Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Lech L’cha 5781 Sermon
Laila and Oliver, I’m so proud of you both. You added your voices to Torah today, becoming our teachers while showing us a new facet of Torah we may never have seen before. Laila, you showed us that in this parashah, women—Sarai and Hagar—were seen as not much more than vessels for reproduction. That they were identified and defined by their relationship to men and their ability to birth children, and they were not given voice by the text, by the authors of Torah. But, you asserted, this constricted definition of women’s lives was not God’s design or attitude. It was a limitation of the men of their generation and the authors of Torah, whereas we see God listening directly to the voices of women, a God determined to hear women’s voices and redeem them from their oppression. You could not have given us a more timely message this week.
Oliver, you then showed us that the covenant of circumcision, the defining mark of the Jewish people’s relationship with and commitment to God, cannot and should not be seen as the all-encompassing symbol of Jewish peoplehood because it excludes all Jewish women and the Jewish men who are not so marked. You did not argue that we abandon the rite, just that we expand the definition of covenant and covenantal ritual to include those currently excluded. It’s as if you were taking Laila’s critique of the Torah and applying it to our practices today—imagining a world where Jews enact an expanded definition of covenant, one which fundamentally includes all genders and all bodies, and lifts up the voices of women.
Oliver, you mentioned briefly a transformation that takes place within Avram and Sarai during the part of the portion upon which you focused. Just as they are entering the covenant with God, God changes their names, adding a letter hey to both names, making them no longer Avram and Sarai but Avraham and Sarah. The commentator Rabbeinu Bahya suggests that the two new hey’s come from the yod in Sarai’s name. That God trades out the yod (the 10th letter in the aleph bet and therefore also valued at 10) with two heys (the fifth letter of the aleph bet and therefore equivalent to the number 5), giving one hey to Avram and one to Sarai. These heys, Rabbeinu Bahya says, are the last letter in God’s four-letter name yod-hey-vav-hey. He goes on to argue that it is this divine essence they now embody that gives Abraham and Sarah the strength to have a child in their old age. That is why the name change is explained as it is in the Torah: “You shall no longer be Avram but your name will be Avraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations.”
Think about the anxiety that God is addressing in Abraham and Sarah with this name change. They left everything they knew, their families, their homes, their country, to go to an entirely new place they’d never seen before. God promised that they would parent a new people, that they would establish an entirely new way of life. But when they arrive in this promised land, there is not food or water with which to survive. Laila, you are right about Abraham’s behavior to Sarah, but let’s also remember the heightened state of fear they were in—totally unprotected as travelers into Pharaoh’s land, subject to violence, unlikely to emerge intact or at all. After they do survive, they continue to lack any actual evidence that they are on the right path, that the promise will be fulfilled. They travel from place to place, unable to figure out where to settle, getting into a land dispute with Avraham’s nephew Lot, and then getting caught up in war among all of the surrounding kings. Finally, here they are old and without children. Abraham is 99 years old. He left his home a lifetime ago to listen to the voice of God, and now he has to be asking himself if it was all a mistake. Because he has no children, and the nation that was promised seems now impossible, he asks God, “What can you give me, seeing that I will die childless?”
God’s blessing, God’s hey in Abraham and Sarah’s names, is divine reassurance that no matter how uncertain their world is, no matter how bleak it seems, no matter how anxious and worried they are about their future, they are never alone, they are bearers of God’s name and God’s blessing. God, the source of truth and justice, God, the force for the redemption of the world, is in permanent partnership with them and their descendants.
This matters to us today. I can’t remember a Shabbat when our country felt more anxious, more worried about what the future would hold. I can’t remember a Shabbat when we needed more reassurance that we are part of something larger, a movement toward redemption, a journey to a messianic age in which the world will be characterized by the true and the just, the good and the right. That is the message of this parashah—that the arc of the moral universe is longer than any of us would ever like it to be, but it does, it does, bend toward justice. That is not only what this portion is about, but what Judaism is about. The idea that history has a direction and it moves toward redemption, freedom, goodness, and love.
We have to stop and think about what Abraham’s and Sarah’s great going forth, Lech L’cha, was about. What does it mean to refuse to bow down to idols? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that fundamentally it means that they refused to bow down to power. They refused to worship power. They refused to be part of a world where might makes right, where truth and goodness and justice are irrelevant, because all that matters is power. Idol worship is not primarily about whether we pray to little statues that represent gods. It’s about the gods those statues represent—gods that are capricious and always in battle for power and domination. That’s what Ra was for the Egyptians, Baal for the Canaanites, and Zeus for the Greeks. Power. Instead, Abraham and Sarah heard a call that they could create a different kind of human reality, in which the power they worship is the force of truth and good, justice and right. A God that would use power to listen to the voice of the oppressed, that would champion the stranger and widow and the orphan, a God that values every life with lovingkindness and compassion, a God loyal to truth above all else. When they followed that voice, they affirmed that such a world could be real.
We are witnessing a mass expansion of consciousness in our generation. An expansion of consciousness that cannot be undone. We are able to see and say things about our country that we never could before, with language and awareness we did not have even four years ago. This latest spurt in our growth comes after decades of a sea change that you, Laila and Oliver, represent—a sea change in attitudes about women’s lives, LGBT lives, race and racism in America, and our relationship to the earth. We are witnessing the backlash to that forward sprint, a contraction in response to that expansion.
We do not know what will happen this week, or next week, or next month, or in January. But we do know, without a doubt, that we are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. That in our time of greatest anxiety and uncertainty, we have God’s name nestled inside of us, we are called to truth, justice, goodness, and right, we are part of that great arc of the moral universe that is bending, always bending, toward justice.
As Michelle Alexander reminded us in 2018, quoting Vincent Harding, a great voice and historian of the black freedom struggle, we are not the resistance, we are the river. “The long, continuous yearning and reaching toward freedom flows throughout history like a river, sometimes powerful, tumultuous, and roiling with life; at other times meandering and turgid, covered with the ice and snow of seemingly endless winters.” But it is flowing all the same. It cannot be stopped. Human consciousness cannot be stopped.
Whatever happens this week and over the next months, we know that this is true. The river is unstoppable and we are part of it. The hey of yod-hey-vav-hey, the Ineffable, the God of love and justice, is flowing through us.
God of the fearful and the anxious, God who accompanies our ancestors Abraham and Sarah on their journeys through the unknown, God who amplifies the voices of the poor and the oppressed through our Prophets, God who values every human life with lovingkindness, inspire us to make our voices heard. Give the people of this land the courage and the safety to cast their ballots in peace. Protect the volunteers, the poll watchers, the poll workers and the voters. Guard our streets from violence. Guard each human life, each reflection of your image, as the process of our democracy unfolds. Spread your shelter of peace over our country, that we may have a clear and peaceful outcome to our election. Heal the wounds and the divisions in our land, so that we can see one another afresh and begin the work of building our future together.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.