parshat lech lecha (genesis 12)
Join Geoffrey Stern, Rabbi Adam Mintz, Rabbi Avraham Bronstein and friends as they explore various ways of viewing Abraham’s epic journey and how it reflects our own. Recorded on Clubhouse on Friday October 15th, 2021
Geoffrey Stern 00:00
So everybody, welcome to Madlik. This is our weekly clubhouse where we do what we call disruptive Torah, which means that we look at the Torah through slightly new lenses from a new angle, and hopefully inspire all of us to do the same and to think freshly about our ancient texts. And we do record and we post as a podcast on Sunday. And so if you enjoy what you hear, go ahead and listen to the podcast, give us a few stars, say something nice and share it with your friends. And with that we are literally beginning a journey because today’s Parsha is Lech Lecha, which is the beginning of the epic journey of Abraham. And the words Lech Lecha are open, as is his journey to multiple interpretations. And I’m sure we’re going to get into them all. But basically, in Genesis 12: 1, it says, “And the Lord said to Abraham, go forth from your native land “Lech Lecha Meartzecha” , 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 shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you. And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” And certainly we know that the Abrahamic families are far and wide. Both Islam and Christianity all account their faith and their journey to Abraham. So this is a man who began a wild adventure. So let’s start by asking you in the audience and our panel? What is striking to you about the onset of this epic journey and Lech Lecha?
Adam Mintz 02:00
I’ll start by saying that what strikes me about Lech Lecha more than anything else, is the fact that the background is not there. We don’t know anything about what led to God saying to Abraham leave your father’s house, and, you know, go to this land. And I wonder why that is? If the Torah tells you something, there’s a reason for it. And if the Torah doesn’t tell you something, there’s a reason for it. And I wonder what the reason that the Torah doesn’t tell you is here.
Geoffrey Stern 02:36
I think that’s a great question, Michael?
Michael Posnik 02:41
Yes, it’s a wonderful question. Having worked in the theater for so long, when anything happens on stage, you try to find out from the actors, where they came from, so that when they walk in, they walk in with a bit of history. So I got an opportunity, as I said, to study the Zohar with my friend Misha Shulman, a rabbi, and I’ll share with you some of what we found. It begins with a principle. It says nothing is aroused above, before it is first aroused below, so that what is aroused above rests on it. So the indication is, the work below has to be done first. Before anything can happen from above, there has to be an awakening. So it says here, the secret behind the words Lech Lecha is that Hakadosh Baruch Hu (the holy one blessed be he) inspired Abraham with the spirit of wisdom. Abraham knew how to judge the spirits and the winds of the civilized world. He observed them, weighed them in the scales, and knew how to connect them to the powers and trusted to govern the inhabited places of earth. And he measured and observed very carefully. And he realized that the whole middle point of the inhabited world is the point from which the whole world moves out to all its corners. Then he discovered, continuing to observe in weigh, in an effort to determine the nature of that central point of the creation, but he was unable to understand it. So he could not cleave to it. It says, he saw the strength of that place, HaMakom, and realized that he could not understand it. Abraham knew and checked all the governors and rulers of the world that had dominion over the entire civilized world. And he was examining all those who governed and ruled over directions of the inhabited world. And he learned how to exercise their power over one another. But he still when he reached the place, the point of Malchut (Rulership), he saw the force of those depths that he couldn’t understand it. As soon as Hakadosh Baruch Hu noticed his awakening and his passion. He immediately revealed himself to Abraham said, Lech Lecha, go learn perfect yourself. So those other words of the Zohar in translation. So you want to know what he was doing before? He was learning everything there was to know about the entire creation and the Center, the core of it was this mystery that could only be filled by Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Geoffrey Stern 05:46
So so I’m not sure whether what you’re saying is an answer. Or it begs the question, because it seems to me that as you look through the commentaries, you’ve given a beautiful commentary from a mystical point of view. So a mystic feels free to project on to Abraham, what he imagined him going through the this story that most of us learn in cheder, in Hebrew school, is the famous story of Abraham’s father who had a store where they sold idols. And he let Abraham be an idle sitter, if you will, to take care of the store while he went away. And one after the other people came in, either to buy an idol or to give an homage, some food to the idol. And similar to Michael, when you were talking about Abraham, somehow, it doesn’t really in this regard, say where he came to these revelations. But he engages in almost a Socratic dialogue, saying, Well, why are you feeding this idol? If it was made just yesterday? Why are you worshiping Him? If he has eyes and he can’t see if he has he is if he can’t hear. And again, I’m not sure that this midrash, which most kids walk away thinking as part of the text, but it’s not, begs the question or answers it or maybe what it says. And we can discuss some other perspectives on what led Abraham to this moment. Maybe what it says is that Abraham’s journey is our journey, and that all of us, therefore have license or maybe an obligation to project on to Abraham, that journey of discovery of the hidden mystery, if you will, as you put it, of the universe.
