In Verses 9:8-17 God turns his attention from Noah to himself. “As for me…” Within this passage he reflects on the act of establishing a covenant and remembering it – that is maintaining a covenant (keeping it over time), and the intention to keep it in the future (I will remember). God also reflects on the ‘sign’ (אות) , or rainbow, as representing the covenant (as a sign of the covenant), as a way of showing us his intentions (it stands as a sign between me and you), and as a way of reminding himself of his covenant. These exercises and discussion plans explore these subtle yet very powerful distinctions.
Leading Idea: Blessings and Curses
In this passage, God makes three kinds of claims regarding how Avram will be blessed:
- I will bless you
- You shall be a blessing
- All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you
What is a blessing? What does it mean ‘ to be blessed’? What might it mean to regard yourself blessed by the presence of someone else?
We might make a distinction here between ‘being blessed’ as an activity and ‘being blessed’ as a state of being.
How is giving or receiving a blessing different from being a blessing? Whereas the activity of ‘being blessed’ suggests a kind of transaction – with something being passed on from one person to another, the state of ‘being a blessing’ suggests that ‘being blessed’ is some inner quality of a person. We can all think of people who we feel are blessed with certain qualities or character traits. We might also think of ways that we are blessed because of the presence of other people in our lives. How might these experiences shed light on the text?
In addition to blessing Avram, God says he will bless all who bless Avram and curse all those who curse him. This not only suggests that people (as well as God) are capable of blessing and cursing – but opens up further questions to think about: What are the moral implications of God acting according to how others treat Avram? What are we doing when we bless and curse people? Is it just another way of wishing them something (for instance, good or bad luck?). Can the idea of giving or receiving a blessing or a curse have significance even if you don’t believe in ‘ a God who blesses’?
Leading Idea: Circles of attachment. (Bereshit 12:1)
When God tells Avram “Lechlecha” he mentions three kinds of leaving:
- Leave your country
- Leave your birthplace
- Leave your father’s house
Several scholars have noted that it seems strange to list the circles of attachment in this order. The text from Nechama Leibowitz and the commentary Haktav Vehakabala (secondary-sources) both offer an interpretation for this.
Some of the exercises and discussion plans in this unit explore these different ‘layers of leaving’.
Leading Idea: Thinking about Journeys and Journeying
The books of Bereshit and Shemot are full of journeys. Several ideas are explored here that prepare students for the pieces of narratives that they will encounter. In this regard the first set of discussion plans and activities can act as induction exercises as well as being helpful as tools to explore more deeply questions students raise. Attention is drawn here to three aspects of journeying that can prepare students for thinking about this parashah and the parshiot that follow.
(i) The meaning of journeying – what makes something a journey and what does journeying involve?
(ii) Ancient Journeys – reminding ourselves that journeys weren’t always taken in a car – What earlier modes of transport were there? What reasons led people to travel? What might the journey look like?
(iii) Figuring out the larger context from the details we know. What are some of the plausible inferences we might make given the details we are told?
Leading Idea: The Multiple Meanings of Lech L’cha
‘Lech l’cha’ is generally taken as an expression meaning “Go forth”. But this isn’t the only way of reading it. While Lech l’cha on its own is a command (like sit! or stop!), lech on its own means ‘go’ and l’cha’ on its own generally means ‘to you’. What might these mean when put together?
In this unit we explore the following different readings of the phrase ‘Lechl’cha’.
1. Go forth (move forward, leave where you are)
2. Go for yourself (for your own benefit, for your own good)
3. Go to yourself (as an inner journey)
4. Go to yourself (towards the person you will become)
Each of these offers a different understanding of Avram’s journey.
Leading Idea: Setting Up and Maintaining
Establishing (מֵקִים ), remembering (לִזְכֹּר) and remembering in the future (זָכַרְתִּי)
In Verses 9:8-17 God turns his attention from Noah to himself. “As for me…” Within this passage he reflects on the act of setting up or establishing a covenant and remembering it – that is maintaining a covenant (keeping it over time), and the intention to keep it in the future (I will remember).
God also reflects on the ‘sign’ (אות) , or rainbow, as representing the covenant (as a sign of the covenant), as a way of showing us of his intentions (it stands as a sign between me and you), and as a way of reminding himself of his covenant. These exercises and discussion plans explore these subtle yet very powerful distinctions.
Leading Idea: Eating animals.
