Parashat Lekh L’kha

By Helene Santo

This week’s parashah, Lekh L’kha, opens with God saying to Avram:”Lekh l’kha (Go), me’artz’kha (from your land), mimolad’t’kha (from where you were born or according to other translations: from your family), umibeit avikha (and from your father’s house), el ha-aretz asher ar’eka (to a land that I will show you).” (Gen. 12:1)

Three years ago on this parashah, my daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah. She wondered whether how and even if God wrote the Torah. When she read that opening line, she asked what Avram heard. Did he hear a big booming voice? Did he hear a voice inside his head? Or did he hear something so supernatural it could be nothing but God? Most importantly, does it matter?

Many people believe that God literally dictated the Torah-the Five Books of Moses-to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But there are many parts of the Torah itself that suggest that Moses did not serve as a secretary writing down what God said. Even the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra notes that, in this parashah, after God speaks to Avram, Avram takes his wife, Sarai, his nephew, Lot, and all his belongings and leaves for Canaan. We read: Vaya`avor Avram ba’aretz `ad m’kom sh’khem `ad aylon moreh v’ha-c’na-ani az ba’aretz (Avram went through the land until m’kom sh’chem, until aylon moreh. And the Cananite was still, or then, in the land.) (Genesis 12:4) Ibn Ezra is struck by the use of the word az-meaning “then” or “still.” “The Canaanite was then in the land.” The “then” implies that they weren’t there any more when the narrator was telling the story. So if the narrator were Moses, this would not make any sense because the Canaanites were still there in Moses’ time.

Ibn Ezra therefore comments: yitakhen she’eretz k’na’an t’fasah k’na`an miyad acher, v’im einenu, kahn yesh lo sod, v’hamaskil yidom (It could be that the land of Canaan was seized by Canaan from someone else. If not, there is a secret.And the enlightened one will be silent.)

If the Canaanites were not in the land at the time the Torah was written, even though they were present in Moses’ day and age, then perhaps Ibn Ezra is suggesting that the Torah was not written (at least not completely transcribed) by Moses at Mount Sinai. This implies there was a human hand in the writing of the Torah, or following a different metaphor, the Torah is more than God’s voice as heard and transcribed by Moses, but rather some sort of continuing conversation that God conducts with and through humanity.

Ibn Ezra says “hamaskil yadom – the enlightened should keep silent” about the secret. With a firm belief in literal revelation or Torah MiSinai, some traditionalists must view Ibn Ezra’s comment as somewhat threatening, even heretical.In several Orthodox chumashim Ibn Ezra’s commentary on this verse is omitted without comment.

Are they leaving his commentary out because they disagree with him or are they simply listening to him and keeping it a secret from the unenlightened?

Ibn Ezra was a well-respected Jewish scholar and poet, and centuries later his commentaries are typically placed alongside Rashi’s in Chumashim the world over. Even so, in his time, he could not (or would not) freely discuss the possibility of a human voice in the conversation we call Torah.He would only suggest it in the most veiled of ways.

We are at a critical time in the world. The voices of fundamentalism, often amplified through the loudspeakers of political power, are rising and claim to be speaking in God’s name, with God’s voice, to the exclusion of others. To counter these voices, we must insist that we, too, were at Sinai, and we still now “see the voices” and they are plural. God speaks in the voices of pluralism, in voices that resonate differently with each of us in our own age. We who have listened, and “see the voices,” are entitled and obligated to join God in the Divine conversation we call Torah.