LECH L’CHA – GENESIS 12.1-17.27
Who Are We and From Where Do We Come?
Dr. Ronald A. Brauner

It is important, in reading Genesis, to be aware of the fact that in very many instances, the Torah is responding to questions which do not appear in the text. Fuller meaning and understanding come about when we contemplate, as we read, just what might have been the stimulus for which the Torah is presenting a response. The first eleven chapters of the Bereshit are full of responses to the ideas, values and beliefs of the civilizations which surrounded the world of our ancestors. Once we are able to identify these matters, we are able to see another facet of the wondrous approach of the Torah in teaching us and in helping us to clarify and live the things we stand for.

With the parasha of Lech L’cha, we enter the beginning of the Jewish story in Torah. Previous chapters dealt with the world-at-large and addressed universal themes. This parasha introduces us to
ourselves and it is instructive to ponder what we find.

The Book of Genesis is replete with what we might call “snapshots” – brief accounts in the lives of our Matriarchs and Patriarchs. These accounts do not contain very many details nor do they engage extensive narrative. They are succinct, they appear at varied and different times and they seek to make a particular point and then move on. Over all, these snapshots can be understood as responding to several questions of paramount importance to us, as Jews -- who are we and from where do we come? From where did we acquire those qualities that are so characteristic of us?

The Torah’s general response to these questions is that we are, all of us, sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah – they are, for the Jewish people, our primal parents, the ones from whom we descend and the ones from whom we have acquired the values, perceptions and behaviors that make us what we are. They are us and we are they!

It is in this context that we might visit, once again, a particular “quick take” on a moment in the lives of Abraham and his nephew Lot. Both have grown wealthy over time and “…the land could not support their living together, for their possessions were great…and there was conflict between the shepherds of Abraham and Lot…” (13:6-7). It is Abraham who is first to address the problem. He understands that the reasonable solution to the difficulty is to take advantage of the wide expanses of terrain available to them for grazing and to separate. He says to his nephew, the son of his brother Haran: “…let there not be a quarrel between us…because we are family. You have the whole land from which to choose – if you go north, I’ll go south and if you go south, I will go north.” In this very brief moment, we are brought face-to-face with an ancient convention of which all the ancient peoples in the middle east were aware – the head of the family makes an offer, in a search for conciliation and peace and the subordinates correspondingly
defers to the elder. Here, Abraham offers a choice of land to Lot and we expect that Lot will respond with something like: “far be it from me, your humble servant to choose; please, father Abraham, head of our family, you do the choosing and I will gladly follow your wishes.” What we find however, in glaring violation of the universally-understood etiquette is: “Lot looked and saw the Jordan plain, how well-watered it was…like a huge garden, like the Nile delta and Lot chose all the Jordan plain…” (13:10-11). In just one brief moment, in a quick snapshot of familial interaction, etiquette, convention and prerogative are violated and the protocol of millennia is set aside. And yet, and here is the point, we hear nothing in response from Abraham! Lot immediately sets out to take possession of his new grazing lands and Abraham is silent. No rebuke for the insubordinate upstart, no appeal to what is expected in such circumstances. No standing on ceremony or status or even the rights of senior citizens. Not a single, subtle hint of disappointment or chagrin or offense. Lot and Abraham part and the reader is left with the rather disturbing sense of a choreography gone wrong, of a selfishness grossly exercised. The editorial sentiment of the Torah is clear: Lot chooses to live in Sodom, he pitches his tent in the very place of which it was said: “…the Sodomites were very corrupt wrongdoers before the Lord.” (13:13).

The implications for leadership are clear here. We, the sons and daughters of Abraham, for the sake of peace, are ready to waive the …due us. For the sake of achieving higher purpose, personal offense and prevailing.convention can be overlooked. Resentment and insult have no place here – higher purpose defines the moment. And, as if to lay further emphasis on what the substance of character can really be, we read in the next chapter of a war in which Lot is captured and how, with absolutely no hesitation, Abraham, upon hearing the news, immediately gathers his men and rescues and restores Lot.

Who are we and from where do we come? From where did we acquire those qualities that are so characteristic of us? We read Torah and we are reminded that we are the sons and daughters of Abraham and, like him, we seek to walk in the ways of God.

Dr. Brauner is Professor of Judaic Studies at Siegal College, Cleveland, OH