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Torah Commentary
Lech L'cha (November 12, 2016)

Bettijane Eisenpreis

The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth (Lech Lekha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you shall be a blessing.”
(Genesis 12:1-2)

I am happy to report that one of my favorite songs, “Lechi Lach,” by Debbie Friedman, now is used in the Friday night service at Temple Emanu-El. Friedman renders in poetry the same sentiments that are quoted above, but she uses both the masculine and feminine forms of the Hebrew verb for “go forth,” Lechi Lach (feminine) and Lech Lekha (masculine). Is there any reason for this, beyond the fact that it makes beautiful poetry?

The reason can be stated in one word, Sarah, or Sarai, as she is called here. God tells Abram to leave his father’s house and his native land in order to become a great nation. The text goes on to tell us that he took with him “his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot and all the wealth they had amassed.” But don’t be fooled! He didn’t pick Lot and Sarai up like his household goods and pack them into suitcases to take them with him. The writers of the Bible make it clear that both Sarai and Lot have distinct personalities and that their cooperation is essential to the journey.

The name Sarai (or Sarah, as she will soon be called) can be translated as “Princess,” which would seem to indicate that she was an important person in her own right. We have learned in the preceding chapter (Genesis 11:30) that “Sarai was barren; she had no child.” So if Abram (meaning “exalted father”) is going to be the father of a great nation, you can bet that Sarai is going to have something to do with it.

Women figure in the Bible from the very beginning. After all, it is not Adam who is tempted by the serpent and persuades Adam to eat the forbidden fruit; it is Eve; and it is Eve who is punished by having pain in childbirth. That’s how the human race starts, according to the Bible.

Similarly, Sarah is a real person — not all good, to be sure, but a major player. In this parashah, she and Abraham go to Egypt, and Abraham asks her to pretend to Pharaoh that she is his sister, not his wife, because Pharaoh may decide to kill the husband and take the wife as his own. While the Bible does not spell it out, some interpreters have argued that Sarah consents to this deception. Abraham certainly asks politely for her cooperation, when he says, “Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you.” (Genesis 12:13) It is only because God intervenes that Pharaoh never lays a hand on her.

We remain in suspense throughout this parashah: Is Sarah going to have a baby or isn’t she? At one point, Sarah seems to give up. She asks Abraham to have a child with Hagar, her slave. Apparently, this kind of surrogate motherhood was not uncommon, as we will see later when Rachel has trouble conceiving. But as soon as Abraham does as she asks, Sarah becomes jealous of Hagar and exiles her to the wilderness. Again, God intervenes. Hagar is saved and gives birth to Ishamael. And, God once again tells Abram that he will have a child through Sarah. But we have to wait until the next parashah to find out what happens.

I was brought up praying to the “God of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” I must admit that it sounded strange to me when we added, “and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” I’ve been going to a Reform synagogue since I was 5 years old, and the old Union Prayer Book is practically part of my DNA. But the more I read about Sarah, and later the other three ladies, the more I understand that all of our ancestors are important. I sing “Lechi Lach” with great vigor. So, I will just have to practice “and our mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” Amen.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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