At the end of last week’s parsha, which we didn’t read this year, we are introduced to Abram. Abram who will eventually become Abraham. We also meet briefly Abram’s father Terah, and Abram’s nephew, Lot. In addition, we learn of SARAI, Abram’s beautiful wife. So, the cast of characters for Lech-Lecha, this week’s parsha, is there. But it’s a pretty dry recounting of the members of this family, and, in addition to that recounting, we also get a bit of an itinerary about where they have been and where they are going.
So, when we read this week’s portion, Lech Lecha, we are thrust immediately into a very dramatic moment—when God commands Abram, LECH-LECHA, go forth. Nothing dry about that. Go forth and leave your father’s land. We don’t know if Abram knows where he is going—has God told him of his destination, or does Abram simply have so much faith that he can trust that God will guide his way? And, as the Eytz Hayyim tells us, this is the first of many such moments when God lets the Jewish people know not only that Israel is our homeland but also that we are blessed. Abram is told LECH-LECHA, which literally would mean, TAKE YOURSELF, and midrash tells us that the expression means that Abram, if he obeys God, will find his true, his authentic, self. Another interpretation is that LECH-LECHA makes clear that Abram is leaving his homeland for his own good.
Think about the last two parshiyot, the two parshiyot that begin the Torah, Breishis and Noach. In each, there is, like this week, a movement OUT. Adam and Eve, once they have sinned, are exiled from Gad Eden. They are forced to leave Paradise, and they do so in shame and humiliation. Cain, likewise, after killing his brother, is sentenced to wander the earth; again, another exile. Later, Noach also flees. He flees the flood, going to where he knows not, to populate another world. Trusting in God that God will save him and his entire family. Fleeing the awful sin that has surrounded him.
But this week’s movement is very different from the travels of Adam and Eve, Cain, and Noach. In Lech Lecha, Abram is going to a homeland. Here Abram is not moving AWAY; rather, he is moving TOWARD. Toward Israel. Toward his destiny. Our destiny, as painful as the news has been over the last weeks. Unlike Noach and the others, Abram is not running away from anything; instead, he is traveling toward. He is leaving behind the idols of his father and heading toward a new future. Toward the establishment of a radical religion, of monotheism, and of the Jewish people.
I know that we are all very familiar with parsha Noach—it’s part of every Bible coloring book, and you may have seen the movie, and once Diane and I had to carve a watermelon to make it into Noah’s ark for a birthday party. In other words, the story of Noah is VERY well known. Perhaps too well known. Because when something is that familiar, we tend to gloss over some things that might be worth a little more digging. There are some lines in Noach that I want to look at just for a few minutes to maybe convince you that there’s more here than the vivid picture of a large ark holding two of every animal.
These lines occur very early on in the parsha; in fact, they are part of the first aliya.
12 And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth.
יבוַיַּ֧רְא אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְהִנֵּ֣ה
נִשְׁחָ֑תָה כִּֽי־הִשְׁחִ֧ית כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר
13 And God said to Noah, "The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of violence because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth."
יגוַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱלֹהִ֜ים לְנֹ֗חַ קֵ֤ץ כָּל־בָּשָׂר֙
בָּ֣א לְפָנַ֔י כִּי־מָֽלְאָ֥ה הָאָ֛רֶץ חָמָ֖ס
מִפְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וְהִנְנִ֥י מַשְׁחִיתָ֖ם
Notice that word ‘corruption.’ NEESHCHATA. The word appears twice in the earlier verse, and HAMAS—violence, sound familiar?—appears in the second. Many scholars have asked what exactly was the sin of mankind that was so terrible that God had to destroy the entire earth. And no one is quite sure. ‘Corruption’ is a pretty general term, and even ‘violence’ isn’t exactly clear. Not everyone even agrees that the correct translation is violence. For example, the Jewish Publication Society of 1917 translates the passage as “the earth was filled with violence.” But in 1985, that same society translated it as “the earth was filled with lawlessness.” And some texts interpret ‘lawlessness’ to mean idolatry. Finally, the Chabad site as well as the Judaica Press translate HAMAS as “the earth became full of robbery,” which in my humble opinion, just doesn’t make it. But, even if we agree on the word 'violence' we still don’t know what sort of violence. Violence, for example, can be psychological or physical. You can do violence to people, to animals, to property. Maybe this was a case of ‘all of the above.’
What is also interesting about this passage is that God has His own little play on words. When He states that he is going to destroy humankind, he uses the Hebrew “MASHCHEETAN,” which has the same root as the word translated as ‘corruption.’ Remember: NEESHCHATA? So, in a sense, God is telling us that God is going to do to us what we have been doing to the earth and to each other. Our retribution.
One other interesting passage I want to highlight. And this is from the very first verse of the parsha. We open with “this is the line of Noah.” Wouldn’t you expect that the parsha would then give us Noach’s genealogy? Wouldn’t you expect to read about the sons of Noach? But that is not what happens. The next line is “Noach was a righteous man.” Doesn’t that seem like a strange shift, to go from Noach’s lineage to describe his deeds, including how he walked with God? Rashi has a very interesting and famous explanation for this odd shift. Rashi claims that here the Torah is telling us that our “line” is not our children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Rather, our “line” is our deeds. That is, what we DO is what we leave behind. Our actions, our deeds, represent our legacy.