Think of the most challenging journey you ever took. Was it your first day at school or when you were dropped off at sleepaway camp for the first time? Perhaps it was a trip to the hospital for surgery.
I think mine was when I was ten years old. My parents were relocating from Chicago to Atlanta and they arranged for me to stay with loving relatives in northern Indiana for six months while they got "settled" in the south. Well, it may have been settling for them, but it was anything but settling for me.
I thought about that childhood experience as I read God's command to Abram in Lech L'cha: "Go forth from your land, your birthplace, 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 it shall be a blessing" (Genesis 12:1-2).
Abram was seventy-five years old at that point, with a family and plenty of possessions. But the uncertainty must have been overwhelming. When I confronted my journey at age ten, I had no choice. But Abram did. He could have said: "God, I'm honored that you chose me, but I'm too old. We're well established in Haran. Thanks, but no thanks."
So why did he obey God's command? And what can we learn about ourselves and the Jewish people from his journey? According to Professor E. A. Speiser, Abram's journey was "no routine expedition of several hundred miles. Instead, it was the start of an epic voyage in search of spiritual truths, a quest that was to constitute the central theme of all biblical history" (The Anchor Bible, Genesis [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964], p. 88).
If you react to this parashah as I do, you may be flooded with questions. Why is God interested in showing Abram a "particular land" and making of him a "great nation"? What does it mean to be a great nation? What are the blessings that will flow and what kind of spiritual truths was he looking for?
Our text informs us that once Abram arrives in Canaan, he experiences a vision in which God urges him to have no fear and to anticipate a reward. God takes him "outside" and instructs him to turn his gaze toward the heavens and count the stars (Genesis 15:1-6). According to the midrash, God is informing him that he is no longer an astrologer, but has become a prophet (B'reishit Rabbah, 44:12). Consider the difference between astrologer and prophet.
Clearly, the patriarch has sensed a power greater than himself. He has experienced a revelation (see Genesis 12:1-6; 15:5ff; 17:1ff). Herbert Brichto who taught at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion taught us: "Every revelation is a human experience . . . after the event man is free-to remember or to forget, to formulate in words the impact of the event or the message-if any, to accept it or-yes-to question its reality. Was it a dream, a figment, a chimera, an illusion, a delusion, a hallucination?" (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition [New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005], p. 115.)
Have you ever experienced a revelation? If so, what did it seem to be saying to you and did it lead you in some direction? For Abraham, it led to an expanded name (Genesis 17:5), a land of promise, a people, and a covenant that bound them together.
The destination was Canaan, known biblically and affectionately as Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. It is the place where our people made their home and which we have never left in body or spirit. Even in the Diaspora, we have declared: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour" (Psalm 137:5-6).
Does Abraham's revelation speak to us today? Since we are the children of Abraham and Sarah, privileged to live in a time when their descendents have built the modern State of Israel, isn't there an expectation that we will be involved in that miraculous return to Zion? Many of our fellow North American Jews have made aliyah to Israel, following in the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah. Their contribution to our Jewish future is transformative. And for those of us who remain in the Diaspora, what kind of responsibility do we feel about sharing in this historic venture?
Consider the following possibilities that would enable you-after all these centuries-to partner with Abraham and Sarah:
- Learn as much as you can about Israel.
- Help build the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Participate in ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and support its efforts.
- Visit Israel and encourage your children and grandchildren to experience Israel through the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) in Israel trips, including the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program.
- Support Reform Judaism's Israel Religious Action Center and other groups that work to build an Israeli society based on progressive Jewish values. I refer to those values that flow from our covenant with God: equal rights for women and minorities, lifting up the poor and disenfranchised, fair and just treatment of Reform and Conservative Jews, and the proactive pursuit of peace.
Abraham and Sarah's journey (remember, he was seventy-five) was an act of faith. As it turned out, it was indispensible to the creation of the Jewish people. Do you believe, as I do, that maintaining our partnership with our fellow Jews in Israel is also indispensible to the Jewish future?
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, NJ. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).
Rabbi Kroloff presents Abraham and Sarah as exceptional models for thinking about our own relationship with Israel. They leave their home, with only their faith in God, to immigrate to a new land-a noble pursuit both then and now. In his commentary, Rabbi Kroloff speaks of both the biblical Land of Israel ( Eretz Yisrael) and the modern State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael). Although the two are clearly the same place geographically, I find it helpful to separate the two as I believe we have a different relationship with each one.
The Land of Israel is the biblical home of our ancestors, the place that we turn to in our prayers. The Land of Israel is Ahad Ha'am's Cultural Zionism, the idea that Israel can be the spiritual center for all of Jewish life in the world. The Land of Israel is the Land that I love unconditionally.
Mark Twain once wrote, ". . . the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation ALL the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it."1 Twain uses the words Nation and Government; I use the words Land and State. I will always love Israel, but am critical of its government when I do not agree with what it is doing. Built right into the very word Israel is the Hebrew root, sarah-to struggle. To love Israel is to love the Land and to struggle with the State. I've heard Anat Hoffman, executive director of Israel Religious Action Center, say that she loves Israel by suing her. We all have different opinions of the current government in Israel and the most important opinion is one of interest and not apathy. As Rabbi Kroloff reminds us, engagement with Israel can be a truly spiritual act.
1. Mark Twain, Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays, 1891-1910, ed. Louis J. Budd (New York: The Library of America, 1992)
Rabbi Eli Freedman is a rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 91-117; Revised Edition, pp. 88-117;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 59-84