Commentary for Lech Lecha

27 Oct

This week’s parshah marks a big step in the development of humanity’s relationship with God. More precisely, it is a big step in humanity’s understanding of its role in its relationship with God.

 

In this week’s parshah God tells Abraham his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shores, but they will also be oppressed for four hundred years in a land not their own. Previous human interactions with God had taken one of two forms: either God would punish them for doing wrong, or God would do or say something nice, whether it was to give a blessing, such as to Adam and Eve on the sixth day of creation, or give Noah instructions on how to save his family from the flood, or in the case of Abraham, offer to make him a great nation in exchange for going to Cana’an, but with not actually pressuring Abraham to do so with any sort of “but if you don’t…” clause.

 

Our parshah marks the first mention of the faithful having to suffer seemingly for no other reason than because God wants it to happen. There have been a few tests of faith before this (most notably Abraham and Sarah’s separate but related ordeals in Egypt), but those were about putting the faithful in a bad situation and seeing if their faith would hold up, rather than letting them know in advance that they will have to suffer for their faith. Abraham accepts this lot, the suffering of the descendents he and his wife so badly wish to have, without complaint.

 

Rabbi Yochanan points out in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai that this conversation is the first time that anyone refers to God as “Adonai,” meaning “my master (Berachot 7b).” This conversation is also the first time that anyone addresses God using the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter, unpronounced “true name” of God that we normally translate as “The Lord” and read as “Adonai.” The only time we don’t read it as “Adonai” is when the word “Adonai” immediately proceeds it, in which case we pronounce it “Elohim,” another name for God, which is also occasionally used to mean “judge.” By using both of these terms together, Abraham becomes the first person to acknowledge that God is more than just the judge who weighs our deeds and gives us either a punishment or a reward. God is also a master to be served; not out of fear of punishment for disobedience, but out of trust that God is guiding us towards an ideal world. Obeying God’s will often leads to us making sacrifices and facing discomfort, and in those times it is important to remember to trust in God rather than following our very human instinct to dismiss anything as soon as we realize it requires sacrifices from us.

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