Friday, October 26, 2012

Lech Lecha - A journey for the self

This is my first published dvar Torah since becoming a Rabbah - thought I'd share. Lech Lecha is special to me. Not just because of the story - journeys, huge life changing events, and decisions needing to be made. It was also my son Alex's bar mitzvah portion! This dvar appears this week in the Washington Jewish Week newspaper.

At the end are some questions for your consideration. 
Enjoy! Shabbat Shalom 
Rabbah Arlene

10/24/2012 10:33:00 AM
A journey for the self

by Rabbah Arlene Berger
This week's Torah portion is Lech Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27.

We are taught that no word in the Torah is superfluous. The beginning of this parsha is a perfect example. Lech lecha. Lech - from the Hebrew root hey lamed chaf - meaning to go, to walk, or poetically, to journey. Lech is the command form meaning "Get on with you! Get going!" It is complete unto itself. God did not need to add the pronoun "lecha" "yourself." So why is this word there?

Rashi explains that the expression Lech Lecha can be translated as "You go for yourself" implying that Avram should leave homeland and family for his own benefit. What benefit?

The text continues "...I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your name great. ..." (Genesis 12:2). However, according to Rashi, to make this happen, you must go "sham" (there). This greatness, these blessings, won't happen if you stay where you are, outside the holy land. You must go sham to "the land that I will show you." So Rashi reconciles this extra word of lecha, this word that highlights Avram as being singled out for this task, by adding in the word sham in his commentary. Avram, God says, you have a task to do and great things lie ahead of you, but first you have a major journey to undertake. Now we understand that the word lecha isn't superfluous, but we must read quite carefully to understand its message: tough journeys often precede fulfilled promises and potential. 

The verse continues. "You shall leave me'artzecha [from your land]; u'me'moladetecha [from the place that you were born]; u'me'beit avicha [and from your father's house]." Here we have three specific places, with their own physical and emotional attributes. Avram, a successful 75-year-old man married to a 65-year-old woman, is being asked (or told) to leave his home and start over. This specific layering of places reminds him of this, of all that he will have to leave (success, power and family) and all that he will face (the need to re-establish himself). A voice, this God, promises him that he will be great, blessed, and that he will finally have children, a legacy. Somehow, Avram is ready to take such a leap of faith and begin a fantastic journey. In so doing, Avram and Sarai become examples for us all. 

My journey did not have the same earth-shattering ramifications for human kind that Avram's did, but it certainly changed my life. It began at the tender age of 5, when, according to family legend, I announced to my rabbis at yeshiva that I intended to grow up to be a rabbi. They responded that this was not possible because I was a girl. My response: I announced that I would grow up to be a boy. I have no recollection of their reply (probably stunned or amused silence, this all took place in the mid-1960s). When that didn't happen I buried my desire to be a rabbi deep within me and chose other paths to fulfillment. 

I got married, was blessed with two children and had a successful career or two. I was busy with the stuff of life and quite happy. Everything changed one fateful summer day when I was 36 and learned that I was in congestive heart failure. That Shabbat I lit candles not knowing if I'd be around to light the Havdalah candles the next night. It was the longest Shabbat of my life - for me, for my husband and children (ages 8 and 5 at the time), for my entire family. Prayer took on new meaning; I truly understood the meaning of making the mundane holy. 

I survived. I was blessed to turn 50 recently. But nothing has ever been the same. I took a long, hard look at my life and decided it was time for me to do what my neshama (soul) really wanted me to do. I listened to that still, small voice inside of me (did it say "lechi lach"?) and with my family's permission I began a journey of nearly a decade that ended with my ordination. All of our lives changed. Now that I'm a rabbah, I like to think that I am, in some small way, changing the lives of all those with whom I am privileged to come into contact. 

Lech lecha. Lechi lach. There are no superfluous words, in Torah or in life. The message of this week's parsha is that we all have journeys to take regardless of our age or stage of life. We may need to leave the comfort, safety and familiarity of our family home, of the community where we are established and known to go out into the unknown and to start over. Remember to keep an ear open for that inner voice, wherever it comes from. Lech lecha - journey for yourself - you never know what potential or blessing will be revealed. 

Rabbah Arlene Berger is education director at Beit Lev, the Hebrew School of Kol HaLev, in Baltimore, and also of the Chavurah of Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in the District. 

1. Do you agree with Rashi's take on the meaning of the word "lecha" in verse 1? Would you add in the word "sham" (meaning a specific location) to the interpretation as he did?
2. Can you think of anytime in your life when you heard such a call and ignored it? If you had heeded the call, would your life have turned out differently?
3. Look up I Kings 19:12 where we come upon the phrase "a still small voice." What does it mean in that context? What does it mean in the liturgy of the High Holidays? And lastly, how does it fit in with your reading of the saga of Avram and Sarai? 

Our weekly d'vrei Torah are written under the guidance of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning. They are intended to inspire discussion at your Shabbat table. To learn more about the Partnership go to