Weekly D’var Torah Commentary
Parashat Lech Lecha | Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
My family recently went to see the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s Fiddler on the Roof at the Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown. I recommend it. It was powerful and transporting — made all the more so by the unpretentious but evocative set design — to hear the cadences and expressions of Yiddish Jewishness so artfully, hilariously, and painfully rendered by the actors. Sholem Aleichem’s classic story is familiar to us all. There is the portrayal, an American Jewish trope, of the migration and escape from pogroms to the safe haven of America; there is the inevitable allure of secular culture and the role of individual choice eroding traditional Jewish values; there is the language itself, expressive, emotional, guttural, hysterical, saturated with pathos; and there is the instability, the wandering, the rootlessness of Jewish history hovering like a specter. It is a fraught work of art because we know how it ends: in family separation and frayed ties to “Tradition;” in the possibilities and opportunities offered by America but also in the awareness of the oncoming slaughter of millions of Jews in Europe during the Second World War. Somehow, through the genius of Sholem Aleichem’s original character sketch in “Tevye and His Daughters” and then through the brilliance of Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock and Joseph Stein, the story represents a kind of secular Torah of American Jewish identity. It’s a canonical text. So much so that they say it’s the most oft-produced high school play in the United States. It somehow explains who we are not only to ourselves but to our friends and neighbors, too.
During Sukkot this year, New York City Councilmember Brad Lander visited the JCP Sukkah. Brad talked about the importance of what “shelter” means to him. And he described the Yiddish he heard at the show as having reawakened in him not only his own relationship to his great grandparents journey from Europe to America but also reminded him of the millions of refugees seeking safe haven today. Great art has this kind of universalizing effect. It was a profound insight.
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) we encounter Abraham being called by God to go forth from his land, his birthplace, his 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. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” According to our text, God and Abraham had never met before. That’s some introduction.
The Sages have so much wisdom to share about this concise call to service that Abraham receives. In the Midrash, the rabbis say that the reason for Abraham leaving home, traveling on behalf of God, is to spread the “fragrance of good deeds with the world.” The Jew’s ultimate obligation, by this reading, is to do good, wherever we are. The Midrash also states that by making his “name great,” Abraham is likened to a coin with his own name. A name carries value, has permanence. However this coin, the rabbis said, has an image of a young Abraham on one side and an elderly Abraham on the other hand, teaching us that our obligations and impact span generations. Our duties follow us and mark our reputations wherever and whenever we live. And finally, there is the most existential of readings: that in leaving to truly become himself, to follow his conscience and his God, he must leave all that is familiar to him — his homeland, his birthplace, his father’s house — and journey forth to wherever he may go to be his true self.
“The only constant in life is change,” people like to say and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong. But Jewish wisdom, while certainly accepting this notion, sufuses it with the deep recognition that while our circumstances may change, our hometowns may change, even the languages in which we live and express our most intimate selves may change, but nevertheless, Jewish values like learning, prayer and deeds of lovingkindness, remain immovable, rooting and constant.
Abraham, as the first Jew, hold all of this in his name. He is told by God that his name means, “father of a multitude of nations.” The most basic reading of this line is that our tradition is saying that Abraham, and Jews, are meant to be exemplars of learning, good deeds and kindness in partnership with God. We are, pure and simple, called upon to be a blessing. No small task for anyone, especially when riding the subway.
But as exemplars to future nations, the tradition also sees Abraham and the Jewish people as responsible for others as well; that in recognizing the temporal nature of our lives and at times in history the tenuous connection to lands in which we live, we are ultimately called upon to be empathic, compassionate, open-hearted to those fleeing persecution and destruction. In the same way that the rabbis remind us to “be kind to the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt,” this week’s Torah portion reminds us that Abraham and his family had to leave home in order to understand what the true value of home means–a poignant and powerful lesson indeed.
The National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene stage for Fiddler did have one constant: a delicate curtain adorned with one word, easily read in either Hebrew or Yiddish, “Torah.” Love, hate, peace, violence, laughter and tears were all expressed before this curtain and before this word which somehow, I dare say miraculously, could hold it all.
I have a friend who likes to refer to the Jewish people as a project. We are ongoing, always in formation. There is resonance in that idea for me as I am certain there is for those members of our community here at JCP. And while it is true and often inspiring that we are an ongoing project, we are also the keepers of the flame of the constancy of Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim–of Learning, Prayer, and Deeds of Lovingkindness.
So on this Shabbat, let’s be reminded that as individuals, as families and as a community, we are always a work in progress, held together by our devotion to faith, to sacred texts, to questions as much as answers, and to being there for one another no matter where and when, with all the tears and laughter that entails.
Andy Bachman is JCP’s Executive Director.