Monday, October 26, 2009

Lech Lecha

Reading B'reisheet, I always think, is like reading a fast-moving adventure novel. Things happen, one after another, so that you hardly have time to think about all the ramifications of one story line when another catches your attention. Within this week's single parasha there are:
  • God's command to Avram to leave and go somewhere - destination unknown (at least to Avram) at the time of the command
  • Famine in Canaan, and Avram and Saray's side trip to Egypt
  • Division of the land between Lot and Avram
  • War among kings in the area resulting in the kidnapping of Lot and his household, and Lot's redemption by Avram
  • Meeting of Avram with Melchitzedek, king of Shalem, generally understood to be the first mention of Jerusalem in the Torah
  • Foreshadowing of the Egyptian exile, and God's promise to ultimately redeem the people
  • Hagar's first separation from the camp of Avram and Saray, and her return
  • Birth of Ishmael to Hagar
  • Change of name of Avram and Saray to Avraham and Sarah
  • Command to circumcise every male in the group
  • Promise that Sarah will give birth
  • Mass circumcision in the camp of all males.
Surely there is enough here to plan lessons for a semester, if not a year, and we have one week if we are teaching parshat hashavua and need to keep up with the calendar. Lucky it's the month of Heshvan - no holidays coming up!!

Big Ideas: There are so many you'll have to choose. Here are a few suggestions. Fortunately, some are more appropriate for younger learners, some for older students. And, in most cases, we have more than one year to help our students learn Torah. Just be sure that you're not teaching the same thing last year's teacher taught.
  • God chose Avraham for reasons we can only imagine to be the inheritor of God's blessing
  • It may be necessary to stand apart in order to do what God wants of us
  • The path toward following God is not always straight or clear
  • People - even fundamentally good people - do not always behave admirably
  • Names are significant
  • Following God's commandments is not always easy or pain free
  • What are some stories you know about Avram's childhood? Why do we have midrashim about Avraham's childhood?
  • Why do you think Avram had to leave his country, his clan, his family in order to obey God? Which do you think was most difficult for him?
  • What do you think about the story of Avram and Saray in Egypt (Chapter 12)? In what way is your opinion of Avram affected by the story?
  • What can be the reason for the detailed description of the war among the kings in the area (Chapter 14)
  • What two covenants does God make with Avraham in this parasha (in chapter 15 and in chapter 17)? What do they have in common?
  • What do all the story segments in this parasha tell us about God? About Avraham? About Sarah? About the land of Israel?
Learning Activities:
  • The language in this parasha is not terribly difficult, although some of the stories certainly are challenging. There are a number of phrases that have become basic Hebrew idioms, and you may want to learn them: Debbie Friedman wrote a beautiful song around the words "Lech lecha" which is sung in many religious schools. You can hear it here. Kum v'Hitalech BaAretz, by Yoram Taharlev, is a beautiful song which builds on the words in chapter 13:17 - Kum hit'halech ba'aretz. You can get to Taharlev's website in Hebrew here and there is a an English translation. To hear the song, go here and click on the arrow pointing to the lyrics. For an English translation of the lyrics, look here. What do the words to this song tell you about the lyricist's feelings about Israel?
  • If you have the time, and if you have the patience and the interest, please read Noam Zion and Steve Israel's incredibly rich treatment of Avraham, The First Jew, a Journey Begun with a Fateful Choice, from the Shalom Hartman Institute. (This is the same source institution that has brought us A Different Night, an outstanding Haggadah for Pesach.) You will almost certainly not be able to use this in its entirety, but I promise that if you read it you will find pieces that will add to your understanding of Avraham, and will probably give you some ideas for activities in your classroom.


  1. I once joked with one of my senior English classes that analyzing the Bible as literature is as noble a pursuit as analyzing the White Pages as literature, leaves one with major gaps in learning. In Bereshis, we have, as you have stated, a very fast moving adventure novel. (All plot and little character depth.) In reading the phone book we have many characters with no depth nor plot.

    However, in response to your many wonderful questions, it might be worthwhile to analyze our main players in Lech Lecha using the standard literary technique as learned in school.

    We learn about a character in three ways: 1. Who do they say? 2. What do they do? 3. What do others says about them?

    Consider for discussion, this analysis,especially in your last question:

    What do all the story segments in this parasha tell us about God? About Avraham? About Sarah? About the land of Israel?

  2. Abraham - a very troubling character indeed! Judaism and Islam both define themselves as bnai Avraham and ibin Ibrahim.

    And yet when we look to Abraham as a role model, we find a character who destroys his father's source of income, abandons his parents, lies about his wife, sends her into a possible extramarital affair to save himself. In addition, in response to a voice that he hears, he chooses to murder his son. We could go on and on about Abraham but suffice to say, these are the stories that the popparazzi, not those seeking positive role models in their lives, would follow.

    And maybe that's the point. If the main characters in the Bible weren't so interesting and multi-faceted, we might have stopped reading about them and reproducing copies of the Bible eons ago.

    Imagine if Abraham did respect his father and followed him into the idol making business? His descendants would all be super star talent agents promoting other idols in Hollywood (or is that HolyWood?)