Parashat Lekh L'kha Torah Reading: Genesis 12:1-17:27
In this week's parashah/Torah reading, God renames two people: Abram becomes Abraham and his wife Sarai is renamed Sarah. This act of renaming expresses the reality of a deeper relationship between God and these two people. What profound shift is marked by these renamings?
[Breishit/Genesis 17:1-4] When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him: I am El-Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous. Abram threw himself on his face; and God spoke to him further, "As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations."
Abram and Sarai were wanderers . . . geographically and spiritually. With the establishment of the covenant [brit] with God, they now have both a geographic and a spiritual home in the Land of Canaan and in the God called El-Shaddai (one of dozens of names of God that appear in the Torah]. They are profoundly changed and God's act of renaming them marks the moment that changes their personal life journeys and human history.
I am not on expert on pagan religion, but it occurs to me that in establishing this covenant with Abraham, Sarah and their offspring, God has blessed humanity with unprecedented respect. In the pagan world, there is no covenant. Human beings placate the gods of their imaginings, hoping that gifts, offerings, actions might avert anger or might spare humans from the pagan equivalent of a drive-by-shooting in which humans suffer because they are in the way as pagan gods fight it out amongst themselves.
But the God of Abraham and Sarah establishes a partnership . . . offers values and goals to be shared, offers eternal commitment and infinite potential. It behooves us to remember that Abraham and Sarah are the progenitors of "a multitude of nations," that we share the blessings of this brit we all those who acknowledge and worship the one God: El-Shaddai, Adonay, Elohim, these are all names of the God we cherish and share with the other monotheistic faiths of the world. The brit that will be forged at Sinai between God and Israel will be the particularistic covenant that establishes Judaism for all time, but here, in Genesis, this first brit with Abraham and Sarah, expressed through the changes of their names, casts a wider net.
Let us pray for the time when all those who share the blessings of this covenant with us -- Jews, Christians and Moslems -- all descendants of Abraham and Sarah -- will be ready to embrace as siblings.
Parashat Noah Torah Reading: Genesis 6:9-11:32
Our congregation follows the practice of trienniel Torah reading. This is an ancient practice established first in the land of Israel in which the entire Torah is read over the course of three years instead of one. In the system we follow, each full Torah portion (as cited above) is divided into thirds. Each year we read a designated third . . . one year we read the first third of each parasha, the next year we read the second third, and so on. This year we are reading the last third of each parasha.
I particularly enjoy the last third of this week's parasha, Noah, because there is a passage there whose message I treasure: We read the story of the tower of Babel . . . you may remember this story from your own days of Sunday school: all the people of the earth gather together to build a tower to reach the heavens. God destroys the tower, disperses the people and infuses these dispersed people with different languages.
What do I love about this story? Well, different languages imply different cultures, different thought patterns, different approaches to life. I see in this story God's insistence on and value of diversity. The God of Israel is not interested in all of us thinking alike or seeing the world from the same vantage point. Were we all cookie-cutter replications of each other we would miss the intricate nuances of both God's created world and the infinite capacities of intelligence and creativity of the human soul.
May this be a Shabbat during which we come together as a community to celebrate our God-inspired blessing of diversity.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.