Parshat Lech Lecha

By Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ’04

Lech Lecha is a foundational story about the transformation of our people. In this action packed parsha, our ancestors change their physical location, their names and their expectations for the future.  God commands that Abram leave his ancestral home and travel to an unknown destination…and he obeys without question.  Pharaoh attempts to add Sarai to his harem, but Abram passes Sarai off as his sister.  After returning to Canaan, Abram defeats armies who have taken his nephew Lot captive. God promises the land to Abram’s descendants.  When Sarai remains childless, Abram marries Hagar, who gives birth to Ishmael. Hagar and Ishmael are banished to the desert where an angel miraculously saves them. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham; Sarai’s name becomes Sara. If there wasn’t already enough drama, God then commands that Abraham circumcise himself, which he apparently does without protest!  Blind obedience, deception,  family quarrels, wars, rescues, domestic violence, Divine promises and inheritance conflicts all appear. In this, just the third parsha in our annual Torah reading cycle, we  are transformed: from an obscure desert family to a people with a promise and a destiny.

What are the components of this metamorphosis might be applicable to our lives today? The kind of profound shifts we encounter in Lech Lecha require broad understanding and acceptance of a complex situation, deeply attentive listening and careful discernment, followed by commitment to appropriate and thoughtful action. This process seemed familiar…and I realized that it is similar to the tripartite approach to change described by the Baal Shem Tov.  Originally introduced to me many years ago by Rabbi Burt Jacobson, these steps are relevant today as we adjust to challenges and upheavals in our own lives and communities.

The Baal Shem Tov described a three step process: hachna’ah (yielding, submitting, accepting reality), havdalah (discerning, separating, clarifying) and hamtakah (sweetening, finding joy in the current reality).  Abram submitted when got ‘the call’; he didn’t argue with God, saying “What? Where? Who me?” He recognized the necessity to yield to that overwhelming Reality.  This is hachna’ah. Any time we change in response to some difficult situation, acceptance is the necessary first step.  When faced with tragedy or adversity, we are sometimes paralyzed by circumstances and our own reactions… until we yield, realizing that we cannot change what IS.  Only then can we move on.

The second step, havdalah, refers to the process of differentiation, clarification, of examining the implications of a situation, discerning alternatives, choosing and sorting among them. Abram was faced with multiple opportunities to make choices: what should he do about Pharoah’s interest in Sarai, about his nephew Lot, about his desire for an heir?  How should he deal with famine, hostile armies, the rich spoils of war?  Each choice required examining alternatives, distinguishing among often unclear or ambiguous choices.  When faced with difficult times or challenging situations, we too have many opportunities to explore alternatives and their implications. Just as the ceremony of Havdalah signals the conclusion of Shabbat by ritually marking the change in the status of time…from the renewing rest of the Sabbath day to the familiar rhythms of everyday life, our choices bring new perspectives and new possibilities.

The third step, hamtakah, sweetening, can be interpreted as seeing an opportunity for positive growth, or recognizing a ‘silver lining’.  Abram became our patriarch after a series of very demanding experiences, from hearing a direct command from God, to journeying into the unknown, to problematic family dynamics to self-circumcision. The result was a new identity,  hope for new generations, and an Eternal promise.  In our daily lives, even challenging times are interspersed with delicious moments of unexpected delight and simple satisfaction. These are the sweet openings to our own personal transformation.

Each of us can recognize calls to change in our own lives…challenging ideas, boredom, excitement, frustration and insight are all personal calls to action…our own Lech Lecha moments, if only we recognize them, accept them, discern their relevance and savor them.