Cantor David Lipp
Rabbis are uncomfortable with biblical redundancy, and the opening of Lech Lecha offers an opportunity for such discomfort.
A short Hebrew lesson: Hebrew has four tenses – past, present, future and command! Lech Lecha is in command mode. Literally, You go. Or, in Hebrew order, Go you!
But in Hebrew, the command lech implies and includes “you.” The lecha is grammatically redundant, unnecessary.
Rashi begs to differ with me. He says the “you” is there to emphasize that Avram needs to complete the trip to the place God will show him so he will merit having children, as the Talmud relates.
I don’t disagree with Rashi, but I would like to make his point by suggesting that God is on a learning curve. Let me explain.
In the previous portion, before checking closely, I had assumed that Noah never speaks. God says, Build an ark; Noah builds. Get the animals; he gets the animals. Load the family; loaded. Leave the ark; left.
Then Noah discovers viticulture – wine. He gets drunk and somehow Ham or Canaan sees or does something disrespectful to dear old dad while finding him naked in his tent. For the first time before Noah’s story is over, he speaks. He curses Canaan and Ham, blesses Shem and notes Japheth. In other words, he waits until he has a hangover to say something, and, lo and behold, his first words are to curse one of his kids.
Let’s compare and contrast this case with Avram, whose first time speaking is immediately after entering the land, being faced with a famine, having to escape to Egypt and begging his wife to dissemble who she is so he won’t be killed on her behalf. Avram gets into some hot water with later commentators for treating his wife so cavalierly and not trusting in God’s salvation.
But perhaps, as Rashi noted earlier, this is the point of the extra lecha – that extra “you” – for your benefit. God has promised Avram a blessing, a future, a partnership. But God has a learning curve when it comes to creating relationships, with this being made in the divine image. Adam and Eve are given one command they cannot keep. Noah is righteous and obedient, but he has a hard time handling his survival. God needs one of those images to communicate with, not just to disregard or blindly obey. God brings Avram to the land of promise, only to seemingly break that promise to get him to use his words on his own behalf to literally save his life.
Hasidic commentators read the extra lecha differently than Rashi. They say that God wants Avram to “look inside himself,” spiritually.
After half a year of isolating ourselves from friends and often family, we’ve had to find ways to look inside ourselves, to experience ourselves far more intensely than we are accustomed to. Some of us have indulged in Noah’s discovery more than we used to.
How much more important for us to use our words carefully and thoughtfully with one another. It’s hard enough to get communication right when we are in 3-D living color. How much more difficult and delicate when we must depend on reading our fellow divine images on screens, negotiating muting, micro-delays and constant distractions – visual and aural.
We are all now navigating a reality – places – that God is showing us, places we, like Avram, never anticipated reaching.
Let’s reinforce our inner resources to come out more resilient and capable of handling the challenges that will confront us in the days, months and years to come, in whatever that new normal will be.
Using our words is more important than ever.
(Cantor David Lipp is a spiritual leader at Adath Jeshurun.)