Earlier this week I had the honor of giving the d’var Torah at the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, a body on which I hold an ex officio seat as President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. This is what I shared:
Thank you. I am honored to share some words of Torah as we begin this meeting together.
It is always interesting to me to share a d’var Torah in the middle of the week. Traditionally we look forward to the upcoming portion, in this case, Lech Lecha. We count time up towards Shabbat—Sunday is yom rishon (“the first day”), Monday is yom sheni (“the second day”), etc. until we reach Shabbat. And traditionally we read the beginning of the next week’s portion at the Shabbat mincha portion. As one Shabbat ends, we anticipate the portion to come.
Yet at the same time, when we are in the middle of the week last week’s portion—and in this case Noach—still lingers with us, it still echoes.
This week’s portion of Lech Lecha is that powerful story of Abraham being called by God: “God said to Abram, go forth from your country, from your native land, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
It is a story of radical change, of transformation, of moving away from what was toward the unknown of what will be. It is taking the first few steps into an unknown future.
It is a story that inspires us, especially as we are reading it so close after the High Holidays in which we all made our commitments to a new future for ourselves.
But as I mentioned, we can also see ourselves as being in between portions, so we can look back at Noach, particularly the end, to help inform our reading of Lech Lecha. And when we read the end of Noach with the beginning of Lech Lecha, as it follows in the Torah, as opposed to just the break that comes with the beginning of the portion, we can understand Lech Lecha somewhat differently.
At the end of parashat Noach, at the end of chapter 11 of Genesis, we have a genealogy leading up to Abraham. And in verse 31-32 we read, “And Terach took his son Abram and Lot the son of Haran is grandson and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and lived there. And the days of Terach were 205, and he died in Haran.”
Abraham, with his family, was already on the way to Canaan, when something stopped them and the settled in Haran. Lech Lecha is therefore less a radical shift and transformation, but the continuation of a journey already undertaken.
So we remember that even what seems like a radical break from the past is still build upon what comes before. We shift, we pivot, but all of what led to this moment in which we find ourselves is what made us who we are, and indeed, allowed us to make the change we need to make.
Abraham may not have been receptive to the call if he heard it in Ur, but he was ready when he heard it in Haran.
There is another piece of this “in-betweenness” of the portions that I want to hold up, and that is the last verse, the verse that speaks of Terach’s death.
Rashi, the classic medieval French commentator, does a close read of the text and notices something interesting. He points out that according to Genesis 11:26, Terach was 70 years old when Abraham was born. And according to Genesis 12:4, Abraham was 75 years old when he left Haran. 70+75=145. Terach was 145 when Abraham left Haran to go to Canaan, and he lived another 60 years longer. If this is the case, Rashi asks, then why does the Torah record Terach’s death before telling the story of Abraham’s call if he was still alive?
The answer, Rashi says, is that the Torah wants us to think Terach died before Abraham left. The Torah does not want us to realize that Abraham left his father in his old age, and that Abraham did not show his father the proper respect. And it worked, we don’t realize this fact that Terach was still alive.
Here then, is a lesson about the nature of growth and change. For each new endeavor we embrace, whether individual or communal, whether examining our sense of self or our communal direction, we are also leaving something behind, and with that comes loss. And we do what we can to minimize the sadness, hurt, and loss that comes with that. The Torah does this by recording Terach’s death before Abraham’s call even though the chronological order is different. And we do it on our own ways.
Every opportunity to gather around this Board table is an opportunity to hear the call of Lech Lecha, to go forth towards something new.
And each time we remember that we are really continuing a journey that we have always been on, and with each new step of that journey we embrace what is to come and we also mourn, remember, and offer gratitude for what we leave behind.
We look forward to Canaan, and we don’t forget Haran.