Lech Lecha Drash
D’var Torah by David Liebschutz
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Delivered by David October 16, 2021, on the 50th anniversary of his bar mitzvah)
Almost 50 years ago, a somewhat pudgy boy with a high-pitched voice walked up to the Torah in front of his family and friends at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester and read the following words:
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing, and I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
What was I thinking then and what am I thinking now about this parasha and its place in our story?
My younger self was probably told how important this parasha was and that it marked the beginning of what we would now call Judaism and how honored I should be to be reading it. I don’t think I really understood then why it was so important and was much more focused on completing the task and getting gifts and being able to have a party.
So, how does 50 more years of experience and context on which to reflect help me understand this parasha? I think quite a lot, some of which I would like to share with you this morning.
While some Christians talk about “getting the call” and being saved, most Jews don’t think about their connection to Judaism in the same way. We often think about Judaism as something we are born into or have adopted as a religion because of a relationship with a partner or a community.
Yet how should we think about “the call” that Abram got to leave his comfortable surroundings in Haran and go to a place that he had never been and to be “father of a great nation”?
As someone who thinks and teaches about leadership and works with many leaders in our Jewish and larger communities, I now more than ever am convinced that the call that Abram got is indeed a model for all of us to harken to.
Not surprisingly, I consulted my “go-to” guide for how to think about the Torah in a leadership context, Lessons in Leadership by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom.
Sachs says that Lech Lecha is about the courage not to conform and to teach your children and your household afterwards to follow the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just (Genesis 18:19). According to Sachs, Abraham’s great gift to humanity is that he was prepared to be different and not simply go with the flow. He is the consummate example of someone who had great influence but no actual power. In other words, Abraham could not force anyone to follow him by using coercion, but follow him they did, and now billions of Christians, Muslims and Jews all trace their lineage back to Abraham’s leadership and willingness to swim upstream against the tide of history.
Bestselling author Bruce Feiler’s book on Abraham discusses his influence on the world’s three great monotheistic religions and how he became a singular figure in history for many of us, perhaps even more so than Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. Abraham’s genius was that as an adult he was able to pivot and be a leader. As Sachs notes, quoting management guru Warren Bennis:
By the time we reach puberty, the world has shaped us to a greater extent than we realize. Our family, friends and society in general have told us – by word and example – how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be. (Sachs, p 16)
While it is often hard to swim against popular sentiment and “do the right thing,” I think that as I look back on my 50 years as a Jewish adult I have tried, although not always successfully, to do the “right and just” thing and not be swayed by peer pressure to do the popular thing. The few times when I have not been true to my values, I have regretted it and vowed to do better next time.
And while at the time I didn’t know that my bar mitzvah portion would have such a strong influence on my path, it seems that I have continued to go back to its themes over and over again. For example, I chose the following quote for my college yearbook – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, and if I am only for myself, what am I and if not now when.” (Pirke Avot 1:14) These words, attributed to 2nd-century CE Rabbi Hillel, have been a watchword for me and relate quite well to Abraham’s willingness to embrace not only a singular path for himself but for a people and to act upon them quickly.
So, have I been as great as Abraham and led a people to be a model to the world? No, I haven’t, but then again most of us don’t get such a chance to do anything so grand. What I have tried to do is to follow not only Rabbi Hillel but also another early 2nd-century sage, Rabbi Tarfon, who said, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” That is, I have tried not to neglect the work and be a leader and role model for others even if I am not the one who always gets to cross the finish line.
While my 13 year-old self didn’t know how things would turn out 50 years hence, I think that he would have been generally pleased at the path that life took. My almost 63 year-old self is too. I am a very lucky person to be part of a family and a community that has supported me so well. Thanks to my wonderful wife of 36 years, Libby, my terrific daughters, Jen and Rebecca, my mother Sarah and sister Jane, and my B’nai Sholom community of 31 years for all of your support. I could not have done this without you!!
Finally, I want to thank Rabbi Danielle Weisbrot, who despite being our new settled rabbi for less than four months, has been incredibly supportive of my taking this on and adding to her already full-to-overflowing plate of things to attend to this fall.