Summary (read the portion by clicking here):
Lech Lecha is the portion where the first couple is introduced. At the beginning they are still called Sarai and Avram, and at the end of the portion they have their names changed to Sarah and Avraham.
The text refuses to give you a reason for Avram being chosen, and all the stories you know about it (that Avram smashes his father’s idols; that he sees the world on fire and so on) are all midrashim [read them by clicking here and here]. They are not present in the Torah text. Very important difference.
As we read this portion, we have the following arc: Avram continues the travel to the land that God will show him, together with Sarai and Lot. There is a famine and Avram goes down to Egypt, where he pretends Sarai is his sister; she’s taken to Pharao’s palace and they eventually get out. Avram is very rich by then, and so Lot and he need to separate since the land can’t sustain all their herds. Lot choses to live in Sodom. Then a war breaks between four kings against five, and the king of Sodom is one of them. Lot is taken captive and Avram sets out to take Lot back, vanquishing the four kings.
After that incident, comes one of the most obscure passages in Avram’s life, the covenant between the pieces. Both the war and the covenant are in our triennial reading.
The portion will end with Sarai making Avram and Hagar conceive Ishmael, just to have Isaac promised to her 13 years later, as God changes Avram’s and Sarai’s names to Avraham and Sarah and getting Avraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household.
My question for us today is: How do you understand what happens after the war, between Avram, the king of Sodom and this priest called Melchitzedek? The destruction of Sodom hasn’t happened yet, but is there something foreshadowing it? If this is one of Avram’s tests – remember, our tradition recons ten tests for Avram – what is the test? Do you think he passed it?
[There are different opinions of how to count the tests. Everyone agrees that sending Yishmael away and the Binding of Isaac were tests, as was Sarai in the court of Pharaoh, the war, and circumcision. Some count the act of going out; some count a faceoff with Nimrod that happened in a midrash; some count facing famine in the promised land and having to go down to Egypt, some count having Hagar as a second wife, some count sending both Hagar and Yishmael away, some count Sarah with Avimelech, some count the covenant between the pieces itself, some count standing up for Sodom and Gomorrah, some count Sarah’s burial. Click here for list one, two, three, four]
So I want to point out that the idea of dissention and war appears strongly in this moment of Avram’s life. Just before the war we read the separation between Avram and his nephew, because the land can’t support all their herds, and the herdsmen fight. At that moment we see a different side of Avram, a side that the midrash will say is how the world is sustained: by those who do not engage in a quarrel, and do not let discord become a fight. Avram lets Lot make the choice: if you go left I will go right, if you go right I will go left, let us just not fight.
Which is a deep contrast with Avram in the very next chapter: the war breaks, an unnamed survivor tells Avram that Lot has been taken captive, in a series of five active verbs in two sentences, Avram liberates all those who are captive [here’s a map] [here are tar pits, I find them fascinating]. Once he does that the king of Sodom and the King of Shalem – previously unmentioned – come to meet Avram. The King of Shalem, who moonlights as a priest of El Elyion, God Most High, blesses Avram who gives him a donation. It is at this junction that the King of Sodom asks Avram for the persons, but not the possessions. And Avram refuses the possessions.
If we are going to see the arc of the story of Avram and possessions, we see how central possessions were up to this moment, and still are in the Covenant of the Pieces. Avram gets financially comfortable out of the lie that Sarai is his sister at the beginning of the story, and his possessions keep growing from then on. At this point maybe he has come to a place of understanding that possessions matter little if you don’t go after your principles – in this case, liberating Lot and the rest of the people from a life of slavery most probably. The text says: “Lot, the women and the rest of the people.”
In that sense we can understand the dispute with Lot and then the war as Avram growing into the realization that stuff matters less than relationships and people.
The Chasidic commentators will make sure that we read the text closely – the King of Sodom says:
תֶּן־לִ֣י הַנֶּ֔פֶשׁ וְהָרְכֻ֖שׁ קַֽח־לָֽךְ
Literally: Give me the soul, and the possessions take for yourself
That Sodom was a bad place we will be informed in the next portion, but you and I know that places and countries don’t turn bad suddenly. Just like milk begins to sour, and the taste becomes acid before a full blown curdling, there is a process for people and cities and countries. If you chose to read the text in its basic Hebrew, you have a king asking for the people back in exchange for things. And Avram not willing to see himself as a bounty hunter of sorts, a paid militia, but as someone who did this because it was the right thing to do.
But if you want to read it in a symbolic way, what is the King asking? Your soul for the money. Give me the soul. Your soul. Which is to say: “Stay stuck in the concept of possessions, of amassing things, and your soul will be mine.” The King of Sodom is seen as the symbol of the impulse for selfishness, for thinking only about ourselves, for wanting to have stuff instead of being and becoming good people.
It is not anymore “your money or your life” – it is your money or your very soul. Your essence. And it is by saying – I am my values, I am on the side of anti-slavery, I want freedom for the people and for myself that Avram merits the next step – the vision of the Covenant Between the Pieces.
The covenant between the pieces, which has this name because Avram has to split the bodies of certain animals, is laden with symbolic meaning. So laden that already many commentators see this as a dream, and not a prophetic vision – in part because of the image of the torch passing through the pieces.
After promising that Avram will have an innumerable quantity of descendants – the number of stars – God then asks five different animals of Avram. All of them kosher, three of them need to be meshulash, which is rendered as “three-year old”. And after slaughtering the animals, he has to cut the big ones in two pieces. So notice the number pattern already: two, three, five. And as one vulture comes down – God talks about Avram’s descendants, who will stay in Egypt for four hundred years. This is such an important moment that it figures in the Hagaddah: it was said that our slavery was going to happen. And the same way it was promised, its end was promised and again – here is the presence of possessions. The descendants will come out with “rechush gadol”, many possessions.
And I think the question that this story is asking us is – have we resolved our relationship with possessions? How do we respond, we, here, today, in an America that gives us a fairly comfortable life, how do we respond, as descendants of Avraham, to the question: your soul or your stuff?