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Lech L'cha 2021

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

As the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob, I serve as the Jewish chaplain for St. Paul’s School here in Concord. And every fall, I am invited to speak before the student body, faculty, and administration when the entire community comes together for chapel time. Chapel time happens four mornings each week, and this year they had me come twice – right after Yom Kippur and during Sukkot.

St. Paul’s, as I’m sure most of you know, is an Episcopal school, though many of the students are neither Episcopalian nor even Christian. In fact, approximately 13% of the student body is Jewish, the second largest religiously identified group after Christians. The chapel time at St. Paul’s gives the community the opportunity to learn about many different faith and spiritual traditions.

When I speak in the fall, it is of course, for me to speak about the fall Jewish holy days. I spend a lot of time in advance thinking about ways in which Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot are connected. One way, is through the lens of teshuvah, the idea of returning or turning.

Rosh Hashanah is the time that we return or turn to ourselves. We ask the questions – who am I, who do I want to be, and what changes do I need to make to get there.

Yom Kippur is the time that we return or turn to God. We seek God’s forgiveness for our mistakes, errors, lapses in judgments, and other missteps. We pray for the strength to ask for forgiveness from those who we’ve hurt and to offer it to those who have hurt us.

Sukkot is the time that we return or turn to others. Tradition teaches us to put together two pieces of our sukkah on the very evening that we break the fast in order that we move out of the place of introspection and back into the world around us. Sukkot is the time that we focus on the fragility of the world, we invite guests to dine with us, and we make tzedakah, contributions for the needy.

As I looked at this week’s Torah portion, we see that this cycle of returning and turning – to ourselves, to God, and to others – (1) is universal, and (2) should not be limited to the fall holidays.

Our portion this week is Lech L’cha, the first time we meet Abraham and Sarah, the first of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Abraham will be with us for three parshiot – Lech L’cha, Vayera, and Chaye Sarah. And in each portion, Abraham returns or turns – first to himself, then to God, and then to others.

In Lech L’cha, Abraham hears the voice of God, who issues a command. Lech is fairly simple – go! Some claim that this message is so important, that God says it twice – lech and l’chabeing the nearly identical word in Hebrew, just different vowels. But it’s also possible to translate l’cha not as a form of “to go,” but rather, as a propositional phrase. Trust me on this. I’d rather not go off into a grammar lesson.

For Rashi, the 11th century French rabbi and biblical commentator, that is the more correct translation. He suggests that Lech, meaning “Go,” is followed by the word l’cha, meaning “for you.” Thus, he interprets the phrase Lech l’cha to mean “Go for your own benefit, for your own good.”

The modern rabbi and author Kerry Olitzky plays with both interpretations. First, he claims, that one command, lech, is not enough. It has to be repeated in such a way so as to make sure that Abraham fully comprehends the thrust of God’s instruction.

In addition, he says, the full phrase Lech L’cha can mean “Go for yourself, for your own sake. Not for the sake of the community, not for the sake of others, but for you, for your own well-being. Get out of this place; it is the only way that you can grow spiritually. If you remain here you will stagnate.”

A third idea is that l’cha means “to yourself,” not “for yourself.” Thus, Abraham is being told to go out to become who he was meant to be – the father or patriarch of a new nation, a new tribe, the Israelites who will in time become the Jewish people.

Next week, in parashat Vayera, Abraham seems ready to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Only when he turns to God to truly understand God’s message to him does he lay down the knife. And a week later, in Chaye Sarah, Abraham engages with his hosts, the Hittites, in order to secure a proper burial place for his wife. He then sends his trusted servant Eleazar out to find a wife for his son, Isaac. So after Lech L’cha, where Abraham turns to himself, he turns to God, and then to other people.

Turning to self, turning to God, turning to others – that is the pattern for us all. We must begin with ourselves. It is impossible to turn to God and then to others if we are not true to ourselves first. If we fail to know ourselves, care about ourselves, and love ourselves, how can we ever know, care about or love God or others? Torah teaches us to be our authentic selves first and foremost.

My favorite story about this concerns Zusia.

Once Zusia came to his followers. His eyes were red with tears, and his face was pale with fear.

“Zusia, what’s the matter? You look frightened!” they cried out.

“The other day, I had a vision. In it, I learned the question that the angels will ask me about my life after I die.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusia, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusia turned his gaze to heaven. “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’”

His followers persisted. “So, what will they ask you?”

“And I have learned,” Zusia sighed, “that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the Promised Land?’”

One of his followers approached Zusia and placed his hands on Zusia’s shoulders. Looking him in the eyes, the follower demanded, “But what will they ask you?”

“They will say to me, ‘Zusia, there was only one thing that no power of heaven or earth could have prevented you from becoming.’ They will say, ‘Zusia, why weren’t you more like Zusia?’”

The mystics understand Lech L’cha to mean: “Go to the root of your soul.” It is our duty to be ourselves, know ourselves, and not hide ourselves from the world. In coming to terms with who we are, we can maximize our talents, and push ourselves to the outer limits of our abilities, thereby bringing the root of our souls to flower. In this way, we touch God and all those around us. And by doing so, we will be, at least, our own “Zusias.”

Shabbat shalom.

Tue, December 7 2021 3 Tevet 5782