Lech Lecha: the covenant of Abraham and Sarah

The idea of covenant with God was already present with the narratives of Noah. In Genesis Chapter 6 we find “And God said to Noah: ‘The end of all flesh is come before Me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make an ark of gopher wood…. I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, and your sons, and your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort you will bring into the ark to keep them alive with you….So did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.”

After the flood comes another covenant – (Genesis Ch.9) “And God spoke to Noah, and to his sons with him, saying: ‘As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you… never shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; nor shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ And God said: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth. …And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.’ And God said to Noah: ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth.”

So when God makes the covenant of the pieces with Abram in Genesis 15 “And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and there was thick darkness, behold a smoking furnace, and a flaming torch that passed between these pieces. In that day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying: ‘To your seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” while we may find the description opaque, the idea of the divine promise given to one individual but extending into the future is familiar.

Parashat Lech Lecha introduces the covenant that is central to Jews and Judaism – brit milah – circumcision.  In Genesis 17 we read “God appeared to Abram, and said to him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be wholehearted. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply thee exceedingly.’ ‘ My covenant is with you and you will be the father of a multitude of nations. Your name shall not anymore be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham…And I will make you exceeding fruitful, I will make nations of you, and kings shall come out of you And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant….. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you: every male among you shall be circumcised. and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any foreigner, that is not of thy seed…must be circumcised; and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. …..And God said to Abraham: ‘As for Sarai thy wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.  And I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son of her; yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”

Judaism is based on the particular covenant relationship between God and the Jewish people. And this relationship begins with Abraham and Sarah, travelling down the generations through their son Isaac. This covenant relationship is unbreakable, however much we let God down or God lets us down. God has other covenantal relationships with humanity, but the specific Jewish relationship of responsibility and purpose is the one that underpins all Jewish teaching.

Pretty much every Jewish family circumcises their 8 day old baby boy in the ceremony of brit milah as bible requires. The child is brought in ceremonially to the mohel and blessings said, which include the blessing “who has commanded us con­cerning circumcision” and   “who has commanded us to  enter [him] into  the covenant of Abraham our father.”

Bible is clear on this – all baby boys, whether born into the Jewish family or adopted into the household, are to be given this sign in their flesh that they too are part of the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patriarchal society into which they are born, the brit is their male right – but what exactly is the position of women in this covenant so central to Jewish self-understanding?

A closer reading of our texts reveals something interesting. The covenant of the pieces, opaque and full of dark magical symbolism, is deeply patriarchal and refers to the continuity of possession and power of the Abrahamic line. There is a prefiguring of the terrifying experience at Sinai, with smoke and fire and a God who overawes. Yes the childless Abram will have heirs, countless descendants, but their fate will be difficult and painful as slaves and exiles,  until they finally inherit the land, displacing the nations living upon it. Abram himself will die peacefully in old age encountering nothing of the complex future.  The second covenant is different – here it is personal and intimate. While land and descendants are still the critical core of the covenant, here the land is an ahuzah, a family holding, rather than a nation state as in the earlier covenant. Here  Abram’s line is described in terms of family, it is described positively as being fruitful, a multitude of nations including king. There is no mention of a terrible period of time in exile and slavery, instead the focus is on the mutuality of the covenant – Abram and his line must keep the covenant as well as God, and his name is changed to show the personal transformation. And in parallel we are told that Sarai too is part of this promise, she will bear a son, and through that son nations and kings will be born, and the covenant will be held within this familial line. She too has her name changed; she too is radically altered by the encounter. This is a covenant with real people who are active in the creation and expression of the covenant, and who are transformed by the event – both have the letter ה added to their names, a letter used to signify God and both will shortly by transformed by the birth of their child.

While the sign of the covenant is to be embedded in the flesh of the male member, the covenant itself is not limited to those who carry the sign – it is enshrined in the peoplehood that descends from Abraham and Sarah, in their activity and participation.

Looking at the biblical texts we can see that each covenant apparently made with one individual is in reality made with an extension from that individual – be it the covenants with Noah that are in reality made also with his extended family or secondly with the whole of humanity, or the covenants with Abraham which extend to his descendants through Sarah, the notion of the individual limited covenant is a mistake. When we get to Sinai it is clear that while the discussion is with Moses, the covenant is actually with all the people both present and yet to be born or to choose Judaism. Moses’ speech in Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim make this clear – everyone, male, female, adult, child, high status or low – is in the covenant.

So how come we only seem to celebrate or mark the entry into the covenant of male children? How are women supposed to see themselves as integral to the covenant too?  Traditional texts assume simply that women need no such entry point. In the Talmud (avodah zarah 87a) we read a debate about who can perform circumcision. The focus is on the repeated words “himol yimol” in the passage from Genesis 17 – this can be translated as the individual must be circumcised to enter the covenant, or it can be understood as ‘the circumciser needs to be circumcised’. Following this second reading, one would imagine that only a man can act as mohel (circumcisor) and yet we know that Zipporah herself circumcised her child. From this the Talmud decides that women are classed as ‘among the circumcised’ – in other words, women are already born with the sign of the covenant in their bodies, and need no extra marking in their flesh.

