For the week ending 31 October 2020 / 13 Heshvan 5781

Parashat Lech Lecha

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Ten generations have passed since Noach. Man has descended spiritually. In the year 1948 from Creation, Avram is born. By observing the world, Avram comes to recognize G-d’s existence, and thus merits G-d appearing to him. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, G‑d tells Avram to leave his land, his relatives and his father's house and travel to an unknown land where G-d will make him into a great nation. Avram leaves, taking with him his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, their servants, and those whom they converted to faith in G-d. When they reach the land of Canaan, G-d appears to Avram and tells him that this is the land that He will give to his descendants.

A famine ensues and Avram is forced to relocate to Egypt to find food. Realizing that his wife’s beauty could cause his death at the hand of the Egyptians, Avram asks her to say that she is his sister. Sarai is taken to Pharaoh, but G‑d afflicts Pharaoh and his court with severe plagues and she is released unmolested. Avram returns to Eretz Yisrael (Canaan) with much wealth given to him by the Egyptians. During a quarrel over grazing rights between their shepherds, Avram decides to part ways with his nephew Lot. Lot chooses to live in the rich but corrupt city of Sodom in the fertile plain of the Jordan. A war breaks out between the kings of the region and Sodom is defeated. Lot is taken captive. Together with a handful of his converts, Avram rescues Lot, miraculously overpowering vastly superior forces, but Avram demurs at accepting any of the spoils of the battle.

In a prophetic covenant, G-d reveals to Avram that his offspring will be exiled to a strange land where they will be oppressed for 400 years, after which they will emerge with great wealth and return to Eretz Yisrael, their irrevocable inheritance. Sarai is barren and gives Hagar, her Egyptian hand-maiden, to Avram in the hope that she will provide them with a child. Hagar becomes arrogant when she discovers that she is pregnant. Sarai deals harshly with her, and Hagar flees. On the instruction of an angel, Hagar returns to Avram and gives birth to Yishmael. The weekly portion concludes with G-d commanding Avram to circumcise himself and his offspring throughout the generations as a Divine covenant. G-d changes Avram’s name to Avraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Hashem promises Avraham a son, Yitzchak, despite Avraham being ninety-nine years old and Sarah ninety. On that day, Avraham circumcises himself, Yishmael and his entire household.


Nothing Is More Serious Than Humor

“Go for yourself… (lit. Go to yourself)” (12:1)

Around twenty-five years ago, I remember sitting in the dining room of Ohr Somayach at a Sheva Berachot (post-wedding celebration). One of the Rabbis there was noted for his seriousness, self-control and gravitas. He sat, his hooded eyes fixed on a small Gemara held by his slender fingers. As soon as the bride and groom entered, he set his Gemara down, stood up and took a small vase with a flower in it that was on the table in front of him. He then proceeded to climb onto the table, place the vase on his head, and dance on the table with the vase perched precariously on his head. The bride and groom were beside themselves with laughter. After the singing and dancing to welcome the bride and groom had died down and everyone returned to their seats, I noticed that the Rabbi had gone back to his learning as though nothing had happened. Every time I saw him, he would do the same thing. It was fascinating to watch this instant metamorphosis. I have never managed to work out if he is a deeply serious person who could turn on the merriment at the turn of a mental switch, or a deeply humorous person who held his humor in check with his self-control.

The Gemara in Ketuvot (17a) recounts that Rav Yehuda bar Ilai would take a branch of myrtle and dance before the bride. Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak would dance while juggling three branches. Rabbi Zeira complained to Rav Shmuel and said, "The elder is embarrassing us." But when Rav Shmuel passed away, a pillar of fire separated him from everyone else, and there was a tradition that this happened only for one or two people in each generation. The question arises: Why didn't a pillar of fire separate Rav Yehuda bar Ilai from everyone else when he passed from the world? It cannot be because he only used one myrtle and not three. The Eitz Yosef explains that, whereas Rav Yehuda would dance in front of a bride, it wasn't part of his habitual behavior. He would do it only on occasion. Rav Shmuel, however, never failed to do this.

There are times when we can slip and fall very far, and there are times when we can reach for the stars — but what we normally do is who we really are.

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