed more “stuff” than they had originally intended. Their encampment together became crowded and unlivable. The clutter made the vast landscape feel small and cramped for the families, so they decided to part ways. 

As tensions rise between the two families, Avraham says, “Let there be no strife between us, you choose where you want to move.” Clearly, for Avraham and Lot, more space was the answer. They couldn’t have parted with all their assets, so they instead moved to different places and expanded the amount of room. Since that’s not a possibility for our family, I’ll have to accept the alternative for now and “expand” our house by getting rid of some of our “assets.” It may cause a little bit of strife, but in the end, shalom bayit (peace in the home) isn’t necessarily about making everyone happy. It’s about compromise and understanding everyone’s needs, which is precisely the lesson of Lech Lecha.

The Big House – Parshat Lech Lecha 5782

As a college student at the University of Michigan, some of my best memories were in the Big House. (The “Big House” is the nickname of Michigan Stadium.) Saturdays in the fall in Ann Arbor are an experience like none other. There is an electric energy around the city, and deep-rooted traditions abound. As a college freshman, I received a single ticket in the end zone about 50 rows up. I sat with a group of fans who had become family with one another, as they’d had the same seats for nearly three decades. This was “their house.” The stadium, while regularly the largest live crowd watching a college football game on a given Saturday, felt homey and familiar. It certainly is the “Big House” as it united each of us as Wolverines for those four quarters of play, unless you were rooting for the other team, in which case . . . boo!

With an attendance capacity of more than 100,000, it’s easy to see why it was nicknamed the “Big House,” but it always led me to wonder if this “house” was also a home. At what point does a house become a home? Is it enough to be a gathering place? Does one need to feel a connection to it? Is there some uniting cause that represents the house? While I certainly never slept in the Big House, I do still count it as one of the many homes in my life. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we are first asked to consider what makes a house. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are finally introduced to Avram and Sarai – later Avraham and Sarah – who become the great patriarch and matriarch of the rest of our narrative. We learn that Avraham follows God with full intent, without questioning, and that Sarah goes with him. God tells him to leave his home, leave the only house he’s ever known, and go to a place he knows nothing about. He’s following God’s voice and taking a leap of faith.

As this parshah begins, we read the verse “Go, take yourself, from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I’m struck by the notion of the specifics in saying “from your father’s house.” Of course in the ancient world, people were identified as coming from this family or that family. And since families generally lived together, it would make sense to specify “from your father’s house.” But why from the “house” instead of simply “from your father” or “from your father and mother”? Later, we see the word bayt (house) used to talk about places of study, like “the house of Hillel” and the “house of Shammai.” What does it mean to use “house” as your identifier?

In recent years there’s been a shift in how we identify ourselves and others. For example, we’re normalizing the use of identifying pronouns like she/her or they/them on name tags and Zoom IDs. However, Hebrew is a gendered language, and as such, it makes it much harder to move into a non-binary identity system. One prominent example comes from when we use our full Hebrew names. The traditional formula is your name, then son or daughter of your parents’ names. We use this on Jewish legal documents for weddings, and we use it when we’re called to the Torah for an aliyah. But, what happens when something other than that binary distinction is preferred?

One way we’ve addressed this is by starting to use mi-bayt, which means “from the house of,” in place of “son of” or “daughter of.” What makes this an appropriate fix? For one, it goes back to the Torah; we are all from the house of Abraham and Sarah in one way or another. Also, your “house” is the one of your choosing. It can be the house or family you grew up in, or the house you’ve made with your own family. It can even signify a global house (a “big house,” if you will). Mi-bayt olam means “from the house of the world,” and that certainly applies to all of us. 

What you consider a home or house may look different from everyone else’s. This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we all come from somewhere, whether your “somewhere” is a specific block in a suburb or the whole planet, but even more important is the somewhere you make for yourself. 

Where You Begin – Parshat Lech Lecha 5781

As a child when I learned the stories of the Torah, the introduction of Abraham as the first monotheist always stuck with me. In particular, my teacher told this elaborate story of Abraham as a boy working in his father’s idol shop, and being really uncomfortable with the idea of people praying to all of these objects. Abraham tried to convince his father that idols were not necessary, that they shouldn’t be there, that there was only one God, but his father didn’t listen. So, one day while Abraham was minding his father’s shop, he took a stick and smashed all the idols except the largest one, and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned, Abraham explained that it was the large idol that caused the damage, which his father said was impossible because it was just a statue. Thus, Abraham emerges a leader in this new way of thinking, and our narrative of monotheism is born.

What an insightful backstory the Torah gives us about Abraham’s family and his origin as an independent thinker and leader. Except, this story isn’t in the Torah, it’s a midrash written much later. The Torah, in fact, doesn’t give us much to go on at all. What we do know of Abraham’s backstory is from last week’s parshah, Noach. Terah begat Avram (his name before it was Avraham), Avram married Sarai, and she could not have children. Terah took his son, grandson, and their family on a journey from Ur to Canaan, but didn’t make it all the way. Terah died at 205 years old. That’s what we know.

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Lech Lecha, begins when Avram is already about 75 years old. The text starts with Avram and Sarai leaving their land, the land that they knew and felt comfortable in, to follow God’s command and go to Egypt. The text continues with their ongoing problems in Egypt and ends with the changing of their names from Avram to Avraham (Abraham) and Sarai to Sarah.

