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This week’s Torah reading (“parasha”) throws us smack into the middle of the nitty-gritty of the first Hebrew family, Avram and Sarai, whose genealogy we read last week at the end of parashat Noah.
Terach (the idol maker) lived in Ur of the Chaldees and had 3 sons: Avram, Nahor and Haran. When they were grown, Avram and Nahor both took wives; Avram’s wife was Sarai… and her sister married Avram’s brother! To complicate things even more, both wives were the daughters of the 3rd son of Terach, Haran — which means that Avram married his niece! Before we even get started on the patriarchal and matriarchal tales of the Hebrews, we get an intertwined genealogy.
Then, the first thing we learn about Sarai is that she was barren (Genesis 11:30). Finally, we begin our parasha in chapter 12, with the plot getting ever more intense. A few incidents: Sarai is passed off as Avram’s sister in Egypt, Sarai becomes terribly jealous and wreaks havoc in the household when, after she gives Hagar (her handmaid) to Avram, Hagar actually becomes pregnant (Genesis 16:4-11).
But, we’ll leave the juicy parts for another time.
The parasha commences with the words, Lech Lecha, translated as “Go forth” or “Set yourself forth,” a command from God to Avram that begins chapter 12. Just one of many names in the genealogy of the previous chapter, now this one name, Avram, has the spotlight turned on him; we see Avram emerge as an individual character, whose life trajectory we will follow all the way until Chapter 25. He is the first figure we really get to know in some depth, and whose adventures and conversations describe what feels like a real person. He is more nuanced than the biblical figures before him (Adam, Noah, etc.) and because of this, we realize we have moved from a universal history to a national history that is also a personal history. In his book, On the Bible: Eighteen Studies, Martin Buber writes a magnificent chapter titled “Abraham the Seer (chapter 3).”
With Avram, we are entering recognizable human time (not the antediluvian life spans of 900 years) and the drama of family life.
The first question comes right away: Why do we get the peculiar phrase Lech Lecha when God is just telling Avram to “Go” which would simply be one word: “Lech!” Why do we need the 2nd word, “Lecha” (“to you” or “to yourself”)? Commentators have offered some solid psychological reasons. First, God wants Avram to leave his country (his land), his birthplace, and his father’s house. Each of these is called out separately to indicate the degree of the tie that will be severed when Avram goes. It may not be soooo hard to leave the place you happen to be living at a given time but it may be harder to leave your birthplace (your hometown, where you were raised and everyone knows your name). But leaving your father’s house and setting off for who knows where is likely to be more psychologically difficult.
OK, but that still doesn’t answer why we need that extra word, “Lecha.” And here is a commentary that resonates still today: when you leave your comfort zone you are, by definition, taking a risk and stepping out into the unknown. And just as you will encounter new situations and new challenges, you will need to turn inwards, to find new strengths you never knew you had in order to cope with the new set of realities you never encountered before. You will need to become resilient. So God tells Avram to “go to yourself” or to “go forth to yourself.” That is, take a leap and find out who you really are, inside, and what you are made of.
The parasha ends in chapter 17 when both Avram and Sarai are given new names by God (verses 5 and 15) to match their new lives in the new land they now settle in, the land that is promised to their offspring, throughout the generations. And, last but not least, God asks Avraham to mark the sign of the covenant (the agreement they have made) on his body — by circumcising himself, together with all the males in his household and all male babies — on the eighth day of their lives. Whew!
The Story of Abraham
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