Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
In this week’s Torah portion we meet Avram- a single man who receives a call from God- Lekh L’kha- Go forth and leave your land , your birthplace, your father’s home and go to a place I will show you. Many of the Hasidic Masters translate this first phrase not as go forth, but rather, according to literal meaning of the words "Lekh–Go" "L’kha–to yourself". Go to yourself, to your deep inner truth. Leave the influences of your country, your home town, your culture, your family of origin and take a journey into the deep truth of your own heart. Walk with Me to an unknown place, free from external influences, where tzedek and mishpat, justice and righteousness will be your guides and only then will you become a blessing to the world.
Indeed, Abraham does eventually reveal these qualities of tzedek and mishpat which we will read in next week’s Torah portion when he welcomes strangers into his home and defends the people of Sodom to God. But first, he will go through several trials in which “going to himself” will mean separating from his family members in several rather disturbing passages.
In her book entitled Subversive Sequels in the Bible, Judy Klistner writes:
In his continuing efforts to distill God’s ways; Abraham distances himself from potentially negative influences. Along with this, in a more extreme and somewhat disturbing manifestation of his singularity, Abraham’s life is marked by a series of departures from his loved ones. With God’s approval and sometimes with His active prodding, Abraham splits from his nephew Lot (Gen. 13:19), from his first-born son Ishmael and from Ishmael’s mother Hagar (Gen. 21:14). Twice he sets in motion chains of events that lead to his separation from Sarah his wife… when Abraham claims that Sarah is not his wife , but his sister, he contributes to her abduction by foreign kings (Gen. 12:13-14, 20:2). Toward the end of Abraham’s narrative, God orders the ultimate departure. He must sacrifice Isaac, the son who represents Abraham’s future…(22:2) God frames Abraham’s life with the words Lekh L’kha, which appear at the beginning of the journey when he must take leave of his past, and at its end when he receives the order to forfeit his future.
Klistner describes the events in this week’s parashah as Avram’s downward spiral whereby his singular focus puts all of his family members at risk and in harm’s way. Avram’s concern for himself alone leads him to lie about Sarai, claiming her as his sister and thereby causing her abduction by Pharaoh. He specifically asks her to agree to this ruse so that “ all will go for me” (Gen. ) And so it does go well for Avram. After Sarai is abducted by Pharaoh, Avram is rewarded with great wealth.
Avram’s great wealth will lead to the quarreling between his camp and that of his nephew Lot, causing them to separate. Avram had taken in Lot, the son of his deceased brother as part of his household. Now, Avram places his nephew Lot in harm’s way, near the city of S’dom- a city named by the Torah known for its wickedness. There, he is taken captive in a regional war. This causes Avram to go to battle in order to free his nephew Lot.
Avram is successful and victorious. Suddenly, in the midst of the conflict a mysterious visitor appears, namely, Malkitzedek. He is described as the King of the city Shaleim and the Priest of God on High, Creator of heaven and earth- El elyon, konei shamayim va’aretz. Malkitzedek interrupts the political maneuvers about to unfold and enters the scene with the word Barukh-Blessed! He gives Avram a blessing, saying Barukh Avram l’El Elyon, Konei shamayim va’aretz-Blessed be Avram of the God on High, maker of heaven and earth. He reminds Avram of his connection with God. He brings bread and wine to this weary warrior. Malkitzedek is an agent of hesed-kindness and of blessing. He is also the first to describe God as: the God on High, maker of heaven and earth.
The name Malkitzedek is beautiful and unique. It means King of Righteousness. He is described also as King of the city of Shaleim. Shaleim means whole and is the root of the word ‘peace’. Malkitzedek- the King of justice, ruler of the city of the Peace and Wholeness appears and disappears in a flash. Through words and actions he brings Avram a message of spiritual fortification. Remember who you are. Remember the values of hesed-kindness, tzedek-righteousness and mishpat-justice. Like a travelling chiropractor, he seems to give Abraham a spiritual adjustment.
As soon as Malkitzedek leaves, the King of Sodom asks Avram to split the booty from the wars. Avram responds by saying: I swear to Adonai, EL Elyon- God on High, Konei shamaym va-aretz, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours… (Gen. 14:22).
Unlike when Avram left Egypt with booty acquired through the trials of his wife Sarai, he now acts with righteousness and swears his allegiance to God. He unmistakenly uses the language of Malkitzedek. No longer focused on his own needs and desires, Avram has realigned with his mission. We will encounter a different man next week when Avram will welcome three guests with abundant hospitality and later will argue with God to act with justice and compassion for the people of Sodom.
In several ways this story encapsulates one of the great challenges of living a spiritual life. Even more so, it captures the challenge of the Jewish people whose destiny it has been to be Ivrim- to be from the other side, separate from the dominant culture in which we dwell. We too have been charged Lekh L’kha- Go to your Self- to your own heart of truth. Do not be seduced by the values of the dominant culture that run counter to justice for all. And yet, the challenge of Avram remains with us. Let us not become so separate, so single-minded and focused only on our own survival and success that we lose our sense of connection and responsibility for the greater collective. The Torah, through the voice of Malkitzedek, reminds us to be agents of kindness and justice across borders and throughout in the world.
Torah makes a powerful statement by bringing Malkitzedek, a foreign priest into the narrative at this moment. He is a necessary player who puts Avram back on track. I would suggest that today, we too would benefit by connecting with messengers from other spiritual paths who share the common vision of a world made whole. Kindness and Justice are not only Jewish ideals. They are shared among our human brethren of all religions and all walks of life. When we come together from different paths while sharing common ideals, we all experience spiritual fortification, uplift and rededication during challenging times.
In this spirit I extend to you an invitation to join me for a Thanksgiving Interfaith service on
Sun. Nov. 19 at 7PM at Immaculate Heart Church in Rutland. We all understand that our world is wounded and suffering. By joining voices in thanksgiving for all of our shared blessings we strengthen one another in building a peaceful world.
We are blessed to have many spiritual messengers among us. Keep your eyes and ears open for them. They may appear and disappear in a moment. Tune your ears to messages of hope and transformation and you will see and hear them. May we all be blessed to play some part in the great healing of our world.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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