Thursday, 26 Oct 2023

Written by Rachel Berkson

I have two reasons for writing a Dvar Torah about Parashat Lech-Lecha. One is that it was my bat mitzvah portion. I started my journey into Jewish adulthood by reading Lech-Lecha, and I gave my first ever Dvar Torah on this portion. Now, 32 years later, I’m starting my journey to the rabbinate, and I’m writing my first Dvar Torah as a rabbinic student on the same portion. The second is that I want to pass on a teaching that I learned from R’ Sheila Shulman z”l, who visited my community, Harlow, as a rabbinic student, a couple of years before my bat mitzvah, and was a great inspiration to me.

Ever since my bat mitzvah, I have been interested in the question of why did God choose Abraham to be the ancestor of the Jewish people? Lech-Lecha, after all, starts in medias res: “God said to Abram, go for yourself.” We as readers have little idea who Abram is; we know from last week’s parashah, Noach, how exactly he was descended from Noah. We know that he was 75 years old, and that he had a wife, Sarai, who was unable to have children. That’s really not much to go on. In the aftermath of the flood, everybody on earth was descended from Noah, and 75-year-old married but childless men are hardly unusual.

When there is an apparent gap in the Torah text, there is often a flowering of rabbinic creativity in the form of midrash. In the run-up to my bat mitzvah, I found a number of explanations for, what was so special about Abraham? The story of how he smashed the idols, how he passed ten tests (based on by reading between the lines of the sparse narrative in Genesis), his dissatisfaction with worshipping nature and concluding that there must be some ultimate power.

The one that stuck with me comes from Bereishit Rabbah 39:1. Abraham is compared to someone who passes from place to place, and sees a building that is on fire. Unlike most people who simply carry on and ignore what they see in front of them, this traveller stops to enquire, how can there be a building with no owner? The owner, continues the midrash, immediately looks out of the window and informs him: “I am the owner of this building”. In the same way, Abraham looks at the world and asks, how can there be a world with no owner? And God answers him “I am the owner of this world”. On one level, great, problem solved. Abraham is the only person who notices and asks curious questions and realizes, without being told, that someone must be in charge. That’s why he was chosen as a partner in the Covenant and rewarded by being made the ancestor of multiple nations including the Jewish people.

However, what R’ Sheila pointed out to me when she taught this midrash is that there’s an important element that doesn’t quite match between the parable and its analogy. Abraham doesn’t just notice a building and assume it must have an owner, he notices a building that is on fire. Our world must, logically, have an owner. But it’s not enough to establish who is the owner of a building on fire, and it’s not enough to establish the theological fact that God is the ultimate power in this world, when the world is on fire.

In 2019, then teenaged climate activist Greta Thunberg gave a speech at the World Economic Forum where she memorably said: “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” Thunberg, like our ancestor Abraham, notices what everybody else is ignoring. But she’s not satisfied to find out who is in charge of this burning home. She wants to bring people together in a collective effort to put out the fire, to act with the urgency that the situation requires.

Since Simchat Torah, we have been watching the devastating news from Israel and Gaza with horror and dread. Buildings, people’s homes, are on fire in a very literal sense. Certainly, we descendants of Abraham need to be among the people who notice this fire when perhaps much of the world would rather turn away, and carry on with their own busy journeys back and forth. It’s not the time to be debating about who owns the building, who has the better historical or religious claim to the territory. When we acknowledge that God is the ultimate power in the world, we also acknowledge that we are partners in the Covenant, and we have a moral responsibility, a call, to put out the fire that is currently consuming not only buildings, but the human beings who are trying to make their home there. Human beings who, with all their manifest failings and frailties, are created in God’s image, and God is, after all, the owner of this world.

Sometimes being chosen by God means obeying God’s command without question, as Abraham did at the beginning of our portion. God told him to leave his land, his birthplace, his home and his family, and go to an unknown destination. And so he did. Sometimes it means getting involved with  kings and armies and wars and putting our own people at risk to rescue captives, as Abraham did in Genesis chapter 14. And sometimes, as we will see as Abraham’s story unfolds over the coming weeks, it means taking a stand against retribution and burning of cities, even if Godself has told us that the people deserve punishment.

How do we tell which is the right way to uphold the Covenant? We follow God’s first command to Abraham: Lech-lecha, go to yourself. Go deep inside your self and decide if it’s time to obey or time to question your leaders and even God. But whatever you do, don’t just stand there while our home burns. Go.


Rachel Berkson LBC student rabbi

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.