Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) and Haftarah (Isaiah 40:27-41:16): The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary shows teens in their own language how Torah addresses the issues in their world. The conversational tone is inviting and dignified, concise and substantial, direct and informative. Each pamphlet includes a general introduction, two model divrei Torah on the weekly Torah portion, and one model davar Torah on the weekly Haftarah portion. Jewish learning—for young people and adults—will never be the same. The complete set of weekly portions is available in Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin’s book The JPS B’nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary (JPS, 2017).
About the Author
Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida. He is the author of Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah, winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award for the best religion book published in the United States, and The Gods Are Broken: The Hidden Legacy of Abraham (JPS, 2013).
Read an Excerpt
Lekh Lekha: Genesis 12:1–17:27
Things are not working out the way God wanted. Adam and Eve disobeyed the divine order not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cain killed Abel. People were so bad that God had to bring a flood to the earth. Then, people got arrogant and built a tower in an attempt to reach the heavens. Enough!
God decides to choose one man to become a holy person and be a role model for how humans should really be.
This is how Jewish history begins: God tells Abram (Abraham) to say goodbye to the place where he is living, Haran; to his father; and to everything he knows. Abram and his wife, Sarai (Sarah), wind up in the land of Canaan (Israel) — but as soon as they get there, they go to Egypt to escape famine. Sarai cannot have children, which poses challenges to Judaism's "first family." She comes up with an interesting idea: Abraham should take her slave, Hagar, and have children with her. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.
God commands Abram (Abraham) to leave his land and to go to the land that God would show him — the land of Canaan (Israel). (12:1–3)
God tells Abraham that he, and the Jewish people, will be a blessing to the world, and that those who bless the Jewish people will be blessed, and that those who curse the Jewish people will be cursed. (12:1–9)
In Egypt, Abram tries to pass Sarai off as his sister — with dangerous results. (12:10–20)
Abram and his nephew, Lot, cannot get along, and so they divide the land of Canaan between them. (13:1–18)
The Middle East has its first war, and Lot is taken hostage. Even though Abram has big problems with Lot, he goes out of his way to rescue him. (14:1–24)
Abram has a bizarre dream in which God tells him that his people will be "strangers in a strange land"— not only in Egypt, but in many other places as well. (15:1–18)
The Big Ideas
Adventure is an essential part of life. Jewish history starts with an adventure: Abram must leave everything that he knows, and go out into the great unknown. That means not only leaving a place; it means leaving old ideas behind, as well.
The mission of the Jewish people is to be a blessing to the world. While Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, the Jewish way of life has larger lessons that everyone can learn. This means, among many other things, modeling ethical behavior.
Lying is wrong — at least, most of the time. Abram and Sarai are trapped in a ticklish situation in Egypt, and Abram feels he has to lie about Sarai and say that she is his sister. He is afraid that the Egyptians would kill him in order to take his wife from him. Sometimes, truth is not the largest value — saving life is.
All Jews are responsible for one another. Abram has no warm and fuzzy feelings for his nephew, Lot. Still, when Lot is taken hostage, Abram has no choice but to act on his behalf and rescue him — traveling the length of the entire Land of Israel to do so. From this gesture we learn that even though the Jews are a small people, they are a very large family — and family feelings will always prevail. Jews have done this over and over again through the centuries, for example, saving fellow Jews during the Holocaust, Soviet Jews from Russia, and Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia.
To be Jewish is to know what it means to be a stranger. That was the essential message of the vision that Abram had — the "coming attractions" of his descendants becoming slaves in Egypt. The experience in Egypt taught the Jews the meaning of what it's like to be a stranger, and from this they learned to treat strangers with dignity.
Without a Rebellious Teenager There Would Be No Jews
If you were going to start a new religion, this might be what you would do: sit around thinking of great ideas and how to get others to believe in those ideas.
But that's not how the Jewish people began. Terah, the father of Abram (Abraham's original name) decided to move his family out of the city of Ur. Ur was the most sophisticated city of its time. It had great architecture, sculpture, and literature. It was the New York and Paris of 1800 BCE.
