Sometimes all you need is a good nap. Hidden in this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha, is an example of that. Normally, when looking at Lech L’cha, we tend to focus on divine promises of land and lineage, a husband’s cruel deception when he passes his wife off as his sister to save his own life, the beginning of a tense, tumultuous relationship between two women over having the same man’s children, plus a daring military rescue.
That’s a lot for one parasha; it seems that Bereshit is trying hard to squeeze a lot into the book, setting the stage for what comes in the other four. We’re left with trying to parse the details, understand the layers, and draw out meaning like water from the proverbial desert well.
No wonder Abram needed a nap. But this was no ordinary nap; it was a “tardemah”, a deep sleep. “a great sleep descends upon him”. (Bereshit 15:12) The word “tardemah” is the same word that is used when Adam falls into a deep sleep, during which time God creates Eve. Soon after, Adam and Eve become aware of choices they can make, knowing for the first time about good and bad, life and death.
Similarly, right after Abram’s tardemah, God reveals to Abram that “your descendants shall be strangers in a land not theirs.”(Bereshit.15:13) and lays out the entire tragic Egypt story, including how long the enslavement will last, along with a list of tribes who will continue to threaten their existence after they return from Egypt. I’ve always been troubled about this prediction; why tell Abram about such a dire predicament that will befall the people he’s just begun to form around him?
This began to make more sense in light of a book I read last week entitled, “The Genesis of Justice” by Alan Dershowitz. In it, Dershowitz looks at how modern law has been affected by the stories of Gods’s inconsistent delivery of justice in the Genesis. In his chapter on Adam and Eve, he shows that when the first humans were confronted with their own mortality, their own morality suddenly becomes important. It is “the knowledge of mortality itself that is essential to understanding, in any real sense, the difference between good and evil” (p. 39). How does this connect to Abram’s “tardemah”?
Right after God’s warning, we are reintroduced to Sarai and Hagar’s story. There were moral choices to be made here, and frankly, I don’t think Abram and Sarai made the best ones. But they did set up a pattern of interaction with those at the fringe of our community – related, somehow, but not absorbed or accepted. Indeed, Hagar is treated quite harshly and she runs away. Yet, she is the only other person God appears to in this parasha. She is the marginalized, victimized (especially in the next chapter), non-Israelite woman, who receives her own prophesy from which to carry out her destiny and that of her unborn son.
How might our Jewish destiny have changed if Abraham had kept his tent open at that very point? How many voices of prophesy are we ignoring by closing our ears to those at the edges of our own communities? It is time we, as a community, woke up from our own “tardemah”. The choices of good over evil came in fits and starts in the Bible, even (as Dershowitz points out) from God. We can learn from all of those steps and missteps, bringing on a time when the voice of wisdom is heeded, no matter where it comes from. In the pursuit of a lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, and in the gender-rights struggles, both here and in Israel, we must remember the awareness that came upon us in the Garden: our mortality as a people is inextricably intertwined with our moral choices.