Torah Thoughts — Parshat Lech Lecha

PARASHAT LECH-LECHA GENESIS 12:1-17-27

OVERVIEW OF PORTION (from A Torah Commentary for Our Times –Rabbi Harvey Fields — UAHC)

Parashat Lech-Lecha begins with the story of Abram leaving his birthplace in Haran.  God promises the land of Canaan to Abram and his descendants.  Because of a famine in the land, Abram takes his family to Egypt.  While there, the pharaoh orders Abram’s wife, Sarai, to live in his palace.  Plagues come upon Egypt as punishment for what Pharaoh has done, and Sarai is restored to Abram.  Returning to Canaan, Abram and his brother’s son, Lot, divide the land in order to prevent any disagreements between them.  Later, Lot is attacked and taken hostage by enemy kings.  Abram rescues him and his family.  Because Abram and Sarai have trouble conceiving a child, Sarai, in the custom of ancient times, invites her maidservant, Hagar, to have a child with Abram.  When Hagar becomes pregnant, she begins to abuse Sarai, who responds by chasing away Hagar.  An angel tells Hagar to return, and she bears a son whom Abram names Ishmael.  As this Torah portion concludes, Abram is instructed to circumcise himself and Ishmael.  Abram is told that the circumcision of all males at eight days of age will be a sign of God’s covenant with him and his people forever.

TORAH THOUGHTS

A lot happens in our portion. Among the many themes we find in this portion is one which deals with the significance of names. While we meet our first patriarch and our first matriarch by the names of Avram and Sarai, before our portion ends, their names will have been changed via a pronouncement on the part of God.  As a part of the establishment of the covenant between God and Avram in Genesis chapter 17 (which includes Brit Milah – the covenant of circumcision), we read the following: And you shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations.” (Genesis 17:5) Avraham means “father of a multitude.”

A short while later we read the following in reference to Sarai: “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and give you a son also of her; and I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.’ ” (Genesis 17:15-16 )

Commenting on this passage, Avi Olitzky notes, “We know the characteristic significance of the name changes from the text and the described meanings of the names.  Sarah becomes princess (the word “sarah” means “princess”) to all as opposed to merely princess for Abraham. However, we rarely ask the question before the question: What is the significance of a name change in general? In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b, we read that Rabbi Yitzchak teaches: “Four things cancel the doom of a human being.  These are: charity, supplication, change of name and change of conduct. [As regards the] change of name, it is written, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be’ and it [the Torah] continues, ‘And I will bless her and moreover I will give thee a son of her.’ ”  Rabbi Yitzchak points out that as Sarah’s name was changed, so too was her fate.  And, we might add, so too was the history of humanity, and subsequently the history of Judaism and Abraham’s myriad progeny.” Avi Olitzky’s words on the power of names reminds of a poem by the Hebrew poet Zelda:

UNTO EVERY PERSON THERE IS A NAME

Unto every person there is a name

Bestowed upon him by God

And given him by his father and mother

Unto every person there is a name

Accorded him by his stature

And the manner of his smile

And given him by his style of dress

Unto every person there is a name

Conferred on him by the mountains

And given him by his neighbors

Unto every person there is a name

Assigned him by his sins

And given him by his yearnings

Unto every person there is a name

Given him by his enemies

And given him by his love

Unto every person there is a name

Derived from his festivals

And given him by his labor

Unto every person there is a name

Presented him by the seasons

And given him by his blindness

Unto every person there is a name

Bestowed on him by the sea

And given him by his death.

Shabbat Shalom!

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