“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
And so begins Parsha Lech-Lecha. I love this line. I’m not sure I can fully articulate why. But I’ll try.
The words “Lecha-Lecha” (or “go forth”) struck me when I first started dabbling with Judaism and listened to Jew Oughta Know’s episode on this story. Perhaps it’s because I’ve felt at home being the stranger. First in Costa Rica and now in Germany. It’s a sentiment first put into words when my then-boss took me out to lunch on my first day of work in Düsseldorf. So, this idea that there’s a land for you or for me that’s not necessarily the land in which we were born resonates with me. Germany, in this period of time, often feels like the place for me. I mean, they have a word––Backpfeifengesicht––for someone who has a face that needs to get so hard, it whistles from the impact.
Anywho, back to this Parsha.
Why Abram? It’s a perfectly reasonable question. In fact, commentary on Jewish text is often filled with debate on why God chose the people He chose to communicate with in the Torah. The hosts at Tablet’s Parsha in Progress share commentary from a Hassidic Rebbe who suggested that God didn’t choose Abram. Rather, God said “Lech-Lecha” to all of humanity and Abram was the only one who listened.
The idea of Abram being the one who listened takes on greater meaning when, spoiler alert, you realize that the name of his first son, Ishmael, means “God listens.” At the same time, there’s the central, uniting prayer of Judaism––Shema or “listen.”
Interpreting the story as the Rebbe did makes complete sense to me and is easily applicable to modern times. It’s finding these nuggets that draw me to Torah study even as I struggle with making sense with, let’s say, a good ninety percent of the text. I don’t think any of us would have to reach too far into our personal history to find a moment when we were called upon to do something. Maybe it wasn’t becoming the patriarch of a great nation, but surely something of significance.
A Great Nation
After telling Abram to Lech-Lecha, God continues with a promise that He will build Abram a great nation, bless him, make his name great, curse those who curse him, yada, yada, yada. Typical God promises if you do what He commands.
Now, I hate to dwell on the ages again, but the Torah notes that Abram was seventy-five years old when he, well, went forth. If we’re accepting ages as figurative, which we pretty much have to since Torah people are living into their nine-hundredth year, seventy-five is quite young. Put a pin in that thought because the Lord is popping up again just as Abram arrives in Canaan––the land of the Canaanites (more “-ites”).
“I will assign this land to your heirs,” God says. This land is the land of Israel. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
I don’t want to turn this into a discussion of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Far smarter people more educated on the matter can, have, and are commenting on it. (Less educated people are yelling about it on the Internet, but that’s par for the course.) I want to quickly address a thought I had that perhaps other amateur Jews are having after reading this Parsha for the first time.
“So, the Jewish claim to the land of Israel comes strictly from the Torah?”
That, to me, would be problematic. Twenty-first-century borders shouldn’t be drawn up by a religious text. But I have done some additional reading––stoking my DNA interest––that confirms that Jews have been in this ancient land since the Biblical Age. Some describe Jews as, therefore, indigenous to the land. I’m personally not sure about that. After all, we just read that Abram was an immigrant himself––something I think is really interesting and even a fact to be celebrated, but an immigrant is not indigenous. However you land on that, there is scientific evidence that Jews have been in this Biblical land for, well, a really, really long time.
(Of course, then you find out there’s a Book of Joshua that describes the Israelite conquest and destruction of the, I guess, truly indigenous Canaanites and it really throws you through a loop. But let’s not get too sidetracked.)
So, They Had Slaves?
Not long after arriving in the Promised Land, Abram high tails it over to Egypt where he asks his wife, Sarai, to pretend to be his sister. Why? Because she is apparently so beautiful, they will want to kill him. (I guess Abram was really punching up.) The scheme worked and it’s written that “it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.”
Did you see that? The Torah used the oxford comma! Now that deserves a mazel tov.
I’m just kidding. It was obviously the “male and female slaves” that caught my attention––so much so that I barely allowed myself to chuckle at “she-asses.”
This, you can imagine, I did not like reading. Here I am, trying to embrace my heritage by putting my religious skepticism aside, and you’re going to tell me that the founder of what I’m trying to embrace had slaves? Hang on to your skirts, it gets better, because this is also the circumcision chapter.
Abram doubts his virility and the Lord promises him he’ll have as many offspring as there are stars in the sky. Then God reminds him that He knows what he’s doing. He is, after all, the one who brought Abram out of his native Ur to give him the Promised Land. Abram still seems unsure of his worthiness and God lays out a bizarre shopping list.
“Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle-dove, and a young bird.”
Abram did get that. And he started chopping them in half (foreshadowing his willingness to blindly stab things) before falling into a deep sleep. God pops in again to shed some dread, proclaiming, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve (*cough* Egypt *cough* Plagues *cough* Passover *cough*), and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.”