This text parallels strongly elements of God’s blessing in Bereshit 1:28-29. Yet there is a striking difference. In the account of creation in Bereshit, God blesses us as have dominion over all of creation, but only the plant kingdom is given to us to eat for food. In this blessing, God not only gives us plants, but also the animal kingdom as food. In this, it marks a human transition from being herbivores to carnivores. Yet there are distinctions and limits here as well – we can eat flesh, but not blood, and we will be held accountable for killing another human being. What does this transition signify? What might it say about our relationship to creation and our nature as human beings? To what extent are we what we eat? Does eating flesh make us more violent or is it a release that leads us to be less violent? If we start thinking that it is acceptable to kill animals will we end up thinking it is acceptable to kill people? Both the Jewish textual tradition and philosophical discourse are animated around these questions, offering us multiple responses to that can inform our inquiry.
A related issue to that of eating meat concerns our relationship with animals overall. What does Judaism say about our treatment of animals; how we should relate to them and care for them? The source materials relate to this question of our care for animals.
In this passage God blesses three things.
- The animal kingdom – the first blessing is to flourish and ‘become many’
- Human Beings – the second blessing is to flourish, become many, to subdue/tame the rest of creation and have dominance / predominance in relation to it.
- Shabbat – the third blessing is to be made holy / sanctified.
What is it to bless something / someone? Is a blessing something conferred by one being onto another? (without their participation) or is it relational? What is the difference between blessing animals, persons, and a day, and the difference in the content of these three blessings?
The term ‘good’ is a valuative term; to use it is to judge something in positive light. While the term ‘good’ is often used in moral discourse (e.g.; what it means to be a ‘good person’), not all uses of the term point to ethical judgments – for instance, we often say of our food: “this is good!”, or someone might refer to their car as ‘a good car’. So there are moral and non-moral valuations of the word ‘good’, both in the Tanach and in the students’ daily lives.
We find the term ‘good’ woven throughout this first account of creation. What does it mean in this context? When the text says: “וירא אלהים כי-טוב” ( ‘And God saw that it was good” ) what kind of valuative judgment is being made? Indeed a number of issues concerning valuations might emerge through reading the text. We might list these as the following:
- What is the meaning of the word ‘Good’ ?
- What is involved in recognizing something as being good
- “God Saw that it was good” – This involves both seeing something (being aware of it) and judging it.
- What is the difference between saying something is ‘good’ and saying it is ‘very good’? Can there be different degrees of good? (v’s. 4,10,12,18, 21,25, to v.31, 5.
- There is also the issue of part-whole relations – what is the difference between judging each part of something good and judging the whole thing as good? (also particularly relevant to Day 6.)
Because the phrase”וירא אלהים כי-טוב” repeats itself several times in the text, there is an opportunity here to explore a different angle on each occasion. This would help develop a thicker and more textured appreciation of the meaning of the text overall.
Each of these issues and distinctions are explored in the exercises and discussion plans below.
Induction piece: As an induction piece we suggest sections A and B in the first discussion plan “Exploring different meanings of ‘good’” as it opens up the range of meanings ‘good’ carries in everyday life. Each of these give a very different reading to the act of creation. (Section C could come later, after the reading before or during their inquiry).
In this first story of creation God is busily engaged in creating the world. What is creating? Is creating something different from making something? In the Torah, the verb בָּרָא is used to speak of bringing into existence something entirely new, astonishing or wonderous, and unforeseen – for example, (i) when speaking to Moses at Sinai of wonders he will create that have never before appeared ( Shemot 34:10) and (ii) in Bamidbar (16:30) when Moses uses it to warn Dathan and Abiram to describe the punishment God will deliver to those involved in Korach’s rebellion as something entirely new and unheard of – never before seen (opening the earth to swallow the people). Torah also leaves creation in the God’s hands – people make, God can creates. This has led people to see creation as being the (Divine) ability to produce a result (something) out of nothing. Whereas Human ‘Making’ requires prior raw materials, ‘creation’ does not.
What does it mean to create something entirely new? Something without precedent? Something astonishing in its newness? To see the creation of the world this way is to open it up to a new attentive wonder. This discussion plan explores this sense of creation.
Induction piece: As an induction piece we suggest the first discussion plan “Making and Creating” as it opens up the range of ways ‘making’ something can happen and gets students thinking about what the difference between making and creating is – and thus to think harder about what the characteristics of ‘creating something’ are. If you do this, make sure to link this to the text they will be reading. While this will narrow the scope of what they might look to see as interesting in the text, you can follow this with a less directed reading in another lesson. We urge you to read the text on induction pieces n the section on leading ideas.