When Abraham finally hears God’s voice and makes the choice to listen to it, he’s 75 years old. Abraham lives 75 years of his life before he leaves his home as the first Jewish patriarch, and yet we know very little about that life. Since his past is so void of details, the rabbis of old made up stories to fill in the gaps so we might understand a little bit more about his character, why he made the choices he did, and why he was the one chosen as the leader.

There are countless true stories of artists, writers, actors, teachers, even rabbis, who have chosen a new direction much later in life. Whether it’s a career change or another major life decision that leads you on a new path, sometimes “life” begins well into the years we’ve lived. Parshat Lech Lecha jumps into Abraham’s life much later than you’d expect, but it’s because his story really begins in the moment he made a choice to follow God and step into the role that changed the course of history.

Let It Go – Parshat Lech Lecha 5780

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There are different kinds of apologies. Some we make as a way to acknowledge that we’ve done something seriously wrong and to take ownership of our actions with intention to change our ways. Other apologies are much less formal and serious, like an apology for being late or for stepping on someone’s toes. Then there are the shallow apologies that don’t really mean anything, like a three-year-old who knows the only way to get dessert is to apologize for something, even if they don’t even know what they’re apologizing for. 

But what’s powerful about the ability to apologize is that it also puts the recipient of the apology in the position to forgive. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. Parshat Lech Lecha brings us finally into the narrative of Abraham and Sarah and the rest of our history as the Jewish people. The text begins with (then) Avram and Sarai leaving their land, the land that they knew and felt comfortable in, to go to Egypt and follow God’s command. The text continues with their ongoing problems in Egypt and ends with their name changes from Avram to Avraham (Abraham in English) and Sarai to Sarah.

One piece of this story has always intrigued me. God comes to Abraham and gives him the message that he should go and leave this land he’s known for the place that God will show him. Once on this journey, he finds himself under the rule of a foreign king, and the first thing Abraham does is ask Sarah to lie for him. He creates this lie out of fear that the foreign king will kill Sarah if he knows she is Abraham’s wife, but nonetheless, Abraham’s first act in the Torah is asking someone to lie for him.

How do we reconcile this with the image of Abraham our forefather, the one who we refer to first when listing Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? Does this act befit the father of this great nation of people and the one whose children number more than the stars in the sky? Why do we forgive Abraham?

Perhaps it’s not because Abraham learns his lesson (although he does work toward living an honest, better life after that). Instead, maybe the lesson is for us. Abraham isn’t a perfect role model, and he certainly made mistakes along the way, but perhaps that’s to teach us forgiveness and humanity. Human beings make mistakes. We mess up, sometimes we try to cover it up, eventually we get found out (look to the example of Adam and Eve), then hopefully we make amends, accept the consequences, and move on. 

We live in a world in which the expectation of perfection is extremely high. We hold our leaders, teachers, and preachers to a standard of perfection that just isn’t attainable. Human beings make mistakes. Yes, some are unforgivable and irreparable. But some simply need an apology and the ability to move on and learn from the mistake.

In the end, forgiveness is what moves us forward – forgiveness of ourselves and others. Parshat Lech Lecha reminds us that if we never allowed Abraham to be flawed, the great nation he started might never have had a chance to exist at all. 

 

You Do You – Parshat Lech Lecha 5779

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Every morning my daughter’s preschool class begins with free play. There are options to play blocks, or draw, build or explore. Nine times out of ten, though, Shiri is playing dress up. Sometimes the outfits are hilarious, with as many layers piled on as she can put on her body. Other times she’s a doctor, a waitress, a princess, or a mommy. Imaginative and creative play are staples in our preschool classrooms because they allow our children to try on different roles, explore what it means to be the leader or a follower, and discover what feels comfortable and what feels unique and different. It’s natural for there to be a lot of gender fluidity in early childhood development. That doesn’t mean that genders are changing, it just means children are experimenting with different roles. Play is without gender or stereotype at this age, and there is great strength and beauty when children explore their world to find their authentic selves.

As adults, it’s easy to get stuck in a rut being who we think we’re supposed to be instead of being our best selves. This challenge of human adult life has been around for a while, and in fact the same thing happened to Abraham. This week we read Parshat Lech Lecha. In Parshat Lech Lecha, we are finally introduced to Avram and Sarai – later Avraham and Sarah – who become the great patriarch and matriarch of the rest of our narrative. We learn that Avraham follows God with full intent, without questioning, and that Sarah goes with him. God tells him to leave his home, leave the only house he’s ever known, and go to a place he knows nothing about. He’s following God’s voice and taking a leap of faith.

The text begins, “The Lord said to Avram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” A literal translation of lech l’cha is “go forth” or “betake yourself.” However, the Mei Hashiloach, a compilation of the teachings of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, translates this in a midrash as, “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” In other words, the text lists the various levels of “leaving” or “exploration” which a person must go through in order to identify who their true, authentic self is.

To add this concept to what we already know about Avraham, finding yourself isn’t simply deciding to be the true you; it’s physically seeking out that person. In order to be your best, most authentic self, there’s a journey to travel, and the hardest part of the journey is the possibility that some less authentic part might be shed in order to make a new discovery. But as we learn with Avraham, we must go forth and explore – only then can we be sure to bring our gifts into the world.