The family got as far as Haran, in what is today southern Turkey, and they decided to stay there. Then, suddenly, God told Abram that he had to get on the move again. He had to leave his land, and he had to leave his father, and that meant that he had to abandon his father's ways of looking at the world.
Who was Terah? What was he like? A famous legend teaches that Terah was in the idol business. It says that when Abram was thirteen years old he figured out that worshiping idols was wrong. He came up with an amazing realization: you can't make a god, because then you have power over the god that you have created — and then it can't be a god!
What did Abram do? According to a midrash, "Abram seized a stick, smashed all the images, and placed the stick in the hand of the biggest of them. When his father came, he asked: 'Who did this to the gods?' Abram answered: 'A woman came with a bowl of fine flour and said: "Here, offer it up to them." When I offered it, one god said, "I will eat first," and another said, "No, I will eat first." Then the biggest of them rose up and smashed all the others.' His father replied: 'Are you messing around with me? They cannot do anything!' Abram answered: 'You say they cannot. Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying!'"
As Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Great Britain, writes: "There are times, especially in adolescence, when we tell ourselves that we are breaking with our parents, charting a path that is completely new."
And so, according to legend, Judaism began with a thirteen-year-old kid challenging the old ways of thinking. Jews challenge old ideas and create new ones. That has been one reason why so many great scientists, writers, and thinkers have been Jews. It has been the key to Jewish survival and creativity over the centuries.
The Jewish People: We Are All in It Together
Let's face it — sometimes there are strange relationships in families.
Consider Abram and Lot. Lot was Abram's nephew, the son of Abram's brother, Haran (not to be confused with the city of Haran), who had died years before. After Haran died, Abram and Sarai were his only real family. And so, Abram took Lot with him when they began their journey to the land of Canaan (Israel). Abram always felt somewhat responsible for his nephew. He referred to Lot as his "brother," which in biblical times simply meant a close relative (13:8).
But, actually, Abram and Lot didn't get along. They were constantly arguing about who would own the land, and finally they decided to divide the land between them. Abram let Lot choose which land he wanted, and Lot chose the plush, fertile land in the Jordan Valley, near the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Being near these places didn't bother Lot that much. His basic attitude toward life seemed to be "Whatever!" Lot and Abram were very different people, and when they physically separated from each other they became emotionally separated as well.
But then, in chapter 14, we find the first recorded war in the Torah. A coalition of four kings stage a rebellion against a coalition of five kings. In the midst of the war, one group of kings invades Sodom and Gomorrah, stealing all their food and taking Lot hostage. Abram gets an army together and pursues the enemy as far away as Damascus, which is very far away from where they were all living at the time. He rescues Lot and brings him back home. Abram already knew what the early sages would say, centuries later: "All Israel is responsible for one another."
Back in the beginning of Genesis, Cain had asked God: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (4:9). Abram knew the answer to that question. It is "yes." Jews don't have to like each other; they just have to care about each other. Abram knew that his responsibility for Lot was more important than his personal feelings for his nephew. According to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik: "A Jew must feel a duty to save his brother, even if his brother has departed from the righteous path. Loyalty is the first mark of Abraham."
The forming of the Jewish people began with the act of going out into the unknown. Have you ever had that kind of experience: moving to a new house or community; going to a new camp, or a new school? What was it like? How do you think Abram must have felt?
The Torah portion says that those nations that curse the Jewish people will themselves be cursed. In other words, countries that are good to the Jews will do well; if they don't, they will do badly. Is this true? Think of such examples as the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian pogroms, Nazi Germany, Arab countries' antisemitism. How has this pattern played out in history?
Midrash says that Abram broke his father's idols. This means that Abram had the courage to break with what previous generations thought. How did people like Christopher Columbus, Charles Darwin, and Rosa Parks demonstrate that kind of courage? How have great Jewish women and men, like Albert Einstein, Hank Greenberg, Gloria Steinem, and Golda Meir, been courageous? What other names would you add to that list?