Adam Mintz 08:07
I like that. I like the idea that Abraham’s journey is our journey, the Sefat Emet, one of the Hasidic masters, says that God says Lech Lecha to everybody, it’s just Abraham was the first person who actually heard
Geoffrey Stern 08:28
If you join Madlik a few minutes before four, we always ask Rabbi Adam, what he’s going to speak about in synagogue on the coming Shabbat. And he intimated that it’s not altogether clear that what we just read, is actually the full story, even from the text. I’m not sure who divided up the Torah into portions, who divided it up into chapters, maybe one day we’ll spend a session going over that. But if you look a few lines before the beginning of our Torah reading of Lech Lecha, it actually has either a variant or a supplemental account of what actually happened in Genesis 11. It says, “Terach, took his son Abraham, his grandson, Lot, the son of hawan, and his daughter in law, Sarai, the wife of his son Abraham, and they set out together from Or of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan. But when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.” So just as in Genesis 1 and 2, we have two stories of the creation of Adam and Eve. Here too. It seems almost as if we have two stories of leaving Haran. In chapter 11 of Genesis. It doesn’t give credit to Abraham. It doesn’t say that Abraham left his father this To Rebel Without a Cause this rouser of breaking of the the loaded idols of his parents here, it says that his father took him and his grandson and his wife, and maybe they didn’t make the whole trip. But certainly from this text, it looks as though his father was involved. And I’m wondering, not only do we have a license to look at this story through our own eyes, but we have a license to say, Abraham could also envision it with his own eyes. How many times do we as children envision certain things that we believe we’ve come up with on our own, and in the second telling, maybe we realize, we got that from dad, or we discovered that for mom, and I’m wondering if a little bit of that is going on here as well, what thinks you?
Michael Posnik 10:55
Clearly, we all receive a good part of our personality from parents, there’s no doubt that it may well be that the man who made idols, made idols but didn’t believe them. It’s possible that that was his business, and he knew it was a good business. I don’t know, the question that comes to my mind is, when they left, where did they think they were going? And how many times in our lives do we have a destination in mind, but something wonderful or not so wonderful happens, and our destination has to change? In Abraham’s case, it seems to me they were headed towards Or of the Chaldeans or whatever that was, where they were headed. And then God says, I’ll show you where to go. So it’s completely open. It completely impromvisatory, if you will, spontaneous, he asked to just go and follow that son. whatever direction they were going, that’s, that’s been my experience in life, actually, I lived my life where I was intending something or nothing, and suddenly, I hear a voice to go in that direction. ….I met wonderful people.
Adam Mintz 12:17
I just want to point out Geoffrey, you know, this story of the family of Abraham, traveling from Or Chasdim to Haran all of that, you know, this is really the first time in the Torah. And this is already the third portion where people travel. Each of the two, previous Parshot has talked about genealogies talked about different people. And it almost never says they started here, they went there. So what you see at the very least is the Terach is exploring. And I think you get credit for exploring, even if you have bad intentions, the idea that you want to explore, is it itself something that we encourage. And I think that’s an important point.