What this natural state is is subject to debate – it seems to have something to do with the blood released- could it be menstruation or the ability to give birth, both of which involved natural bleeding?  Is it to do with the ability to procreate – certainly the idea of circumcision is also seen in the treatment of fruit trees whose fruit cannot be eaten for three years – they are ‘orlah’, literally ‘uncircumcised’. So possibly the act of milah is an act to make the male ‘fruitful’, something a woman is seen as being ab initio?

But while our texts understand women to be part of the covenant even without ceremony, and the traditional debate is only to clarify the reason for this, it seems to me that a real issue is being overlooked. We bring a boy child into the covenant surrounded by family and community, with great joy and love, a week after his birth. But a girl child is simply noted, a mi sheberach (blessing) recited in her father’s synagogue when neither she nor her mother are present, end of story.

It is not enough. It is not enough to say that women are on a spiritually higher level than men and therefore need not be obligated to do mitzvot. It is not enough to teach that a woman’s glory is internal, that she should be shielded from the outside world, protected from public space. It is not enough to recite platitudes to try to flatter or distract women from living full and public lives, from actively taking their place in the covenant, from operating openly in public space, their voices and ideas heard in study and in action.

By denying women a public recognition of our place in the covenant, we have slid into the position where women’s roles have become seen as lesser than those of men, where women are somehow not counted in the legal or spiritual community of Jews.  It begins to be taught that women are only in the covenant by virtue of their relationship with men – fathers or husbands or sons. It begins to be understood that women’s rights and women’s voices are contingent on their relationship with men. And then we slide into a deeply dangerous place, where women are not only removed from the public space, their voices silenced to protect male ‘sensibilities’, but women’s reality is eroded, women’s experience downplayed, and the covenant is deprived of what was clearly there at the beginning – the particular contribution of women.

Judaism is not only a religion, not only a set of beliefs, not only a genetic inheritance, not only a set of shared values and stories and way of seeing the world – it is a peoplehood in covenant with God. And that peoplehood contains a complex variety of souls. Like the lulav and etrog which are seen as symbolising the Jewish people – some with learning but no mitzvot, others with mitzvot but no learning, yet others with both learning and mitzvot and still others with no learning and no mitzvot – we encompass the full range of what is possible in a people, and we need each other to fulfil ourselves.

So the ceremonies that bring daughters into the covenant – simchat bat, zeved habat, brit bat, – these are important ceremonies and while some date to the 17th century, they are not yet in common usage across the community, nor always recognised as being more than a nice way to celebrate having a new baby in the family or to welcome a daughter into the world.

Women are, and always have been, part of the covenant. Abraham may have had to circumcise himself, but Sarah too was physically altered, bringing her child into world long past the age of childbearing. Both were named, both were transformed, both were necessary

It is time we took more seriously the rite of passage to bring a daughter into the covenant. Time to bring the creative ceremonials out of the shadows and into the mainstream liturgy and life of the synagogue community. Respect for women begins with treating the births of female children with the same communal enthusiasm and joy as the birth of male children is celebrated. From publicly entering a girl child into the covenant may come a greater understanding that women have our own part in the covenant, must explore it and explain it and be creative with it as the men have over the centuries.

Merle Feld’s poem “We all stood together at Sinai” is a salutary reminder of what happens when we don’t give equal value time and space to women’s covenant experience.

We All Stood Together   By Merle Feld   (for Rachel Adler)

My brother and I were at Sinai
He kept a journal
of what he saw
of what he heard
of what it all meant to him

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down

And then
As time passes
The particulars
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
The feeling

But feelings are just sounds
The vowel barking of a mute

My brother is so sure of what he heard
After all he’s got a record of it
Consonant after consonant after consonant

If we remembered it together
We could recreate holy time
Sparks flying

 

 

 

 

 

Lech Lecha: We Journey Towards our Selves

Abram’s journey, the expedition which is also the start of the journey of the Jewish people to the land of Canaan, begins with the words “ Lech Lecha” , a strangely poetic and formulaic compound meaning something like ‘go for yourself’ or ‘go into yourself’, or even the rather enigmatic ‘go towards yourself’. Without any introduction God tells Abram to leave his parental home behind, to take his entire family and go to a foreign land he does not, and cannot, know.   Doing this will incur God’s blessing for Abram and his descendants.

   לֵךְ לךָ

The bible tells us tantalisingly little about what is being left behind. There is a little written about Abram’s father Terach, but nothing about his wife, or about Sarah’s parents. But even so, the wrench through which they are torn from their past is almost palpable. We can imagine the feelings of the travellers who may never again see their home and their families, and we can imagine too the desolate feelings of those loved ones who are left behind.

The blessing/promise that God gave to Abram and Sarai comes in four parts: Firstly God promised to make them a great nation. Then there was the offer of divine blessing. This is followed by the promise to make their name great, and finally the exhortation ‘Be a blessing’.

