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Making connections
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Making connections

Lech L’cha — Genesis 12:1-117:27

After pushing through the initial 11 chapters of Genesis in just two weeks, the Jewish lectionary cycle turns away from universal issues like creation, good and evil, reward and punishment, and the Torah’s moral laws.

This week’s portion turns our attention to the story of the Jewish people, to its particular covenantal relationship with God as imagined by our ancestors, and to the family narrative that begins with Abraham. From here on, it is the story of the emergence of the Jewish people and the beginnings of the Torah tradition that will dominate the weekly portions.

The beginning of this week’s portion is essential, important — and ambiguous. The Hebrew words “Lech l’cha” have become enshrined in American synagogue life largely as a result of Debbie Friedman’s charming song “Lechi Lach.” Wisely, Debbie did not attempt a translation of either gendered command, “Lech l’cha” or “Lechi lach.” The lyrics are “Lechi lach, to a land that I will show you, Lech l’cha, to a place you do not know….”

The translation in the Jewish Publication Society’s Tanach is “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I [God] will show you.” But the Hebrew is ambiguous enough to allow for other translations, and in the generations of commentators, many meanings are read into, out of, and through these two simple words.

• “Go to yourself,” or, as one midrash renders it, “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”

One could make a persuasive case for the claim that we find our authentic self in relationship to others, that we learn who we are meant to be when we make the investment in a relationship, with all the risks as well as all the promises.

A relationship is the totality of a series of individual acts, which, when linked together, create a narrative of coherence and continuity.

• “Get going.” Many commentators observe that by the time Abraham hears God’s call, he is already 75 years old; consequently “Lech l’cha” has an urgency that requires an immediate response, rather than a protracted process of committees and foundation-funded studies to be explored at leisure.

Among the challenges of a synagogue community is to motivate congregants to go and grow, to press them to study more Torah, to consider more mitzvot, to reach out to those in need, to cultivate their ethical insights, and to work together to build upon what has been accomplished. Deed, not creed, is what draws our energy.

• “Go to a new place.” Before a congregation makes its way to a building, it often lives in a variety of homes. Congregations eventually face having to decide whether to have a permanent place.

Some congregations want to keep things running the way they have always been run. Others want to “go to a new place.” That is when the community reinvents itself or extends its identity to encompass new dimensions or grows in depth and self-awareness.

It is not always easy to “go to a new place.” You need a trusted guide to point the way and reassure you that the destination is worth the journey. Which is why rabbis are important.

• “Go forward.” This last translation is both simple and elegant, but not obvious. “Lech l’cha” is often understood, with apologies to the Beatles, as simply meaning “Get back,” and the culture wars of our country suggest there are plenty of people who think that the way to go forward is to go backward.

If we have lived well and have added to the kedusha/holiness in the world, looking back will evoke sacred memories of moments of transformative durability. When a congregation and a rabbi look back, there are many such shared moments and much added holiness. But as Abraham intuited, the only way you can move is forward.

Significant moments are never arbitrary in their function, which is to create a moment that is bein hash’mashot, a time suspended in time, whose borders touch on and bind past and future.

As Jews, we know such times, times when meaning is suspended; it happens for bar and bat mitzva students, it happens for couples who come under the huppa; it happens erev Shabbat when we light candles 18 minutes before sunset, separating and connecting Shabbat and the weekdays.

Life is about connections with those whose journey in this life has ended but with whom we remain in relationship through the blessing of memory. Life is about connections celebrated by those who share them through the blessing of life. Life is about connections made between different chapters of a community’s story and connections forged among different generations of a community. Life is about the connections that will be built in the future as extensions of those built in the past.

The charge to Abraham is to accept the challenge to “go forth.” In the words of the Torah, in doing so, “V’heyeh bracha” — “You will be a blessing.” Ken y’hi ratzon!

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