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NFTY-GER: But Where is “Forth”?

The following is a transcript of a D’var Torah given at NFTY-GER Fall Kallah by Shira Buchsbaum.


When I first read Lech L’cha in preparation for writing this D’var and preparing our Torah Study for this afternoon, I soon realized how terribly problematic this portion is. See, Lech L’cha is a Rabbi’s gold mine: this portion touches upon a great deal of issues and themes that are explored more thoroughly later in the Torah. It also provides us with one of God’s first commands to Abraham: “go forth from your land…to the land that I will show you.”

Right off the bat, God is being pretty ambiguous about what he wants Abraham (at this moment in time, Abram) to do. “Go forth”? Excuse me? These people didn’t exactly have compass apps on their iPhones. Which way was forth?

Anyways, Abram says, “okay, sure,” packs up his stuff and his wife and his Hagar. They go forth and travel to Egypt, make a pit stop at Sodom and Gomorrah and leave Lot there to spend his days, Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, God creates a covenant with Abraham, changes Abram’s name from Abram to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah, and then gives instructions on circumcision.

So we’ve got a lot going on: geography, cartography, habitats, travel itineraries, child birth, devotion, baby-naming, old-man naming, even some biology on the back end. It’s a lot to take in. I reviewed Rashi’s commentary – Rashi was a brilliant Jewish teacher who’s long since dead but his commentary breaks things down line by line – and to be honest, it was very overwhelming.

But let’s focus on just one thing that God says to Abraham.

“I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will emerge from you.”

Kings! Kings! Kings will emerge from him! Solomon and David – kings of the lost tribes, kings of the found tribes, kings of Israel, kings of Leon!

That’s a lot of pressure.

Kings are very removed from us in this day and age – they’re stuff of fairy tales, or in this case, Biblical history. The King of Spain, Juan Carlos, was an antiquated figure with little power and the new king, Felipe, is less antiquated but beset with equally little power. Does anyone know what Queen Elizabeth does all day? There are princes and princesses dotted across the globe but these people have real jobs and real lives beyond the glamorous beauty we so often associate with royalty. What type of kings did God mean?

What type of kings did Abraham expect? After all, he was an old man (99!) when Sarah finally birthed Isaac. He wasn’t going to stick around much longer to see his fruits go forth (there it is again) and multiply.

I touched on this earlier – these people, these ancient figures, didn’t have what we have today. Now there’s a great deal of commentary over whether the old ways, i.e., sans technology, are superior to “modern” ways – look at the Amish – but let’s assume, for a moment, that we, as the offspring of the offspring of Abraham, have too taken his kingdom and “gone forth.”

Where have we gone?

We’ve gone out from Israel. We’ve been banished and exiled countless times from countless places: England, France, Germany, Spain, Poland, our cities, towns, marketplaces, and own homes. We’ve gone to India and Japan, we’ve gone to Ethiopia, we’ve gone to Argentina, and Canada and the United States. We’ve embraced the diaspora in hopes that it would save us from the hostility endured in countless nations. We’ve gone forth.

We’ve learned. We’ve learned to protect ourselves – look at the IDF. We’ve learned to share our knowledge – South Korea teaches the Talmud in public schools because they find great merit in it. We’ve learned to be proud of our roots and prouder of our branches.

We’ve grown, and shrank. We’ve had successes and failures. We’ve won Nobel Prizes and committed great crimes (look at Bernie Madof). We’ve fought – and won – but sometimes lost too.

We’ve gone forth and done. We’ve gone forth and completed, achieved, succeeded, exceeded, created, invented, reinvented.

We’ve created kingdoms across the world of love, happiness, community, caring, education, Judaism. We’ve gone forth. We’ve multiplied. We’ve been kings.

God doesn’t tell Abraham where to go or what to do; his instructions are characteristically unclear. This leaves a great deal of leeway for action – and we’ve taken it. If God wanted us to be successful, we’ve exceeded expectations. We’ve passed the test with flying colors.

Being a king does not mean wearing a crown, though Halloween and popular culture may suggest otherwise. Being a king is ruling what you have gracefully, fairly, with intent to improve and grow. We’ve been given little and returned with a lot. We’ve been kings. This knowledge and power is important in good times but especially in bad, such as now, as our people face fatal threats from the likes of ISIS and Hamas, and as our global community faces the fatal threat of Ebola.

When God changes Sarai and Abram’s names to Sarah and Abraham, he does so by putting a “hey” in each of their names – a symbol that names God himself. Though he gave the pair very little instructions – “go forth” where? Kings of what? – he does give them a gift: part of himself very much beside and within them.

I have no doubt there are pieces of God within each of us that enable us to be kings in our own right. We have strengths and weaknesses beyond our knowledge and the only way to tap into these or overcome them is to recognize our own inherent power, inherited from generations of men and women who too have gone forth and have been good, have been great, but above all, have been Jews.

Shabbat Shalom