Lech L'cha: God's covenant with Abraham

Presented by David P. Stern on 27 October 1998 in Greenbelt, Maryland


Note: This Dvar Torahwas presented ahead of the reading of the weekly portion "Lech L'cha.
It was followed at the end of the service by a related talk about Emma Lazarus

[* indicates where Hebrew text may be inserted]

      Today's reading is the 3rd in the book of Genesis, which is where the Hebrew people first appear on the scene. Up to here, the book told stories about the world at large--the flood, the invention of wine and of bricks, and the world's first space program--build a tower to reach the heavens--nice stories, but not our story.

      Towards the end of "Noah," you might have noticed that a certain family was singled out for special attention. And now, at the start of chapter 12 the Hebrews suddenly make their entrance--with a bang:

          "Now the LORD said unto Abram: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy place of birth, and from thy father's house, unto the land which I will show thee. And I will make thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and be thou a blessing"

"Get thee out" is probably as close as you can get to translating "Lech L'cha": if you look at the Hebrew on top of your copy of Genesis, you will see that the two words use identical letters, suggesting they are somehow connected.

      "Lech" means "go"--that much is straightforward. "L'cha" means literally, "for you". "Go thee"--go for your own sake, not because you are driven out, but because you are shaping your own future. Go--because, by going to a new land, you will become a new nation.

      Note, by the way, I have said "Hebrews", not Jews. The name "Jew" comes from Judah, great-grandson of Abram, still far in the future at this point. Abram and his tribe were called Hebrews, "Ivrim",   *   because they came from "Ever ha-nahar",   *   the other side of the river, that is, Euphrates; "Ever" and "Ivri" in Hebrew are built on the same foundation, the three letters ayin--bet--reysh. Abram came from "Aram of the two rivers" Aram Naharayim, the country we know now as Iraq, on the other side of the Euphrates, the nearer of the two.

      In the Torah, the name Hebrews is not used all that much: after the captivity in Egypt they are usually referred to as "The Children of Israel." Yet Joseph, in his prison cell, tells the other prisoners (p. 151, v 15) "For indeed, I was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews."

      So this is where the Hebrews first appear on the scene--not yet a nation, but the promise is right there, in verse 2. Later in the reading, in the part we do not read this year (because of the triennial cycle which we follow), Abraham is promised:

          "Look towards the heavens and count the stars--if you can count them. So will be your seed."

These days we live in well-lit cities, and see just a few of the brightest stars. To understand this promise to Abram, you must go out to the desert, on a clear night, where the sky is an enormous star-filled canopy. Try it, if you can, next time you are in Israel.

      In our society, when an institution is set up, it is usually given a charter, a stated purpose, a basic set of rules by which it is guided. Lech L'cha is the charter of the Hebrew nation. You have it in verse 3:

          "And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the Earth be blessed."

This is the basic contract, by which we are--we like to think--the chosen people. Two things are spelled out: The Hebrews will be watched over by God--those nations who are their friends, will be blessed, those who are enemies will be cursed. And when you look at the history of the past few thousand years, that has pretty much come to pass.

      Interestingly, the contract does not promise to save us from any harm. It just tells what is going to happen to others. I guess it always pays to read the fine print!

      And then it spells out the duty which goes with this chosen status: "In thee shall all the families of Earth be blessed"--which means, simply, "you will have to work for this--you will have to make yourself useful to the world!"

      And it looks as if our people have worked hard to keep their part of that bargain--to care, not just for themselves, but to dedicate themselves to make this a better world. In literature, in science, you name it--Jews have tried to live up to that duty and to uphold their reputation as a righteous people. I think a great part of the reason Jews are attracted to liberal causes comes from this legacy--we should care for others, we should not allow ourselves to become selfish.

      We are fortunate to live in one of the nations which has always been friendly to Jews--and I think, God has done his part here too, because America is abundantly blessed, perhaps more so, than any other land.

      Our people have good memories of America, and one of those memories is the story of a Jewish poet who lived here more than a century ago. She died young, but is still remembered. Let me then close here with one of the poems of Emma Lazarus, titled "Gifts", about those virtues which set the Hebrews apart from other nations, ever since God told Abram "Lech L'cha."

    "O World-God, give me Wealth!" the Egyptian cried.
    His prayer was granted. High as heaven, behold
    Palace and Pyramid; the brimming tide
    Of lavish Nile washed all his land with gold.
    Armies of slaves toiled ant-wise at his feet,
    World-circling traffic roared through mart and street,
    His priests were gods, his spice-balmed kings enshrined
    Set death at naught in rock-ribbed charnels deep.
    Seek Pharaoh's race today and ye shall find
    Rust and the moth, silence and dusty sheep.

    "O World-God, give me Beauty!" cried the Greek.
    His prayer was granted. All the earth became
    Plastic and vocal to his sense; each peak,
    Each grove, each stream, quick with Promethean flame
    Peopled the world with imaged grace and light.
    The lyre was his, and his the breathing might
    Of the immortal marble, his the play
    of diamond-pointed thought and golden tongue.
    Go seek the sun-shine race, ye find today
    A broken column and a lute unstrung.

    "O World-God, give me Power!" the Roman cried.
    His prayer was granted. The vast world was chained
    A captive to the chariot of his pride.
    The blood of myriad provinces was drained
    To feed that fierce, insatiable red heart.
    Invulnerably bulwarked every part
    With serried legions and with close-meshed code,
    Within, the burrowing worm has gnawed its home
    A roofless ruin stands where once abode
    The imperial race of everlasting Rome.

    "O Godhead, give me Truth!" the Hebrew cried.
    His prayer was granted; he became the slave
    Of the Idea, a pilgrim far and wide,
    Cursed, hated, spurned, and scourged with none to save.
    The Pharaohs knew him, and when Greece beheld
    His wisdom wore the hoary crown of Eld.
    Beauty he hath forsworn, and wealth and power.
    Seek hi today, and find in every land.
    No fire consumes him, neither floods devour;
    Immortal through the lamp within his hand.



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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 12 June 2002