Friday, November 20, 2009

Rabbi in training... or so I'd to think.

Hi Peeps! How ya doing? Howzitgoing?

Me? Aw, I'm just getting ready for ANOTHER attempt at leading services at my synagogue tonight. I did it for the first time several weeks ago, for the parasha "Lech Lecha" which is Genesis 12:1-17:27, when God tells Abram to go, and leave his home.

I'm good at the actual prayer leading, but the sermonizing was a new thing to me. I felt like my sermon was too bookish, too studied, too much reference to other Rabbis and not enough me or now. It's interesting, for sure, but I think I put some people who really don't care that much to sleep.

This time I was more inspired and a little less hard on myself as I was writing it, and I think it turned out better. I'll post tonight's dvar Torah after I give it. Until then, here's my overstudious one on Lech Lecha:

Hi everyone. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Shel West. Shel is short for Shelly, which in turn is short for Rachelle. Just don’t call me Anna, even though that’s my first name. I’ve never gone by Anna, only Shelly. Anna Rachelle West. It’s a pretty name and it is mine, but I rarely use the whole thing. Names are funny things. They define us as much as we define them. I never felt like an Anna, maybe because I was never called that. It was only in recent years that I started to call myself Shel. I wanted to be more grown up, more adult, without the sing-song E at the end of my name. It only sort of stuck.

It was hard to try and change my name. Almost as hard to change myself, my habits and behaviors. Sometimes, you have to change your location to change yourself, as we’re about to find out.

We’re at the beginning of the beginning of the Torah still, only the third Parasha in as we read Lech Lecha. The famous line heads the portion, it’s a well known song, and it commands Moses to move. Go, from your land, your birthplace, your house – successively smaller ideas of home, larger to smaller – and I (God) will make of you a great nation (with lots of descendents) and I will bless you (with wealth, says the Rashi footnotes) and I will make your name great (by adding letters to it, in fact). It is during this portion that Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah. According to Rashi it is when God takes Abram out of his tent later in 15:5 and instructs him to count the stars that God really explains that Abram must step out of where he is and what he has predicted for his own life, to grasp the concept that even in his nineties he will be the father of a nation. Rashi says that Abram relied on astrology and the science of the stars to predetermine what his future would be. God’s message to Abram is that if you go outside of what you know, and put your trust in God, the blessings will come.

There is a lot that happens in this Parasha. Abram and Sarai travel to Egypt during a famine in the land. This will happen again later. They tell everyone they are siblings so that Abram will receive gifts and wealth as the Pharaoh take Sarai into his palace. The Pharaoh and his household are afflicted with plagues. This will also happen again. Rashi says that Sarai’s word causes the tzaras to appear – she says “strike!” and an angel of God strikes them with the plague. Pharaoh arranges an escort to take them out of Egypt. This, not so much doesn’t happen again.

Abram, with his nephew Lot, take all the wealth they have amassed and go back to southern Israel, to the Negev. Abram and Lot split up because their livestock are too many and Lot’s suspicious herdsmen can’t get along with Abram’s. Lot moves to Sodom, which will be later destroyed in the next Parasha, and his choice of surroundings is intended to make us suspicious of him, and by proxy, his shepherds.

Sodom and Gommorah are besieged by kings waging war. The battle of Four Kings against Five is waged and Lot is taken captive. The names of the kings and the names of their kingdoms all make various references to their character, generally negative. Genesis says “The Fugitive” tells Abram about the fate of his nephew. According to Rashi the fugitive is Og, the last of the Rephaim who both escaped from the fighting but also who escaped from the flood. Abram here is described as “Abram the Ivri” which the modern translation renders as “the Hebrew.” The Rashi edition, however, says this means he “came from across the river” and therefore had the courage to fight against the odds. Abram gathers up his servants and this small band go and rescue Lot and defeat the kings’ armies. At the end of this odd story King Melchizedek – sounds a lot like Melech Tzedek, doesn’t it? – brings out bread and wine, because – it says – he is a priest of God Most High. That must be the same God Abram’s always talking to, right? He blesses Abram and they share bread and wine. Could this be the first blessing of bread and wine? This will happen again, every week, as we celebrate Shabbat, until the end of time.

Melchizedek is said to be Shem, a descendent of Noah. He is the king of Salem. Rashi explains that this is the same city that Abraham will later call Yirei. This city is eventually named Yerushalem, by God, who wishes to honor both Shem and Abraham’s name for the same place.

It is at this point that Abram begins to worry that his luck has run out, according to Rashi, which is why he has another conversation with God. “How will I know?” asks Abram, how will I know I will have an heir? How will I know that I will possess this land? God reassures Abram repeatedly, explaining that his descendents will outnumber the stars, and asking for an elaborate offering. This offering is special because Abram is instructed to split the cows, goat and ram. Rashi says that the smoke and flame between the pieces of meat is the sign that God is there. God tells Abram, “I am a shield for you; your reward will be great.” God tells more about the future, about the enslavement and oppression of his children, and of their return to the land.

Then we get the story of Hagar, who is supposedly Pharaoh’s daughter. Another royal Egyptian daughter will figure prominently later. Hagar conceives and begins to take her position as servant lightly, to Sarai’s displeasure. Hagar runs away but is told by God to return and submit to Sarai’s authority. Hagar calls God “El-roi” meaning “God of Seeing” and returns to bear a son to Abram, Ishmael (“God heeds”).

Just a few verses later God self identifies as El Shaddai. Rashi explains that this is a contraction of she-yesh dai: “that there is enough”. It is at this moment that God renames Abram to Abraham and instructs him in the ways of circumcision. This will mark the covenant in the flesh and shall be done throughout the generations.

God renames Sarai to Sarah. Sarai means “my governor” and Sarah means “governor of all”… clearly a promotion in rank. Abraham falls on his face and laughs, and thus God deems Sarah’s son will be named Issac, Yitzchak, or “laugh”.

Names have great importantance, whether it’s the king Melech Tzedek, Jerusalem, Sarah, Abraham, El-roi or El Shaddai. The entity or person is the same, but the names highlight different pieces of the individual mosaic. We get used to the name-changing from here out in Genesis. Jacob will eventually become Israel, also to show a change in the person.

This parashat gives us some method to our ongoing desire for improvement. Move from where you are. Get out of your rut. Step out of your tent. Change who you are. Change your name. May we all have the courage to step outside of our norms, to have a little faith, and make of ourselves a great people.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.