This four fold pledge to Abram and Sarai has been interpreted again and again, and the many and various commentators have each offered vastly differing ideas about what it all means – the only consistent factor is that each commentator expounds within his own particular historical reality so that midrashic commentators who lived in days of peace and prosperity for the Jews as much as for their neighbours could really believe that a great nation would mean they would have many children, that God’s blessing could only mean material prosperity, and a great name imply straightforward fame.

A commentator in medieval Russia or Poland though would not see the text in the same way, “A great nation must mean greatness of quality, not quantity” laments one rabbi who sees the toll that centuries of pogroms have taken on the Jewish population. Another bemoans the fact that for Jews the blessing of wealth is a temporary phenomenon, lasting at the most a generation or two.

The truth is, as we know, that every generation makes its own journey, and every generation has to contend with the situation it finds itself in. In every generation we act out the leaving, we find ourselves at the beginning of something new again, we relive the pain of the parting, the fear of the unknown, the response to a call of blessing or else the need to leave behind something that is no longer a tenable way of life for us. We did it, our parents did it, our grand parents did it – and theirs. And our children too will at some point undertake the journey – the Lech Lecha that is in our essential being.

The creature of popular imagination – the wandering Jew – begins with Abraham, who describes himself as an IVRI – one who has crossed over. Haran, the place where Abram and Sarai lived at the time we met them (they had, after all, travelled with Terach already from Ur of the Chaldees) means ‘crossroads’ – they are par excellence the people who move from one area to another, across boundaries, through the margins. Although promised the land of Canaan they remain essentially rootless for most of the stories, and by the time of Sarah’s death we still don’t have a clear picture of whether they had pitched their tent together and settled down. Only by the time of Abraham’s burial at the cave of Machpelah alongside his wife, do we get a sense that they have finally stopped all their restless travelling.

This continual movement, the habitual crossing of limits and of confines, is probably our greatest – although certainly our most uncomfortable – blessing.   Because we never get too settled we are able to retain a particularity, the clarity of perspective of the outsider, we are able to retain a sense of the ‘otherness’ of the ‘other. We are able to bring many strands and streams of culture and philosophy into how we view the world, how we operate in it., and we move between different worlds with great ease. It seems that the word ‘cosmopolitan’ has become almost a code word for ‘Jew’ in some quarters.

But there is a price to be paid for our being Ivri’im, and it can be a high one. Measured out in suspicion and mistrust, in persecution and even murder, we have many times paid a terrible cost. We know this, but it has never stopped us following the imperatives God gave to Abram – “Lech Lecha” – “Go to and for yourself”; “Hayei Bracha” – Be a blessing.

There is pain in leaving and there is pain in being left behind – and the pain is all the greater when the travelling doesn’t come from active and willing choice, but from the forces around us. In the last few years there have been published a plethora of books of personal stories from the years of the holocaust, an outpouring of memories that have been held and contained quietly within so many people, suppressed while they lived their active lives, attaining qualifications, working hard, marrying and bringing up children. Now is the time to tell the real stories of those Lech Lecha’s, and emerging from these stories is an echo of the pain and confusion of leaving the parental home with its security and its warmth and love. I never fail to be moved to tears when I read of the separation for ever of children and their parents, of partners and friends. This is part of our historical reality, but it is hard to find any sense of God within it.

But there is another part to the Lech Lecha of setting out on the journey, and that is that while bonds are inevitably broken and families ruptured beyond repair, the journey itself brings new experiences, often a broadening of horizons, and most importantly it seems to me that we recreate family and community alongside those with whom we journey.

I am the daughter of a German Jew who came to England as a young teenager alone, leaving parents and extended family behind. I grew up in a synagogue community made up predominantly of survivors, and I remember not only the pain in their eyes, but also the dedicated devotion to create a vibrant and warm synagogue community. I remember the Jews who gave up their time to teach me and the other children of the community bible and siddur, albeit with strongly German accented Hebrew and English. I remember the Jews who gave up their evenings to plan for Jewish festivals to be both educational and fun, the Jews who gave free rein on the bimah to the young teenagers on the community because they knew that everyone should be able to take a service – you never knew when you might find yourself in a place where there was no one able to lead it for you. Few of them had roots more than a few years old in the community, yet they made roots for themselves and for their families. They settled in the main, though their children have generally moved on again to larger cities. But they did indeed make, if not a great nation, then a wonderful Jewish community and a link in the chain of tradition. They may not have noticeably received a divine blessing, but they did make for themselves a good name, and they lived out the imperative to be a blessing. When I look back at the journeys of the generations immediately before mine, the perilous journeys from what seemed to be simply called “Russia” at the beginning of the last century, or the terrified fleeing of Europe in the early middle part of it, and I see the fruits of those journeys, I see that we continually travel towards ourselves, as well as for ourselves. This strangely poetic formula is the only one to do justice to the journey.riga old synagogue memorial (Picture of Synagogue Ruins Memorial in Riga )