Geoffrey Stern 13:23
Well, I mean, a little bit later in the portion, we get into some fights and interactions between Abraham and other people. And obviously, it’s only when you interact with other people, that people get to name you and you get to name yourself.
Michael Posnik 13:39
Just jump in for a second. I’m thinking about Cain who is Nad veNad, who is constantly in motion from place to place with no direction.
Adam Mintz 13:51
Correct and that was God. That was the punishment. he had to travel. Here is the first time we have traveled where he chooses to track.
Geoffrey Stern 14:01
So but let me let me go a little bit later on, you know, Abraham strikes to be defined and to define himself and he gets involved in some battles with other kings, and his brother gets kidnapped. And in Genesis 14, it says “And a fugitive brought the news to Abraham, the Hebrew who was drilling at the terebinths of Mamre”, and this is the first time to my knowledge that Abraham is actually called a Hebrew. “L’Avram HaIvri” and Rashi quite rightly says, the one who came from the other side of the river “Mever HaNahar”. And so in one verse, not only is Abraham defined as this traveler, as this person who’s defined by not where he is but where he is coming from, but it is kind of interesting that a fugitive is the one who is giving him a message. We almost are in a world that is populated in a different way. And it’s not simply one heroic person, but we’re surrounded by a world in flux. And it gives I think, more emphasis to this whole concept of Lech Lecha, in terms of a journey, I do believe that we’re all kind of on the same page here. In terms of this process. There is this trite saying where “life is a journey and not a destination”. And whether it is literally Abraham, beginning on this journey, or whether it is the fact that maybe he didn’t quite start it all by himself, but his father started it, but didn’t finish it. And that kind of echoes this concept of we never finish our journey. And our journey is only the beginning of a bigger journey. It’s just so emblematic of what Abraham created, and what the story values, I think. So what what makes us of “God” here? Because I think so many of the interpretations revolve around the birth of monotheism. Michael, you were talking from a kabbalistic point of view, that it was clear that what instigated this departure was some eureka moment or some lifelong struggle for identifying the mysteries of the universe. But if you look at the text itself, you know, I don’t think there would have been our person in that ancient world who would have done anything unless he was inspired by the Spirit. The fact that God said to him make this journey, you know, God spoke in the Epic of Gilgamesh to… the gods was speaking all the time. There’s nothing inherent in this tale that leads one to believe that Abraham created some revolution in theology. And I’m just wondering if that is something that resonates at all with you? Or is it clear that this man began his trip because of some theological inspiration?
Adam Mintz 17:37
I don’t think anything is clear. And I don’t even know what a theological revelation means. What you just said was right. We talk about Abraham as being the first Jew. The truth of the matter is that scholars all say that’s not technically correct. Jews are related to Judah. It only came later. Abraham is the first monotheist
Geoffrey Stern 18:06
Well, he’s the first Hebrew he’s the first Iviri.
Adam Mintz 18:09
right Ivri. He’s separate from everybody else. He recognizes God. There’s a very famous Rashi. Rashi says that when they were traveling, it says that Abraham, “converted” is the word Abraham megayeret et ha anashim veSara mgayeret et aha nashim” and Sara was converting the women, “converting” does it mean converting like we have today. It means the day actually we’re teaching monotheism. They believed that monotheism was something that needed to be taught, that needed to be spread to all different people. And I think that’s really interesting.
Geoffrey Stern 18:56
You know, I could make the argument that Abraham was the first atheist. And what I mean to say is, if you look at Abraham from the perspective of Terach, or if you follow the story of Nimrod, who puts him into a fiery furnace? Here is a guy who’s saying that everything the world believe was a God does not exist. He says, No, the sun has no power, the stars have no power, this Totem, this animal, it has no power. And and what he was claiming, was, in fact, of a power and of course, this is all a projection of the Midrash, or of Maimonides or of the Zohar was this hidden this unseen, untouchable thing from the perspective of the landed powers that be he was denying God, he was denying all that they believed in and from that perspective it leads all the way to Spinoza, who was excommunicated by saying God is no way but God is everywhere. Maybe he was the first secularist.
