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Parashat Lekh Lekha

October 13, 2010

By Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay

On Wednesday, June 23rd, two days before my final service as rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth of Mount Sinai, I was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. As my primary care physician gave me the news, I held my telephone in my left hand and ran the fingers of my right hand fiercely through my hair and asked myself, “What do I do now?” I had a choice. I could collapse in fear and shake with anger and crawl into a dark hole. But I chose instead to answer myself with, “Go forward.” I could not return to the life I led before my doctor’s call; I could only go forward to the life that lay ahead. I knew I would not go forward alone. I would have my wife and daughters and their families, my sister and her family, my personal friends and Temple friends and my merciful and compassionate God. From that moment, this is what I have done: I go forward.

Although the parashah that week in June was Hukkat, my bar mitzvah portion, my mind was on Lekh Lekha, the “going forward” Torah portion. In this portion, Abraham is called upon by God to leave his country and his family to go forward in a relationship with God. His wife, Sarah, and his nephew, Lot, accompany him. In time, as Sarah bears no child, Abraham takes Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar, as his wife, and Ishmael is born. As a sign of the Covenant between God and Abraham and his descendants, Abraham circumcises himself and all the males in his household.

From the time I entered The Academy for Jewish Religion as a rabbinical student in 1993 and began using my middle name, Abraham (also my Hebrew name) my biblical namesake, Abraham, has been my constant companion, in the middle, if you will, of everything I do. At that moment, when my life was changed forever, I turned to Abraham.

For Rashi, Lekh, means more than “Go!” – somewhere. To Rashi, because Lekh,
“Go!” is followed by the word Lekha, “for you,” he interprets the phrase to mean “for your own benefit, for your own good.” Today, centuries later, a modern Torah commentator echoes Rashi’s words and adds to them.

To Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, Lekh means “Go for yourself, for your own sake. Not for the sake of the community, not for the sake of others. The Torah uses the emphatic form as the lead… in order to make sure that Abraham understands the force of the directive. One command (lekh) is not enough. It has to be repeated in such a way so as to make sure that Abraham – and we, by extension, as those who engage the Torah – fully comprehend the thrust of the Torah’s instruction. L’kha, for you, for your own well-being. Get out of this place; it is the only way that you can grow spiritually. If you remain here you will stagnate.”

Had Abraham not chosen to “go forward” after being called by God, he would have not grown spiritually. Had I not chosen to “go forward,” I would not have grown spiritually; I would have no doubt stagnated. And I would not have, three months later, been able to write these words, sitting in my sukkah, looking up at the stars, breathing fresh air and feeling as alive as ever in my life.

Certainly Abraham was more courageous than I. Biblical scholar Professor Nehama Leibowitz reminds us that the “Torah itself relates nothing of Abraham’s inner spiritual strivings before he arrived at a knowledge of the true God….”

I, on the other hand, was able to go forward because I have lived my entire life believing in the Thirteen Attributes of God. God may be, in Rabbi J.H. Hertz’ words, the “En Sof, the Infinite, the Undefinable,” but, for me, there has never been anything “undefinable” about God’s mercy and compassion. While Abraham decided to go forward in faith, I decided to go forward with faith. In the end, it matters not when faith enters your life; what matters is that is has entered your life and you can go forward.

While our biblical ancestor Abraham and I may have had our differences, we did share one experience: in addition to our God, Abraham journeyed with his Sarah and I have journeyed with mine. After speaking with my doctor that 23rd day of June, I waited until my beloved wife Jo returned from school and I told her immediately and quickly what my doctor had told me. She asked me, “What do we do now?” not “What do you do now?” I answered, “We go forward,” not “I go forward.” And going forward is what we have done. As Rabbi Nissan Mindel says of Sarah, I can say of Jo: “The greatest blessing for Abraham was that he merited to have Sarah as his wife.”

In the opening verses in the haftarah for Lekh Lekha, the prophet Isaiah questions the doubts of the exiled people Israel, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel: ‘My way is hid from the Lord….'” (40:27). Isaiah reminds the people:  God does pay attention to you and cares if you are treated unjustly. Keep your faith. God has not abandoned you.

Not for a moment have I felt that God has abandoned me. Rather, I feel God’s presence more strongly now than ever before. As God tells Abraham in the parashah, as Isaiah tells Israel in the haftarah, as Jo and I tell each other every morning: “Go forward.”


Rabbi Alan Abraham Kay (AJR ’01) is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Emeth of Mount Sinai, NY. He is author of A Jewish Book of Comfort and co-author with his wife Jo, of Make Your Own Passover Seder.