Like many of the early parshiyot (Torah portions) in B’reishit (Genesis), Parshat Lech Lecha covers a lot of ground — literally and figuratively.
In this Torah portion, many of the stories we know from Torah unfold: God speaks directly to Avram telling him to leave the land of his birth, his family and go to “the land that I will show you,” and Avram does so, with his wife, Sarai, and nephew, Lot. God makes a covenant with Avram promising to make his descendants a great nation. God changes Avram’s name to Avraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Later, Abraham has a child with his servant, Hagar, naming him Ishmael. God then promises Sarah, that she will have a child.
The part of the story that often is skipped in the condensed meta-narrative of Torah’s first book involve a detour into Egypt that Avram and Sarai take on account of a famine in Cana’an as they travel. Because of Avram’s fear for his own self-preservation, he asks Sarai: “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.” (Gen. 12:13)
As a result of this deception, Avram (as the “brother” of the beautiful foreign woman) becomes rich. Sarai, on the other hand, is taken into Pharaoh’s house as a wife (Gen. 12:15). We don’t read in Torah about what this means for Sarai, however, we can easily speculate based on myriad accounts from Torah to modern day that her body was no longer her own. Within five additional verses of Torah, Avram becomes very wealthy, God intervenes to get Sarai out of Pharaoh’s palace and the couple are once again on their way to “the land that God will show them.”
The beauty of Torah is that it shows us characteristics of our archetypal ancestors — Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Rachel and many others — that we are meant to emulate while also revealing the unflattering and deeply flawed behaviors that are so very human.
Just last week, Parashat Noach illustrates God’s “do-over” with humanity because of God’s frustration with human flaws and depravity. Yet, in the very next chapters of Torah, human failings are apparent once again. The difference this time is that God, recognizing our bad inclinations and good inclinations coexist, has covenanted to work with the raw material that is both our good and bad qualities and assist us in being inspired to be our best selves, to fail and learn from our failings, to turn and ask forgiveness, to move forward and do better.
These days it is easy to see the ugliness of the human condition. The internet and other media feeds us a steady diet that focuses our attention on the many examples of the worst of human behavior. What is worse, many of our politicians, whom we must hold to a high standard as our leaders and policy-makers, are feeding the basest human behaviors of fear and hate with their ugly rhetoric and name-calling, and making a mockery of the values that Torah shows us time and time again to be the ethical backbone of a great nation.
This week, we had the opportunity to vote, to add our voice to the moral conscience of our nation. We can choose, like Abram did in a fear-driven moment, to prosper at the expense of others, or to rise to our highest selves and use our voice and vote as an opportunity and a responsibility to speak out against hatred, fear-mongering and name-calling. May we find in Torah and in the beauty of our tradition, the inspiration to use our voice for kindness, dignity, justice, and the well-being of all people so that we may be deserving of God’s blessing as a “great nation.” Only then will we “be a blessing.”
Rabbi Jessica K. Shimberg is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Sukkat Shalom in Columbus.