Your initial reaction might be, “What the hell God? You know bad shit is going to go down to your chosen people and you’re going to let it happen?”
You’re not wrong for having that reaction. But something studying Judaism has done for me is given me something of an epiphany. New Testament God and Jesus, from my very limited understanding, are given a holy makeover. They’re loving and caring. This explains why so many Christians have this crazy idea that God loves you.
But this Torah God I understand better. It makes more sense when you put it into a real-world context. Since New Testament God is more mainstream, anyone on the spectrum from believer to agnostic struggles with why God lets bad things happen to good people. And I get the confusion! They assume God is supposed to be benevolent and all-loving. But war, climate catastrophe, and disease don’t seem like New Testament God. Do you know who it does sound like?
Why do bad things happen to do people? Torah God can answer that question. But first, He needs to kick the door down on an orphanage to set it on fire. He then turns to the camera and says, “Why shouldn’t bad things happen to good people?”
Look, I’m not saying I prefer Torah God over New Testament God (or hell, frankly most any God). I’m just saying if you have a look around the world, Torah God seems more likely to be out there.
But Abram would be long gone before climate change and he makes his covenant with God, who said, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates: the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, Kranites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.”
(I made up one of those. Guess which one!)
Hagar The Innocent
Our last chapter of Lech-Lecha turns the spotlight onto Abram’s wife, Sarai. She’s got a problem. Sarai can’t conceive so she gives her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, to Abram as a concubine. They banged and Hagar got knocked up. Sarai apparently didn’t expect this to actually happen and was pissed.
“The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!”
I picture Abram absorbed in a videogame, refusing to hit pause when he nonchalantly replies, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”
That’s Torah for “whatever.”
Sarai took Abram’s indifference as silent approval to treat Hagar “harshly” and run her out of town. But Sarai didn’t count on an angel of the Lord catching up with Hagar.
“Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” the angel says, apparently oblivious to the possibility the being a “slave” might be the impetus of this woman’s woes.
Hagar explains that she ran away from her mistress (used here to mean master and not discreet sexual partner). But this angel isn’t having it, commanding her to “Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.” As in, “go take your punishment for doing the thing you were told to do because you’re a slave and had to.”
In exchange, this angel promises that Hagar, too, will have too many offspring to count. Which, if you think about it, is kind of a strange silver lining to offer considering it was offspring that got Hagar into trouble in the first place. But it’s not like Hagar had any choice in the matter because with one Biblical cry of “Behold,” she was with child. And that child was Ishmael––a “wild ass of a man” who would go on to be venerated in Christianity and Islam.
Remember when I said to put a pin in the age thing? It comes back with the birth of Ishmael. The Torah notes that Abram was eighty-six-years-old when Hagar gave birth. Then at ninety-nine years of age, the Lord shows up again to officially make His covenant with Abram, who He now decides to call Abraham for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.
As I said, this is the circumcision chapter and we’re now approaching for landing to a mitzvah or commandment. The Lord says, “every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days.”
“Okay, good to know moving forward,” I imagine Abram, sorry, Abraham thinking. But God wasn’t dropping a “for future reference.” He wanted this retroactively implemented.
“As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, they must be circumcised, homeborn and purchased alike. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact.”
And now for the obligatory Oprah reference: “You gotta get circumcised! You gotta get circumcised! Everybody’s gotta get CIRCUMCISED!”
So what happens if you don’t partake in the ole snippy-snip?
“And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.”
I know this story predates the reference, but holy Jesus H. Christ! You could be a model offspring of Abraham (they weren’t called Jews yet) and it’s all moot if your dick skin runs a bit long? Damn.
The Age Thing
Now we’re going to really come back to the age thing. After laying down the penis rules, God changes Sarai to Sarah and says he’s going to bear them a child. Abraham questions God, saying “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?”
And there we have the age dilemma coming to a head because Abraham is acknowledging their ages as old despite being like a tenth of the age of other Biblical figures. What gives? No, seriously. I’m asking.
Moving along, because God doesn’t care about this age business, Sarah is told she shall bear a son named Isaac, and that God will maintain his covenant with him. He then blesses Ishmael, promising to make him fertile as fuck. The father of twelve chieftains, even, with his own great nation.
The Torah doesn’t depict Abraham pondering things for too long. Instead, he gets to choppin’.
“Then Abraham took his son Ishmael, and all his homeborn slaves and all those he had bought, every male in Abraham’s household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskins on that very day, as God had spoken to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he circumcised the flesh of his foreskin, and his son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.”
And with that phallic macabre, we end Parsha Lech-Lecha unsure where things are going to go from here. Suffice it to say, it was a bad time to be a foreskin and hanging around Abraham’s place.
Onward with Parsha Vayera.