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11/03/2011 02:21 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2012

Lech Lecha: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

Editor's note: 'The Weekly HuffTorah Portion' is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales.

"Go to yourself," God says to Abram, "from your land, from your relatives and from your father's home to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation."

God promises more: that Abram will be blessed and will be a blessing; that his name will be great and that all people will bless themselves by him; that those who bless him will be blessed and those who curse him will be cursed.

Abram goes as God tells him. He is 75 when he leaves Haran. His nephew, Lot, goes with him. So does Sarai, his wife. And all their amassed wealth and the souls they made back home.

They go to the land of Canaan. They arrive in the land of Canaan. The Canaanite is there.

God appears to Abram and says his offspring will have this land. Abram builds an altar there, then goes to Beth-el -- literally, the "house of God" -- and pitches a tent. He builds an altar there, too, and moves south.

Egyptian Detour

Abram sojourns in Egypt because there is a famine, a severe famine, in Canaan. Before they enter, Abram tells Sarai that the Egyptians will see her beauty and kill him so that they may take her. He asks Sarai to say that she is his sister so that the Egyptians will not kill Abram on her behalf. Entering Egypt, the Egyptians perceive Sarai's beauty, bring her to Pharaoh's house and treat Abram well for her sake, giving him many animals and servants.

God afflicts the house of Pharaoh with severe plagues for taking Sarai, who is Abram's wife. Pharaoh asks why Abram claimed her for a sister and tells him to take her and go. Pharaoh's men escort Abram, Sarai and all their newfound belongings out of Egypt.

Abram -- with Sarai, Lot, silver, gold and the animals -- returns to the original altar and invokes God's name there. Lot also has many possessions. Their combined wealth is too much for the land, and their herdsmen bicker with each other. Abram tells Lot to go, saying, "If you go left then I will go right, and if you go right then I will go left."

Lot sees the lush plain of Jordan before him -- this is before God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah -- and chooses this land for himself. He and Abram part ways.

Full text of Parshat Lech Lecha with interlinear Hebrew/English

While Abram dwells in Canaan, Lot extends his reach as far as Sodom, where the people are exceedingly wicked and sinful.

With Lot gone, God tells Abram to look north, south, east and west. This, God says, as far as you can see, belongs to you and your descendants. Forever. "I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth," God says. In other words, they will be countless. Abram moves to Hebron, where he builds another altar to God.

The Fall of Sodom and Gomorrah

There are many regional kings. They war with each other. The kings of Sodom and Gomorrah are among the fighters. They do not fare well, and Sodom is defeated. Lot, who is there, is captured.

A fugitive finds Abram and informs him of Lot's fate. Abram rallies his troops -- 318 of them -- and pursues the people who have kidnapped Lot. The party rescues Lot, his possessions and his people. The previously defeated kings emerge to bless Abram. The king of Sodom asks Abram to leave the people but take the possessions. Abram vows to not take the spoils of victory so that the king may not later say that it was he who made Abram rich, rather than God.

Count the Stars, Count the Blessings

Later, Abram has a vision of God, who tells him that he is shielded and rewarded. Abram reminds God that he has no offspring. God tells Abram to try to count the stars and know that this will be the numer of his offspring. Abram trusts God, and offers him a sacrifice of many animals according to God's wishes. Abram swats away the birds of prey -- scavengers of sacrifice -- that come, and just then, as the sun is about to set, Abram falls into a deep sleep. And darkness and dread fall upon Abram. God tells him that his offspring will be foreigners in a foreign land; that they will be enslaved for 400 years; that they will emerge from this darkness with great wealth. As for you, Abram, God says, you will come in peace and buried at a good old age. The sun sets, and God makes a covenant with Abram and promises him the land once more.

Sarai has no children, but she has an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar. She tells Abram that, though she is barren, perhaps she can have a child through Hagar. Abram follows Sarai's logic. She offers Hagar to Abram as a wife and Hagar soon conceives. Seeing that she is pregnant while Sarai remains childless, Hagar looks down on Sarai, who is outraged. Abram tells Sarai to do as she sees fit, so Sarai deals harshly with Hagar. Hagar flees. An angel of God finds Hagar by a spring in the desert and asks where she's come from and where she's going. Hagar says she's running from her mistress, and the angel commands Hagar to return to Sarai and submit to her will. The angel adds that Hagar's offspring will increase greatly and that she will give birth to a son, who will be named Ishmael because God had heard her prayer.

Names Change, Fates Remain

Abram is 86 years old when Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.

Abram is 99 years old when God appears to him, saying, "Walk before me and be perfect" and again promises to increase his offspring. Abram throws himself upon his face, while God tells him he will be the father of a multitude of nations. God changes Abram's name to Abraham in honor of this promise of progeny. God gives all of Canaan to Abraham and explains that the sign of the covenant will be circumcision. All males born wil be circumcised after eight days so that the covenant between God and Abraham will be in the flesh and everlasting. A male who is not circumcised will be considered invalid and his soul will be cut off from his people.

God tells Abraham to call the wife formerly known as Sarai by a different name: Sarah. God says Sarah will be blessed with a son; that "kings of peoples will rise from her." Abraham throws himself on his face and laughs: "Shall a child be born to a 100-year-old man? Shall a 90-year-old woman give birth?" And what about Ishmael? God says that Sarah will bear a son, that his name will be Isaac and that the Divine covenant will be fulfilled through him. As for Ishmael, he too will be blessed with many fruits -- 12 princes even. Still, it is through Isaac, God says, that the covenant will be maintained, and Isaac will be born within the year.

Abraham circumcises all the male members of his house and then circumcises himself. He is 99. Ishmael is 13. And everyone else, slaves included, is circumcised.

Questions for Reflection

What do the opening words, Lech lecha -- "Go to yourself" -- mean? And what are "all the souls they made"?

Why does Abram seem to only be looking out for himself in Egypt? He acts like a self-centered liar, so why is he worthy of God's covenant? Why does God punish Pharaoh for taking Sarai if he didn't know that she was Abram's wife?

How is Abram able to defeat the various kings so easily? Why does it say that Abram brought back all of the possessions after rescuing Lot if Abram later says he will not take anything but the people who accompanied him?

Did Sarai really think that she could take Hagar's child as her own? Why does she deal so harshly with her? Why is Abrams' first-born, Ishmael, not the inheritor of God's original promise?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: