The Abrahamic Story

Parashat Lech Lecha 2017
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Abrahamic Story

It is when I get to parshiyot (portions) like Lech Lecha, that I experience a mild, existential panic. There is so much to say, and so little time to say it.

As a darshanit (preacher), I have to take a deep breath and tell myself: there is time. There is time to unravel the intricacies of the text; there is time to continue building a relationship with our community so that we can explore this text from its many angles, like circling a palace to find its many doors. There is time to unpick how the text speaks to us now, to acknowledge Abraham’s bold mission in its full force and to ponder how we may build upon his legacy as a Jewish community a proverbial four millennia down the line.

‘Turn in it and turn it it again and again’, Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Father) states. Our Torah is multifaceted, multilayered, textual, contextual and waiting to be ‘drashed’ by all of us, regardless of our background or experience. Torah belongs to all of us, and all of us can acquire her and teach her.

So, there is time and I can take a deep breath.

Hence, this year for Parashat Lech Lecha I’ve decided not to delve into the complexities of the narrative. There is a great deal to be explored. Abraham (still Abram) is called to leave his homeland in chapter 12, while his encounter with Pharaoh leads to his shady decision to spin a white lie about his relationship to Sarah (Sarai) when confronted with Pharaoh. Following on is the separation between Lot and Abraham’s household as a result of Abraham’s increased prosperity in chapter 13, and the War of the Five Kings who are fighting against four other kings with Abraham springing to the latter alliance’s defense. Chapter 14 recounts how Abraham rushes to the aid of King Bera of Sodom and he receives a blessing from King Melchizedek of Salem (later identified as Jerusalem). In the next chapter, chapter 15, we encounter one of Abraham’s darker and more existential moments in the ‘brit ha’beitarim’, the Covenant of the Pieces. Abraham fears not having any progeny to take on and continue his mission. God appears in fire and smoke amidst the sacrifices Abraham offers and comforts Abraham, reiterating the Divine Promise of chapter 12. Next, Sarah (Sarai), perhaps not having received the same direct assurance from God, despairs over her infertility and devises the surrogacy plan through Hagar; he fathers Ishmael and in chapter 17, is drawn back into the language of covenant by God and together with Sarai, receives the letter hey that would mark their change in identity.   

There are a great many themes in this text: mission, vision, growth and loss. Doubt, hope, fallibility and integrity. Longing and love, trust and surrender. The Abraham cycle in the Torah allow us to grow with this character and the consequences of his choices. The Abraham and Sarah stories invite us to read the narratives of our own lives through the lens of theirs.

Today I want to read the story personally.

Reading ourselves into the Biblical narrative is a powerful way of both challenging a fundamentalist reading of the text as well as a way to bind ourselves to the text in a way that is compelling. If we live with our Torah, we must live it. If we walk in the ways of our Torah, we must walk it, not unlike Abraham himself who is told in chapter 17 ‘hithalech lefanai v’hayah tamim’ – ‘walk before Me [God] and be blameless.’ The modern world tugs at us and challenges us, seduces us to depart from the stories of our ancestors, yet at the same time, a modern or post-modern reading of the Torah can deepen our connection to it.

The Abraham cycle is particularly close to my heart. Now that we have traversed the High Holiday season and are safely in the calm of the month of Cheshvan, we have a moment to breathe as a community and to say ‘there’s time.’ There’s time to figure out what we want and how we want to achieve it. There’s time to stabilize ourselves and rethink our identity and mission. There’s time to grow and explore. Time to reflect.

Abraham and Sarah always invite me to reflect. Their story is my story – and many of our stories. I’ve always identified strongly with Abraham (perhaps more so that with Sarah, and maybe that’s a sermon for another day!). This year, however, the parallels stand out so clearly as I reflect on my own journey; my leaving my ancestral lands, the place of my birth, my parental home.

Someone in the congregation asked me the other day whether I still read the Dutch newspapers online and it was an interesting question. I have noticed that over the past few years I’ve stopped reading them. I left Holland in 2008, having only come back occasionally and intermittently. Moving between the USA and the UK has destabilized my national identity which was complex to begin with. I’ve been a migrant for so long now, traversing my own symbolic journey from Ur Kasdim to Canaan. Like Abraham, I felt a strong calling and like Abraham, I must balance the fiery idealism of heeding that calling with the daily complexity of living out that calling.

My family has been made incredibly welcome by the congregation and your kindness and generosity continues to overwhelm us (we’re still receiving packages from Bed, Bath and Beyond!) Now, in the cooler, darker days of Cheshvan, with the leaves and the temperatures dropping, I have more time to reflect on this next step of my Abrahamic journey. Rooting myself (ah, the pleasures of finally getting my social security number), negotiating cultural differences (don’t let my English fluency fool you), getting to know Iowa City, Iowa and the United States – a beautiful, promising, complex and multilayered place not unlike the Biblical land of Canaan. I try to hone my vision of my rabbinate here and contemplate how we will shape that vision in sacred, reciprocal relationship. And drawing on all these archetypes bring me a sense of belonging and great comfort.

I decided to present you with a more personal, reflective sermon this week. Not because there is nothing to say on this portion, but because I’m relishing the time to say it. What I hope to give and share as a rabbi is the transformative power of Torah, how she envelops the stories of our own lives and gives them greater meaning and perspective. How the Torah gives us all permission – the rabbi included – to be vulnerable and real. Abraham and Sarah were. This is their story. This is mine. I look forward to hearing yours.

Shabbat shalom.


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