By Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit
Parshat Lech Lecha
Dedicated to the all the sacred work of mesnchwork.org and my father Lester, on his journey with Alzheimer’s into a land where knowing is no longer a given.
“Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, his daughter-in-law Sarai… and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan. But when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there…and Terah died in Haran. God said to Abram, Lech lecha (get yourself up and go or go into yourself) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you…and you will be a blessing…” (Genesis 11:31-32, 12:1,2)
While this week’s parshah was sectioned to begin by the sages to begin at Bereshit (Genesis 12), in the Torah scroll there are no chapters and verses, only columns, indentations and a little space between the five books. Honoring this, one can see from the text above that the idea that Avram wakes up one morning to a unique Divine realization and call to go to Canaan is a recommitment and reaffirmation of the journey he was on — not a “eureka!” moment. Even the character of Avram’s father, Terah, so textured by midrash and interpretative stories, is not reduced to an idol-maker that Avram challenges and breaks from (Genesis Rabbah, chapter 38).
Rather, he takes the initiative to leave his ancestral homeland, fueled by the death of his son Haran, and enables the extended family (including Haran’s son Lot of future fame), to leave painful memories and explore new horizons. Interestingly, his dream of Canaan becomes his son Avram’s dream, and Terah dies in a city midway between Ur and Canaan, named after his deceased son. Perhaps the Torah narrative is inviting us to look at what we leave behind that in fact goes with us — mourning grief or trauma that is unaddressed goes where we go. We may even break free physically and yet be ultimately slowed, immobilized and even meet our end as Terah did, in the place internally, or in external work or family circumstances that carries the name and burden of the very past we left.
What then is the new Lech Lecha Avram experiences? What of Sarai and Lot’s own spiritual journeys and how do they co-influence each other to hear the Divine call to get up and leave the place their father was only able to go so far into? What is the deep internal life Avram touches so that he hears or experiences the call to take the inner truth and express it in action fulfilling a vision that is at once his and the Universe’s call and a legacy he is fulfilling l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation?
Even though I grew up with a rich and mostly positive Jewish familial and community experience in Winnipeg and Toronto, I began searching for something more in my connection with other men in a mutually shared context in my late twenties. Just before I moved to Philadelphia to study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1993, I met Yosaif August and other Jewish men at the 1993 ALEPH Berkeley Kallah, and we began co-creating our own North American gatherings, literally beginning with parshat Lech Lecha as a focal point over 25 years ago. This grew into what became the annual Jewish Men’s Retreat (next up on Nov. 13-15, 2020) with regional gatherings as well. Between 80 and 90 of us gather from across Canada and the United States, with a solid contingent of Philadelphia area men.
In 2016, we founded our own nonprofit Menschwork (menschwork.org), which supports men to become mensches — men of compassion, integrity and spirit — in their families, communities and in the larger world. We develop transformative program models, deliver programs and create resources that encourage men to take the bold next steps in their journeys as empowered mensches. The connection among men created by these programs is deep and abiding. We continue to bring our individual stories and callings into our mutually supportive leadership roles and gatherings, where we also influence each other on the shared journey to a new and expanded understanding of Jewish life and masculinities.
Recent revelations have shed light on the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of men in power in the entertainment, corporate and political spheres up to the highest offices. The egregious reality is that these behaviors are not new and are at every level of our society especially toward women, gay and bisexual, transgender or gender-fluid men and women. Our efforts are more imperative than ever. If anything, building trust between us and learning how to relate to each other as men beyond the avenues previously afforded, allows us to push past, challenge and change the larger cultural norms of male competition and control, and the damage we have done and are doing to each other and our precious planet in the process. Prior generations have begun this journey, and yet there is a place we still need to “lech lecha” toward greater progress for all.
Like the charge to Avram to become all that he might become, to grow into Avraham in a new place he did not know and then be blessed, so we are asked to expand our self-image to more fully reflect the values and Godly potential in our lives. Then we will come to know the blessing we inherently are meant to be — not at the cost of others along the way — rather for the benefit of humanity (adam) and the future sustainability of the adamah, the earth itself.
Rabbi Shawn Zevit is the lead rabbi for Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and a consultant, teacher, author, spiritual director, musician and community organizer. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.