Avraham Bronstein 20:13
You remind me of Peter Brown. So Peter Brown, the great historian of the Roman Empire, and one of his books about religion in the ancient Roman Empire, or the classical world, talks about how the Judeans, the original Jews were seen as atheists by the more polytheist, pre Christian Roman Empire at the time, because they couldn’t comprehend how Jews maintain the belief not in their God, but in a god. It didn’t make any sense to them.
Geoffrey Stern 20:44
Fantastic. Yochanan welcome to the bima
Thanks, thanks. Thanks so much for having me. By the way, Rabbi Maza, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, 400 years ago, he says what you just said. So he says that Abraham was a kultur b’kalim . He was like, like you said, he was the first secularist or atheists to to deny all the deities, all the old the religions of the environment.
Geoffrey Stern 21:14
I think that’s fantastic. We forget sometimes, because Judaism is 3000 years old, that there was a time where it was the rebel in the room, and it was offering ideas that seemed to break all of the accepted beliefs. So we’re moving along, I want to talk a little bit about Lech Lecha the words itself. And I think if you had to translate it, simply, you would say lech means to go. And lecha means to yourself. And in Rashi, his interpretation is for your benefit. L’hanatcha, l’tovatcha for your good. But as any good researcher will do. One, will look to see where else these two words come together. And I know of one other place where they come together, I don’t have the confidence to say it’s the only other place where they come together. But it is certainly a very prominent place. And it is in Genesis 22. And similar to our text God comes forward and says Abraham, and he says who I am. And he says take your son, your favorite one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. He says ulech lecha el eretz hamoriah. And so iconically. In Perkai Avot it says that Abraham had been given 10 tests in his life. And the commentary say the first and the last test both began with lech l’cha. And so the two are certainly connected. But it makes one wonder if Rashi’s interpretation is correct. Because certainly it’s a hard sell to say that as you’re asked to take your son, you only son that this is for your benefit. Another parallel and then I’ll open it up to discussion is that notice the cadence in both of these renderings. In both God steps it up. God says in our parsha, he says to go from your land, from your father, from your home. And on the Akida, the The Binding of Isaac, he does the same thing. And of course, the commentaries say, well, it’s a test. So it’s to give him more benefit, to give him more credit for the different steps that he’s taken. But what makes all of you about this connection between the Lech l’echa of leaving a land a temporal place, and this lech lecha of this amazing, challenging, tragic test towards the end of his life?
Adam Mintz 24:31
Well, let me ask you, you know, Geoffrey, the question is, which was more challenging, right? Was it harder for him to leave everything that he had grown up with? Or was it harder, not knowing what God’s stood for? Or maybe at the end of his life, he learned to trust God already. And even though God said sacrifice your son, maybe he had enough trust in God to believe that, I don’t know how it’s gonna work out okay, but somehow is gonna work out Okay.
Geoffrey Stern 25:05
One of the commentators says that it relates to this testing that in lech l;echa we come literally to our essence to find out to discover who we are. And one can make the argument that one only knows who one is when one is tempered with the test and the experience of life, another commentary and I kind of love this and this, maybe he resonates a little bit with what Michael was saying about the esoteric texts of the Kabbalah. Emek Davar says that it is Lecha (only to you) a secret. So Lech Lecha, this is something that was hidden only to the recipient. This is a private journey. And so he says, when it comes to the binding of isaac, he says to Abraham, keep it quiet, because if anyone else knows this crazy mission that you’re on, they are going to resist. So Lech Lecha it’s a hidden message. But I do believe that the, the fact that this iconic term was used in both instances is certainly fascinating. Uri welcome to the bema
Thank you so much.
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz as they explore various ways of viewing Abraham’s epic journey and how it reflects our own.
Recorded on Clubhouse on Friday October 15th, 2021
Link to Sefaria source sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/354270
Listen below to last week’s Clubhouse meeting: Noah’s Rainbow