23 Oct 2015

Lekh Lekha 5776: The Shield

Lekh Lekha 5776: The Shield

“People should not be protected from the world, It cripples them.”
― Josephine Humphreys

There is an odd blessing that we say at every circumcision. It is odd because one would think that at such a seminal and fundamental moment in the Jewish lifecycle, a time in which we are recognising and actively upholding the covenant or berit that G-d made with Abraham, we might expect to speak of things such as purpose, destiny or core beliefs. Yet, instead of speaking about these high ideals, for some reason, we speak only of protection:

Blessed are You G-d our Lord, King of the universe, Who sanctified a dear friend from the womb[1]…and sealed his offspring with a sign of the holy covenant. Therefore, in merit of this…command that our brethren be saved from annihilation! (Siddur, blessings for circumcision)

There is something about the Abrahamic covenants with G-d that requires a focus on protection. Before establishing the first of two covenants that G-d enters into with Abraham, He opens by promising Abraham that he will guard him.

G-d’s word came to Abram in a vision, saying: ‘Fear not Abram, I am a shield for you…. (15:1)

Of all aspects of the divine covenant G-d made with Abraham, why would the aspect of protection be so central in the liturgy for a circumcision or berit (lit. covenant)?

Abraham was a man who discovered G-d by searching for truth. He did so by studying underlying causes for the phenomena that he experienced in the world. After peeling away at the causes, he finally came to discover the primal source of all things leading to the ultimate truth and reality. He knew that truth is neither simple nor easily discovered and that to genuinely grasp aspects of it requires a relentless effort in testing and questioning perceptions. Abraham grew up among people who did not care for this pursuit. His society was used to projecting many fanciful ideas onto reality and worshipping them. It was this ‘idol worship’ that Abraham dedicated his life to opposing.

Abraham understood that the pursuit of truth requires ‘travel’. To live a life in which we are always open to the developments of reality means we are always prepared to move in the direction in which life’s truths lead us. But travel makes us vulnerable and a commitment to a journey means that we cannot enjoy the luxury of protecting ourselves by building long-term fortresses. One ubiquitous aspect of Abraham’s life was that he was always travelling.

G-d said to Abram:
Go for yourself, from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house…
Abram went…when they came to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land…he moved from there to the mountain-country…then Abram journeyed on, continually journeying to the Negeb. (12:1,4-5,8-9)

Not only did he do so physically, but mentally as well.

From the age of three this mighty individual began to roam in his thought…his heart would roam and understand…until he grasped the path of truth and the track of righteousness.[2]

He lived in a tent even though he could afford[3] to build and live in a stable and fortified palace. Not simply out of humility but out of a desire to avoid living in an environment in which his natural biases and projections would become secure in their seclusion away from the experience of an external, dynamic world.

We are told by the prophet Isaiah[4] that if we wish to pursue righteousness we best look at Abraham. Following him in his journey to connect with G-d means being prepared to live in a vulnerable, virtual tent rather than an impenetrable fortress. Doing so allows one to remain connected to external realities and to move with agility. In our covenant with G-d we strip away the protective measures that are meant to guard us from the threatening unknowns. In their place we hold a pact with G-d and enjoy the shield of the Creator Himself.

Fear not Abram, I am your shield. (15:1)

In our long arduous journey through history, great Jewish communities have come and gone, houses of study have stood for centuries and then fallen away but with G-d as the shield of Abraham/Magen Abraham the nation has been protected. Even as we faced all manner of death and destruction along the way, we push through and in His covenant, Israel lives on.
Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] Abraham

[2] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Aboda Zara, 1:3

[3] ‘And Abram was exceedingly heavily laden with livestock, with silver and with gold’. (13:2)

[4] 51:2