Parshat Lech Lecha
Torah Reading for Week of October 22-29, 2017
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
“Leaving and Reaching Out”
By Chaplain Muriel Dance, PhD, BCC, ’11
We all leave–homes, families, jobs, marriages, school–and many more. Each leaving entails loss of the familiar, often grief, and uncertainty. Sometimes external circumstances initiate the leave taking, and sometimes an internal dynamic propels the leaving and the search for something better. In parshat Lech Lecha. Abram is told to leave. Abram’s response to God’s instruction to leave his country, the land of his birth and the house of his father (Genesis 12:1) parallels the path of converts to Judaism: they leave the familiar, their culture or religion, and their parents. While Abram leaves because of the external circumstance of God’s command, many commentators have focused on Abram’s leave taking as internal as well, as a setting out to find his authentic self. The Isbitza Rebbe writes that Abram hears the command to move himself forward, to himself, to his true source (p. 35). Aviva Zornberg explores the indeterminacy of Abram’s destination (Genesis, p. 75). So too converts often articulate their experience of being called to Judaism as a reaching for a self that is more authentic on a path whose destination is hazy.
As Abram prepares to leave, he does bring both his wife and his brother and “the souls that they had gotten in Haran” (Genesis 12:5). The verb used אשו “made” caused Rashi to comment that the verb indicates that Abraham had brought them under the wings of the Divine Presence. Rashi continues, “Abraham proselytized the men and Sarah proselytized the women,” and thus they “had made” them. Midrash has Abraham and Sarah actively converting people. By contrast a more modern Jewish approach avoids even a hint of proselytizing. According to Isaac Klein, this fear of proselytizing may derive from Tanach, from Naomi’s three admonitions to Ruth to leave her when Ruth expresses her desire to follow Naomi (Guide, p. 440).
Midrash explores and supports Abram’s action. In Tanhuma it is written: “Dearer to God is the proselyte who has come of his own accord than all the crowds of Israelites who stood before Mount Sinai. For had the Israelites not witnessed the thunder, lightning, quaking mountains, and sounding of trumpets, they would not have accepted the Torah. But the proselyte, who saw not one of these things, came and surrendered himself to the Holy One, blessed be He, and took the yoke of heaven upon himself. Can anyone be dearer to God than this man” (ed. Buber, Lekh, Lekhah 6 f., 32a) The convert does not need miracles–the clarity of visual signs. Like Abraham converts are adventurous, they are willing to leave the familiar and safe and head toward an unknown place.
Abraham, who is called Abram for the majority of the parsha, is tested continually. Abram’s search for an authentic self is marked by testing: famine, a trip to Egypt, protecting his nephew. So too embracing Judaism calls for testing: first prospective converts study, then go before a panel of rabbis to be questioned, then immersed–they are examined and even after conversion they may continue to experience challenges to their growing identity. They may have small tests of not being able to play Jewish geography, or stumbling over Hebrew prayers. They may have larger tests when converts may find they are not embraced as “real” Jews.
After passing his tests, God bestows on Abram a new name, Abraham. J.H. Hertz’s commentary offers that the meaning of Abraham–Av for father; and raham, an Arabic word for multitude–consolidates Abraham’s mission: “To bring all the peoples under the wings of the Shechinah.” Converts take a Hebrew name which they usually pick in discussion with their rabbi. This name often affirms an aspect of this new self the convert is creating. Traditionally, the convert is assigned the parents of Abraham and Sarah. There is much sense in this attribution. First, we never chose our parents; we are born to them. And if converts are to be reborn to Jewish parents, Abraham and Sarah are powerful parental archetypes. In addition to Abraham and Sarah possibly converting people, Abraham had been told that in him “shall be blessed all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:3). He gets his new name from God because he will be “a father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17.5). A convert to Judaism enters an extended family, of which Abraham is the progenitor, a man known for his chesed, his kindness.
If Abraham our first father converted souls, we should reach out to welcome those who inquire about Judaism. We should emulate Abraham’s courage and clarity. Abraham is described as wholehearted (Genesis 17.1) for his undivided confidence in God alone. We can invite people into a tradition upheld by Torah, community, and a path to our true and higher selves. “The Holy One, blessed be He, loves proselytes exceedingly. We likewise should show favor to the proselyte who left his family, his father’s house, his people, and all the gentile peoples of the world, and came to us. He therefore deserves special protection” (Bemidbar Rabbah 8:2). As the Executive Director of the only pluralistic Bet Din in the U.S., I hear regularly how much it means to Jews-by-Choice to be fully accepted into the Jewish Community.