By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week’s Torah parsha, Lech Lecha, begins with God’s words to Abram: “Go forth from your birthplace to the land which I will show you; and I will make you into a great nation, bless you and aggrandize your name”(1).
The writers of the Midrash had many obvious questions pertaining to this opening statement of this parsha: Who was this man, Abram and why was he chosen for this directive? How had he merited God’s attention? Why was he, of all people, destined to become the first of our patriarchs?
Regarding all of these questions, the Torah is silent!
The Midrashic literature ably filled the gaps pertaining to Abram’s theological journey. Abram was born into a world of polytheism, which is based on the theory that the universe is governed by multiple forces and multiple gods. Therefore, there may be a ‘water god,’ a ‘mountain god,’ a ‘desert god,’ etc. Each of these gods must be appeased, and therefore receive some form of worship(2).
We are told that Abram considered the various forms of worship, rejecting one after another through use of critical thinking (3). Using logic and deductive reasoning, he concluded that there must be a singular force in the world – there must be one God(4). Abram was aware that this one and only God wanted justice, freedom and for all humanity to be treated with respect, dignity and compassion(5).
Abram followed God’s orders, took his wife Sarah and nephew, Lot, and journeyed to the land of Canaan. Once again, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said: “To your seed I will give this land”(6).
Upon reaching Canaan, there was a quarrel between Abram and Lot. Apparently, Lot forgot that Abram, his uncle, was also his mentor. Lot behaved towards Abram as if they were equals. Abram stayed in Canaan and Lot moved to the area known as Sodom. The people of Sodom were known to be licentious, immoral, evil and sinful towards God. Lot began practicing paganism again and lost his way in God’s eyes. With Lot gone, Abram beseeched God: “Behold, you have given me no seed and there is no man to inherit my covenant with you because my wife Sarah is barren”(7).
A major supporting character in this parsha is Hagar. The persona of Hagar is ambivalent; she is praised in some respects and criticized in others. Hagar is introduced as the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt. According to Rashi: “When the Pharaoh realized the high status of Abram and Sarah, he said: “it is better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house and not a mistress in another house”(8).
Hagar was encouraged to marry Abram, so that she would bear him offspring(9). After marrying Abram, she did immediately conceive. Hagar was extremely sensitive to Sarah’s resentment and jealousy of her; and immediately fled the home. When she returned, she gave birth to a boy, and named him Ishmael (translated: ‘God has heard’)(10)
God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (‘father of multitudes’) and said: “I will bless your wife Sarah, and I will give you a son”(11). Isaac was born and God made a covenant with him, although He did not do so with the other son, Ishmael.
(1) GENESIS (12: 1-2)
(3) Talmud Shabbat (156A)
(4) Midrash Rabbah (39:9, 95:3)
(6) GENESIS (12:8)
(7) GENESIS (14:3)
(8) Rashi (“On Genesis)
(10) Bar-Ilan University (Torah Center) Tel Aviv, Israel
(11) GENESIS (18:16)