We are beginning just the third Sidrah/portion in the Torah this coming Shabbat, and we are already immersed in the formative history of the Jewish people. In the opening verse of this intense portion, Abram, our first forefather, receives his call from G-d Almighty. We know virtually nothing about the first 75 years of his life. But G-d now summons him to action: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you! I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).
Abram, without comment, follows G-d’s command. He takes with him his wife Sarai, his brother’s son Lot, his significant wealth, and he leaves Haran to begin the journey to the land of Canaan. After his journey, Abram builds an altar to bring sacrifices to G-d at Ai, southeast of Bethel, 17 kilometers north of modern Jerusalem.
We learn of a famine in Canaan. Abram takes his wife, Sarai, and journeys to Egypt. Sarai is 65 years old. Accounts of her beauty reach Pharaoh’s palace, and Abram is terrified that she will be abducted followed by his murder! In order to prevent this horrible chain of events, Abram tells Pharaoh’s court that Sarai is his sister, not his wife! Pharaoh’s house is afflicted with plagues, and Abram and his family are quickly allowed to return to Canaan.
Lech Lecha continues with stories of Abram the warrior against the resident Canaanite tribes. Abram has no children, and his wife Sarai is barren. She convinces Abram to take her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar, as a concubine, and she bears him a son, Ishmael. Sarai exiles Hagar and Ishmael from the camp, and G-d promises them that Ishmael will be the father of a great nation, the Arab people.
But Abram has not yet even begun his role as the father of the Jewish people! At age 99, G-d tells Abram that he will now be known as Avraham, father of multitudes. G-d demands that all his future male offspring should be circumcised as a sign of the covenant, Brit, between G-d and the Jewish people for all time. We adhere to this command to the present day! G-d assures Avraham that his wife, who will now be known as Sarah, will give to Avraham a son despite her advanced age. “Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come (Genesis 17:19)!
In 1988, Debbie Lynn Friedman, of blessed memory, the great American performer and composer of eternal Jewish songs, wrote one of her most important and signature pieces, L’chi Lach. This song is based on the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion, with one major change. The composer altered the gender of the Biblical Hebrew words, transforming the commandment to the feminine from its original male form.
Ms. Friedman was very much a Jewish feminist, and she began her adaptation of the Biblical text by using the feminine term, L’chi Lach, first. In the very next phrase, she returned to the original masculine Lech Lecha form. The composer’s contemporary prayer based on the opening of this week’s Sidrah is frequently recited prior to a spiritual journey whose destination is unclear: “L’chi lach, to a land that I will show you. Lech lecha, to a place you do not know. L’chi lach, on your journey I will bless you, and you shall be a blessing!”
For many years, our local bandleaders sang this song at the end of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Candle Lighting Ceremony, as a prayer that the young person’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah observance and celebration marks the beginning of a new stage of adulthood blessed by Adon-i.
Debbie Friedman’s song is a beautiful and fervent statement of G-d’s blessing, both to our children and to us, as we undertake a major step toward maturity, to adulthood, or to a new and unknown beginning. The song assures us that if we make Jewish values and practices part of our lives, then we shall all be a blessing to our families, friends, and all who are around us.
Here is Debbie singing L’chi Lach: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8WrShnKTWY
Ellen and I wish you and your families Shabbat Shalom U’m’vorakh.
Hazzan David F. Tilman