According to tradition, Abram broke his father's idols at the age of thirteen, and that was one of the origins of bar mitzvah. This suggests that thirteen-year-olds are ready to think independently from their parents. In what ways do you disagree with your parents? How do you demonstrate that? When is it good for children to rebel against their parents? When is it not so good?
Under what circumstances might it be permissible, and even necessary, to lie? Are "white lies" acceptable? For instances, is it okay to tell someone that you like his or her new shirt (or haircut, or whatever) when, in fact, you don't?
How have Jews demonstrated their solidarity by helping other Jews? Think about such historical moments as the Holocaust and the rescuing of Jews from Russia and Ethiopia.CHAPTER 2
Lekh Lekha: Isaiah 40:27–41:16
For someone who was anonymous, the prophet known as Second Isaiah certainly gets a lot of ink in the haftarah. Here he is again, speaking to the Judeans. His message is clear: despite the fact that they are in exile in Babylonia, they will soon be able to return to the Land of Israel — a move from despair to triumph. This will demonstrate God's power over history and over all the nations. God is the creator, the great victor, and the redeemer of Israel. God's power is revealed everywhere: in nature, in international affairs, and in the life of the Jewish people
Second Isaiah reminds Israel that they are the "seed of Abraham" (41:8), which forms the connection to the Torah portion. The Jews who were listening to Isaiah knew that God had made a great promise to Abraham. Believing that God would keep that promise and return them to the land of their ancestors gave the people hope in their time of exile.
Coming Home Again (or Why Jews Love Baseball)
How is the Bible like baseball? (Please don't say that they both start in the "big-inning"!) The purpose of baseball is that you start at home, and come home again.
And that is the message of Isaiah and a big lesson of the entire Hebrew Bible as well.
Let's review our history. In the year 586 BCE, Babylonian armies destroyed Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and deported the Judeans to Babylonia, thus beginning that period known as the Babylonian exile. Some years afterward, the Persian King Cyrus conquered Babylonia, and he let a group of Judeans return to the Land of Israel and rebuild the Temple. So, if you were wondering about the identity of the mysterious "victor from the East" in Isa. 41:2, it would be Cyrus, king of Persia, who was about to conquer Babylonia. That's the way it was in the ancient Middle East: every few hundred years the borders changed and you wound up living in a different empire.
According to the Bible: "The Lord roused the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia to issue a proclamation throughout his realm. ... "The Lord God of Heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has charged me with building Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone of you of all His people — may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem that is in Judah ...; and all who stay behind, wherever he may be living, let the people of his place assist him with silver, gold, goods" (Ezra 1:1–4).
Cyrus asks everyone to help the Jews return to their land — with silver, gold, and goods. Where have we read that before? It is an echo of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites asked their former Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold to take with them on their journey. The return to the Land of Israel is like an exodus from "another" Egypt — this time, from the Babylonian exile.
For Jews, Cyrus wins the award for Best Loved Foreign Ruler in the Ancient Middle East (though there wasn't that much competition). The Talmud notes that in Hebrew, Cyrus's name is Koresh (kaph resh shin), which contains the same letters as the word kasher (kaph shin resh), meaning "ritually fit and proper." Cyrus was kosher! Second Isaiah predicted that a Cyrus-like figure would help the Jews come home, although he probably did not live long enough to greet Cyrus as a hero. In our day, another hero helped the Jews return home. President Harry S. Truman gave crucial support to the Zionist cause and directed the United States to recognize the new Jewish state when the United Nations set it to a vote. Truman certainly helped create the State of Israel, but he thought that his role was even bigger than that. "What do you mean, 'helped create'? I am Cyrus, I am Cyrus!"
With those stirring words, Truman demonstrated that he was not only in favor of the creation of a Jewish state, but that he grounded that support in his belief in the ultimate truth of the ancient narrative. Truman read the Bible! He saw himself as the modern-day reincarnation of King Cyrus of Persia. And that was good news for the Jews who wanted to come home.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) and Haftarah (Isaiah 40:27-41:16): The JPS B'nai Mitzvah Torah Commentary"
Copyright © 2018 Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
General Introduction Lekh Lekha: Torah Commentary Lekh Lekha: Haftarah Commentary