Lech l’cha is all about the verb. So many of the Torah parshiot (plural of parasha, portion) are verbs: Lech l’cha, Vayeira, Vayishlach, Va’era, pretty much all the ones that start with V’… Lech l’cha is the first, when God tells Abram to get up and go. “Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)
And then the verbs start. God makes, blesses, and appears. Abram goes, takes, moves, pitches a tent, builds, digs, and journeys. That’s just in the first 10 verses of the parasha, too. As the story unfolds, The Torah A Women’s Commentary that the following sections “continue[s] to explain how the descendants of Abraham formed as a distinct group. The shaping of what constitutes ‘inside the group’ entails the description of – and separation from – the ‘other’, as variously defined.” (p 63) The Creator-God of just a couple of weeks ago in Bereshit is moving towards becoming the Particular God of Israel, forging a relationship with this one group of people. In fact, at this point, it’s not even a group – it’s one family. Not even a family – it’s one guy – Abram, and his willing wife, Sarai.
Identity is being forged, separating from the “other”. And here’s where the verbs come in. Identity doesn’t get formed just through someone saying they are part of a group. Identity is formed through verbs. Doing. Making. Celebrating. Verb-ing. It’s the doing that makes one part of the group.
Identity is not a one-and-done kind of thing. You have to work to keep it up, you have to do to make it real. There really is something to motor-memory. That’s true in practicing piano, and it’s also true in Jewish identity. It’s something we do every day to keep it fresh and meaningful. Maybe that’s why we refer to religious practice in Jewish life, not only religious belief. It’s not just about the noun, belief; rather it’s about the verbs.
To end this parasha, Abraham (no longer Abram, he received his God-given “H”) took the ultimate verb-step of identity-forging by circumcising himself and Ishmael, his first-born son. “All the people of his household – the homeborn slaves and those bought from foreigners – were circumcised with him.” (Gen 17:27) This is the sign of membership in the group. From here on out, for the males at least, the group identification with this people begins with an act.
We speak of passing on Judaism to the next generation. And there has always been much talk, often within the progressive members of younger generations, about the stifling nature of ritual, of Jewish practice; “I don’t have to do anything, I just feel Jewish”. Well, I maintain you can’t pass down a feeling. You pass down traditions, and that doesn’t mean you have to do it the way your parents or grandparents or even further back, whatever the “it” is. You build and make and do and create from that reservoir of tradition, and you make it your own. How?
Frankly, that takes practice. Identity is a verb.