Parashat Lech Lecha


Sylvia Greenspoon


This parasha begins with God’s command to Avraham to go forth.  Literally, it means betake yourself, but the midrash intereprets this to mean “go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.” 


Everyone, at some time in their life needs to say to themselves, or to have someone say to them:  Lech Lecha,  leave your  home and go out and find out who you are.   It is only in this separation from the warmth and protection of our families that we are able to create our own branch and add to the family tree.


I’m going to suggest some questions to focus on during this d’var :


1)         The word blessing appears 5 times in Genesis Ch. 12 vs. 2 and 3.   What does it mean to be blessed?  .

2)         When is it good to perform selfless acts?  What are some of the pitfalls of altruism?


A.J Heschel said:  All human history as described in   the Bible may be summarized in one phrase:  God in search of man.  The book of Genesis is about God’s search for a working relationship with mankind.  It is also about the interdependence of men and women. 


How do we understand the word “blessing. 

§         Feeling blessed allows us to love and to lead, to inspire by example or to walk alone when necessary.  Again, Abraham is our role model. It is God’s hope that by blessing man and woman they in turn will become a blessing to the earth.

§         To be blessed by God carries a responsibility to share that blessing with others.  It entails a commitment to act with a significance that goes beyond our own lifetime.  This is the framework of the dialogue between God and Abraham.                   


In Genesis 12:7, and 15 God promised to give the land  to  Abraham’s offspring.  In subsequent chapters again this promise is made.  In Ch. 15, God tells A. he will receive great rewards, but Abraham needed more reassurance.  He had fought battles, come out alive, prosperous, but what happened to having a child, his greatest wish?    He said:  God, what can you give me, seeing that I shall die childless…What good is land? Since you have not granted me offspring, my servant shall be my heir.  The answer:  Count the stars in the sky.  So shall be your offspring.  Abraham was quietened.


The focus now shifts to Sarah . After ten years of wandering, the couple was getting older.  The Torah makes no mention of Sarah and her suffering infertility up until this point.  Barrenness must have been a huge blow to a woman’s self esteem in ancient times.  Nor do we hear Abraham complain to her about this.


 Sarah takes matters upon herself and says to her husband:  God has kept me from bearing children. “Consort with my handmaid, perhaps I shall have a son through her.”  Everett Fox translates, vayishma, he hearkened to her.  The text says, she gave him her handmaid as an “isha”, which means wife.  Some translate this as concubine.  Is it possible that Sarah wanted Hagar to have status equal to her own, and be Abraham’s wife?  


Why did Sarah perform this selfless act?  She was worried that Abraham would squander the opportunity God had offered him to father a great people.  If she designated a maidservant to be a surrogate mother, the law permitted her to claim the offspring as her own.  When Sarah suggested the idea, Abraham did not protest.  He accepted without hesitation.  She studied his face but it betrayed no emotion.  Had he been thinking this all along but was afraid to hurt her?   Hagar was young and attractive.  


Hagar, soon after conceiving, looks down upon Sarah, her mistress.  Vayakel b’eineiha.”  Rashi says:


Hagar argued:  If Sarah were a righteous woman, she would have merited conception.  Sarah feels humiliated and jealous.  Was this her reward?   She takes out her anger on her husband.   “The wrong done to me is your fault.  I put my maid in your bosom, now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem.  The Lord decide between you and me”.   These are bitter words.

Abraham replies,   “Your maid is in your hands.  Deal with her as you think right.”   So Sarah dealt harshly with her and Hagar fled to the wilderness.


Sarah probably regretted her actions.  Where could a pregnant woman go in the dessert?  When Hagar returned, Sarah was relieved.  The death of Abraham’s child would not be on her head.


Sarai had made a huge personal sacrifice for her husband and for the sake of a vision they both embraced.  What was her mistake?


The Torah and the commentaries take a harsh stance toward Sarah and Abraham    Rambam denounces those who are generous in their pious declarations but don’t follow through.  (It is worse to promise something and then break your vow, than not to promise at all.)


Others say that they both viewed Hagar as an empty vessel for their progeny, but forgot she was human and created in God’s image.  Therefore the text has God’s messenger speak directly to Hagar in the wilderness and comfort her., and promise her progeny to become great through Ishmael.


Sarai was seduced by the selflessness of her offering.   This deteriorated into rage against her husband and cruelty towards Hagar.  The marriage had survived the strains of infertility and the stay in Pharoah’s court, but this became a threat to their unity.


 Sarah knew that she was being irrational but wanted her feelings acknowledged.   John Gray in Women are from Venus and Men are from Mars tells us that men need to remember that women speak about their pain in order to get close, not necessarily to get solutions.  The mistake many men make is trying to change a woman’s feelings when she’s upset by becoming Mr. Fix It.


Abraham fell into this pit.  Instead of listening, he avoided the subject and jumped straight to a quick fix.  Abraham behaved as if it was her problem only, but this crisis affected both of them deeply.


This story of infertility in ancient times is similar to contemporary stories.  Even today in our material world where anything can be acquired with effort and money, childbearing remains an elusive blessing.  The options available to infertile couples such as adoption, surrogacy, in- vitro fertilization are matched by new barriers to conception.  Stress levels, sexually transmitted diseases, chemicals in the environment affecting reproduction and the postponement of childbearing to later years are a few of these.


Abraham and Sarah struggled like any modern couple moving through despair, renewed hope, denial and finally action.  Their struggle brought out the best and the worst in each one.  Their marriage endured. They were sustained by their tenacity, their companionship and their shared faith in a vision larger than themselves.


Fidelity, sexuality, fertility, childbearing and rearing were as central to the lives of couples in Genesis as they are today.   The chronicles of this intergenerational family begun by Abraham and Sarah have much to teach us. These are our role models. Through the study of Torah we can put our own struggles into perspective.  We are given a map of moral signposts that help to ground our existence.   Without these we are at the mercy of every crisis, human failure or rejection, every change in our external circumstances. 


As God searches for a relationship with mankind, so too are we obliged to continue seeking out and forging our own relationship with God.