Go Forth and Lead Your People

Posted on October 27, 2023 by Harold Levin, guest darshan

This week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, from the Book of Genesis, is translated as ‘Go Forth.’ This portion focuses on Abram and Sarai who are later renamed Abraham and Sarah by God. Highlights include Abram and Sarai, along with Abram’s nephew Lot, beginning their journey to the land promised to them by God; a famine which causes Abram to enter Egypt where the Egyptian King thinks Sarai is Abram’s sister. A plague develops which spares Sarai from the King. Lot is captured by the armies of the evil Sodom Valley until Abram rescues him. In this Parsha, God also seals the Covenant of the Parts with Abram and the Holy Land is bequeathed to him and his people. The parsha also includes the birth of Ishmael, Abram’s son, with Sarai’s servant, Hagar as his mother. Finally, God renames Abraham and Sarah and a son is born to 99 year old Sarah who names him Isaac.

While studying this parsha and figuring out what I would share with you, my mind kept raising the question as to who was Abraham and why was he chosen when there were so many others who could have been selected? Sometimes, the obvious leaders are not chosen and no one knows why.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, shared some interesting insights, excerpts of which may be found here.

“Leaders lead. That does not mean to say that they do not follow. But what they follow is different from what most people follow. They don’t conform for the sake of conforming. They don’t do what others do merely because others are doing it. They follow an inner voice, a call. They have a vision, not of what is, but of what might be. They think outside the box. They march to a different tune.

Never was this more dramatically signaled than in the first words of God to Abraham, the words that set Jewish history in motion: ‘Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)’

Why? Because people do conform. They adopt the standards and absorb the culture of the time and place in which they live – ‘your land.’ At a deeper level, they are influenced by friends and neighbours – ‘your birthplace.’ More deeply still they are shaped by their parents, and the family in which they grew up – ‘your father’s house.’

I want you, says God to Abraham, to be different. Not for the sake of being different, but for the sake of starting something new: a religion that will not worship power and the symbols of power – for that is what idols really were and are. I want you, said God, to ‘teach your children and your household afterward to follow the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just’ (Gen. 18:19).”

Rabbi Sacks continues with “Power allows us to rule over others without their consent. As the Greek historian Thucydides put it: ‘The strong do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must.’ Judaism is a sustained critique of power. That is the conclusion I have reached after a lifetime of studying our sacred texts. It is about how a nation can be formed on the basis of shared commitment and collective responsibility. It is about how to construct a society that honors the human person as the image and likeness of God. It is about a vision, never fully realized but never abandoned, of a world based on justice and compassion…. Abraham is without doubt the most influential person who ever lived. Today he is claimed as the spiritual ancestor of 2.3 billion Christians, 1.8 billion Muslims and 14 million Jews, more than half the people alive today. Yet he ruled no empire, commanded no great army, performed no miracles and proclaimed no prophecy. He is the supreme example in all of history of influence without power.”

Perhaps Abraham would have been the type of leader who could rally 217 votes to become the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and break the stalemate that threatens to shut down our nation. (I started composing this message on Tuesday, October 24. If the stalemate happens to have been resolved by Shabbat, so be it)!

We can look at this stalemate as a call for a strong leader to emerge. Just as Abram’s journey signaled a period of transition and change, perhaps a message is being sent to our elected officials that it is time for a transition in leadership even if it requires the competing parties to find a common ground. Abram demonstrated such an absolute trust in God. Is it possible that our Representatives will ever find a path to trust someone? It appears that the journey to governance is almost as challenging as that which Abram and his family endured.

While I debated whether or not, as our good friend and former Cantor, Yvonn Shore once said, to mix church and state in a drash, I think it is critical that our Congress find a way to restore unity to right our ship and provide funds to maintain our nation and help others who rely on the United States for the bare necessities. Even though, (as I wrap up this drash on Thursday) a Speaker has been elected, I wonder if he will have any more success in reaching consensus than his predecessor did. I pray for a more permanent and sensible resolution to an extremely volatile situation. May we eventually find a new Abraham to lead us onward.

Shabbat shalom,

Harold Levin, guest darshan