Parshat Lech Lecha

Sefer Bereshit is full of stories, some chapters long, others lasting only a few sentences. They range in subject matter from great floods to famines to brothers selling other brothers to wars between kings. At first glance, they are connected only by virtue of the fact that each story has some part in the formation of the character of the Jewish people. Upon closer examination, though, the whole of Sefer Bereshit can be viewed as one large story with many chapters. What story begins with the creation of the universe and ends only with the descent of Bnei Yisrael in to Egypt? What story necessitates the sequel describing forty years roaming in the desert, and the conquering and establishment of an independent nation after that?

The story we read in Sefer Bereshit, and expound upon in the rest of Tanach, is that of G-d choosing the Jewish people. It begins with the creation of the world, of G-d trying, twice, to choose all of humanity. Adam and Eve fail to listen to G-d’s one instruction, and though there are some who “walked with G-d” (Bereshit 5:24), for the most part, humanity was not behaving as it should have, and by the generation of Noah, G-d saw it necessary to destroy the world. This is when we see the beginning of the process of selection. G-d chooses Noah, a man righteous in his generation (Bereshit 6:9), to be the new father of humanity. Noah follows G-d’s commands, builds an ark and board it with only his wife and children – not his parents, friends, or siblings. He spends months in this ark, without interaction with the world being destroyed outside. When he finally leaves, he finds nothing; the world he knew is gone. As he gives sacrifices to G-d, G-d himself reaches a new understanding about humanity. They are “yetzer lev haAdam rah meneurav” (Bereshit 8:21). There are many ways to translate this pasuk, but according to all opinions one thing is clear: G-d has ceased to expect perfection from all of humanity. He theological implications of this verse are for another time. Noah, himself chosen to be the new father of humanity, succumbs to drunkenness in later life, and is publicly embarrassed by one of his children. We see further failures of humanity after the flood in the story of Migdal Bavel.

Why do I focus on Noah in an essay on Parshat Lech Lecha? The stories of the generations before Avram are an integral prelude to the command “Lech lecha”. Without knowing the history of humanity before Avram, we have no context, no understanding G-d commanded Avram, nor why he chose only him. With the benefit of context, once we see what Noah was tasked with, and how he failed, we can see some of the reason behind G-d’s command. Already G-d had tried to hold humanity as a whole to a high standard. That failed with Adam and Eve, with Cain and Able, with the Bnei HaElokim and the Bnot HaAdam. So G-d tried to start humanity over, with the holiest man then alive. Perhaps with only his influence, humanity would be better. But Noah himself was unable to maintain his high standards of behavior, and the generations after only compounded that failure. Instead of destroying the world and starting over yet again, this time G-d has accepted some of the inherent weaknesses of humanity. G-d decides to improve the world by starting with one righteous man and his family, by starting with Avram and Sarai. Though the selection doesn’t end until Jacob, the first person to have all his children stay in the fold, the story of the Jewish people starts here, with the first of our forefathers.

G-d has already tried holding all of humanity to a higher standard. It hasn’t worked. Perhaps this is what the famous Midrash about the Torah being presented to each of the nations of the world is truly about. The world was given a chance to follow G-d’s will, first with Adam and Eve, and an entirely fresh start with Noah. Both times we failed. Lech Lecha is the beginning of a new model, with one group obligated to hold themselves to the standard that perhaps G-d would hold the world to, if only the world could stand up to it.

Understood loosely, the phrase “lech lecha” can mean not simply go for yourself, but more broadly, go for yourself, so you can be the beginning of the re-invigoration of the world with belief in G-d, monotheism, and general good deeds, a re-invigoration which will eventually become the task of the Jewish people as a whole. Avram is given the opportunity to be at the forefront of a revolution. Lech Lecha is only the beginning.

Student Studying in Migdal Oz