Rabbi Yair D. Robinson
Parashat Lech Lecha 2021
We know and are familiar with the beginning of this week’s portion: Lech Lecha, or as Debbie Friedman reminded us, also lechi lach. Avram and Sarai are…invited? Instructed? Informed? To leave everything they know and go to an unspecified place, and in their going, they will be a blessing to the nations, and God will form a brit with them, and with future offspring that they could not imagine.
But here, Cantor Flynn will chant from Chapter 15 and a continuation of this story. Avram and Sarai have up until this point silently accepted God’s instruction. But now, in this moment, Avram has a moment of doubt. Before he can even give voice to his concerns, God’s word comes to Avram, and he sees God in a dream. More like a vision of the Prophets than the interactions of the patriarchs, God reassures Avram, saying, ““Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” Yes, this is where we have the image of Magen Avraham that we recite in the Amidah prayer. After Avram gives voice to his concern—that there will be no one to inherit the covenant—God takes Avram outside (a remarkable image) and tells him to look up to the sky. “Count the stars if you can. So shall your offspring be.”
It is a reassuring image; and a visually beautiful one. Each of us have stared up at the stars on a clear night, and we can imagine Avram’s sense of awe and wonder, but also his anxiety for the future. As it happens, it is not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows; God also says that those descendants will undergo suffering and exile. Specifically, they will be strangers, they will be enslaved, and they will be oppressed. In Hebrew, these ideas are gerut, avdut and innui.
Scholars from Tikvah Frymer Kensky to Shai Held to the rabbis of the Talmud have pointed out the distressing connection between these two thoughts God expresses about the future of the Jewish people. Yes, they will experience reward, but as Frymer-Kensky writes, “the way to God’s reward is through the margins of society and the depths of degradation.” Or, as R. Shimon Bar Yohai writes (and Shai Held quotes): “The Blessed Holy One gave Israel three precious gifts, and all of them were given only through sufferings. These are: the Torah, the Land of Israel and the world to come.”
In a way, this is a prophetic vision that God is giving Avram. God is cluing Avram, and us, his descendants, that yes, our connection to God will bring protection and reward, but there is a price for these gifts. Or, if I might put it another way, that these gifts only make sense if we experience suffering. Lest Avram—or we—incline toward self-satisfaction, or excessive pride, lest he or his descendants imagine that their brit, their chosenness makes them The Elect, God and the Torah make clear that we can only understand our place and our reward considering pain and trauma; ours and others. Through our people’s suffering, through our gerut, avdut and innui we as a people experience a radical empathy toward the pain of others, especially the marginalized and victimized, and do something about it. What is the point of being a People, of having a Land, and having a Torah if they do not point us away from navel-gazing and self-congratulatory behavior and toward real healing, real repair, toward that ideal of a Whole World?
This past week I got to welcome 50-some-odd 9th graders from Ursuline Academy to learn about Judaism, and after the tour of the sanctuary and showing them the Torah and the prayerbook and answering questions I left them with a reminder that at the end of the day, all of us choose how we will fulfill our obligations—to each other, the world, ourselves and God. Avram, in receiving this glimpse of both the blessing and the curse; or rather, the blessing that emerges from the curse, does not despair, but trusts God further. May we look up at the stars and, like Avram, be inspired to care for others and answer that same prophetic call. Amen