Take Two of Parshat Lech L’chah by Rabbi Russ Resnick
Whenever I hop into the car, I make sure to buckle up. I always wear a hi-vis yellow helmet when I ride my bike. I even refrain from kvetching about my face mask as I’m cruising the aisles at Trader Joe’s. These all seem like reasonable ways to reduce risk and play it safe. But I also recognize that our ancestor Abraham was not particularly intent on playing it safe.
When the situation called for it, he took great risks, and he reaped great rewards, as we see in this week’s parashah: “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great’” (Gen 15:1).
Why does Abraham need this admonition against fear? Because this encounter with Hashem comes right “after these things,” probably referring to his risk-filled raid on four invading armies to rescue his nephew Lot.
Abraham had taken risks for God before, starting with his initial calling, which opens Parashat Lech L’cha. Hashem said to him, “Lech l’cha, Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. . . . So Abram went, as the Lord had told him” (Gen 12:1, 4). Abraham, of course, is our exemplar in the way of faith, and we can learn something about risk-taking faithfulness from him.
1. Pursuing God will require risk at the most critical moments.
A well-known midrash explores God’s command to go forth:
R. Berekiah said: What did Abraham resemble? A phial of myrrh closed with a tight-fitting lid and lying in a corner, so that its fragrance was not disseminated; as soon as it was taken up, however, its fragrance was disseminated. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: “Travel from place to place, and thy name will become great in the world”; hence, Get thee, etc. (Genesis Rabbah 39.2)
As long as Abraham was safely ensconced in his own country, among his kindred, and in his father’s house, he was safe enough, but he had no impact in the world. But as he embarked on the risky journey to destinations unknown, he spread forth the knowledge of God and became the source of blessing to all nations. We might miss some of the impact of this midrash if we forget that myrrh is a precious substance, something to protect, and that popping open the lid entailed risk of losing its value—even as its real value, its aroma, spread forth.
Likewise, if we opt to play it safe in our walk with God, we’re unlikely to have much impact on the world around us. If we focus on just surviving, we can forget about ever thriving.
2. Don’t hesitate to factor God into your risk assessment.
After God promises a reward, Abraham, who responded with wordless obedience to the command “lech l’cha,” finds his voice again . . . and lodges a complaint with the Almighty: “What kind of reward can you give me, since I remain childless and have no true heir?” God says “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them. . . . So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6).
In his letter to the Romans, Paul explores the dynamics of this faith:
Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Rom 4:19–21)
Abraham knew it was biologically impossible for him and Sarah to conceive, but he factored God into the equation and was enabled to believe his promise, despite the risk that the whole thing would fall through, and he’d end up disappointed and ashamed. We might assess ourselves by this measure: “When was the last time I really trusted God for something that seemed humanly impossible?”
3. Risk-taking for God is a life-long venture.
The phrase “Lech l’cha” appears only twice in all of Scripture: at the very beginning of Abraham’s story, and again near the end, when God commands Abraham, “Take now your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and lech l’cha to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Gen 22:2).
Lech l’cha grabs Abraham’s attention at the beginning of his journey and again toward the end, so this phrase and his response to it characterize his entire life’s journey.
Both times Abraham is directed to an unknown destination.
Both times he refrains from speaking, but accepts God’s word in silence.
And both times he acts on that word by setting out without delay.
As Abraham gets older, he doesn’t go easy on himself or expect a safer relationship with God, and neither should we. From the beginning to the end of his journey, Abraham demonstrates faith or faithfulness—the Hebrew term can be translated either way—as an example for us. As one Christian writer notes:
Faith is a verb, not a noun; it is a way of living, not simply believing. It is our response to God’s invitation to a deeper relationship. We let go of the past’s familiarity and comfort. We also renounce the ego’s need to understand and rationalize that offers so much false security and, like Peter, take that agonizing and precarious step onto water (Matthew 14:29). (Albert Haase, Becoming an Ordinary Mystic)
We could also say, “We renounce the ego’s need to understand and rationalize and, like Abraham, take that agonizing and precarious—and risky—step toward the place that God will show us.” Abraham’s faith leads him into uncharted territory, the sort of territory that we have to traverse in our days as well. And it’s this faith that God accounts to Abraham as righteousness.
. . .
Some of the Jewish sages ask why it’s such a big deal that Abraham believes God—he’s a prophet, after all, and he’s already seen God’s mighty provision for his life, so of course he believes. But now he believes God’s promise in the very thing that’s the hardest to trust God for, his lack of an heir, and this believing is accounted to him as righteousness.
It’s when we believe God concerning the matter that is most difficult, most pressing, of the highest stakes, that our belief is accounted to us as righteousness. As Paul tells his fellow Yeshua-followers in Rome:
The words “it was counted to him” were not written for Abraham’s sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Yeshua our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:23–25)
Today we can risk believing in, and being faithful to, the message of a crucified and risen Messiah, as unpopular and unenlightened as that message sounds to the dominant culture. When we do, God brings us into a right relationship with him, which is the only really safe place to be.