Parashat Lekh-Lekha

by Rabbi David Almog
People Following God and God Following People

For generations, readers of the Bible have admired Avram’s emigration to Canaan at the start of Parashat Lekh Lekha as a quintessential act of faith. One can only imagine a divine voice giving a command to uproot one’s life and one’s family to travel to an unspecified location. As Midrash Lekah Tov explains, the reason for the vague instruction was to grant Avram “merit for each and every step” he took while following God with such pure devotion. He could not have been sure if he was going to a good land, where he and his family could prosper. On the other hand, looking back to the previous parashah, one can easily interpret that the impetus for choosing the land of Canaan was entirely one of human making, which God “ratifies”, so to speak. This would neither be the first nor the last time that the Torah seems to describe God following humanity’s lead, learning from human beings, and adjusting accordingly. Alternatively, the Torah may be portraying God as the hidden hand behind human events, guiding history to match divine will. This ambiguity, whether people follow God or God follows people, facilitates a powerful, even radical, set of theological possibilities, whether interpreted literally, metaphorically, mystically, or simply as a literary trope.

In Genesis chapter 9, in Parashat Noah, the Torah tells us, once again, of Noah’s three sons, Shem, Ham and Yafet, who survive on the ark. Peculiarly, the reader is also informed that Ham has a son named Canaan. Perhaps the verse merely intends to tell us that Canaan was already on the Ark, but, Ibn Ezra points out an alternative reading related to unfolding narrative. Shortly after leaving the ark, Noah plants a vineyard and becomes drunk on wine, upon which he becomes exposed. Ham sees that his father is naked, and informs his brothers. They act dutifully and respectfully by covering him up, walking backwards so as not to see him naked. When Noah awakens, the Torah explains that he knew “et asah lo b’no hakatan”, “what his young[est] son did to him.” (Gen 9:24) Many readers interpret this as an act of indecency by Ham, leading to Noah’s curse, although, the text, as well as the nature of the misdeed, is much less clear. The Torah characterizes the one who acted untoward to Noah as “hakatan“, which usually means young or youngest. But, is Ham the youngest? Some classical commentaries explain that Ham was the youngest in character, immature and wicked, even if not in age. Others, like Nahmanides, suggest that Ham was, in fact, the youngest, despite the order of the presentation of their names. Ibn Ezra, however, explains that the perpetrator is, in fact, Canaan, who is the youngest son of Ham. That is why Canaan is the one who is cursed. Whatever interpretation is most accurate, Noah curses Canaan, that he will be subdued and enslaved to Shem and Yafet. Indeed, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the descendants of Shem (“Semites”), and God promises to give the land of Canaan to them.

A clear connection to our Torah portion can be made from the very next chapter in the list of Noah’s descendants and the borders of their lands. One of the borders of Canaan is described as “boakha s’doma va’amora v’adma u’tzvoyim ad lasha“, “towards Sodom, Gomorrah, Adma and Zeboyim, as far as Lasha” (Gen 10:19). Returning to Parashat Lekh Lekha, the Canaanite cities of Sodom, Gomorrah, Adma and Zeboyim, play a key role in the story of Abraham. At the beginning of chapter 14, in the “War of the Kings”, these cities, along with Tzoar, are conquered by a contingency of powerful rulers. Avram’s nephew Lot, who lives in Sodom, is caught up in the war, and Avram rescues him with only a small contingent of fighters, defeating the conquering armies and proving his own dominance of the land. Abraham was positioned to fulfill the destiny set for Shem. However, he does not conquer these territories, but, instead, refuses to take anything.

The reader is left to ponder, why does God lead Avram to this land? Why was it chosen? One plausible answer is that God simply accepts the determination of Noah, and leads Avram, the descendant of Shem, to Canaan. God is following a human being in doing so. On the other hand, the fact that the war of the Kings occurs and offers Avram the chance to become a powerful force who subdues the land of the Canaan, implies an inevitability to his place in the land. In that regard, Avram and all of the players seem to be following an unfolding plan; a divine plan which may have always been in place.

For the modern reader, these stories can be as ambiguous as our relationship to the Divine itself. For some readers, God continues to act behind history, and current events can be seen in that light. For others, there is a danger in such an approach, creating justifications out of historical happenstance or self-fulfilling prophecies. I believe, the more interesting lesson is the lesson for one’s personal spiritual life. The possibility of God learning from and responding to us, whether as literary contrivance or mystical reality, while fraught with a risk of hubris, is also a reminder of how holiness can touch all aspects of our lives. The manner in which we interact with our world, with love or anger, compassion or selfishness, justice or oppression, shapes the way we experience God within it.


Rabbi David Almog teaches rabbinic literature at AJR and is completing his PhD at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.