From Captivity to Freedom

(My dvar torah from last Friday evening 10/15/10)

Thoughts on Lekh Lekha

(Gen. 12:1 – 17:27)

           This week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha,  opens with God speaking to Avraham (then called Avram) – out of the blue and without warning – and commanding him:  “Lekh lekha mey’artzekha, umimoladtekha umibeyt avikha el ha’aretz asher areka” / “Go forth from your land, your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”  (Gen. 12:1). 

          Which Avram immediately does --- taking along with him his wife Sarah (then called Sarai), his orphaned-nephew Lot who had been living with them, as well as all their household servants, animals and possessions.

          No doubt about it, this is a brave thing to do.  To set out at the age of 75 to a completely new life in a strange new place.  But maybe Avram and Sarai could do it because they had each other, and because they had faith and hope.  How many of us have been in a similar state --- embarking on a new adventure in a new land?  Maybe without such clear instructions from on high?  And maybe even having to temporarily leave your spouse behind because you can’t sell your condo?   But enough about me… except to say that I really appreciate Abraham and Sarah’s courage – and I bet that any of you who have made major geographic relocations can say the same.

          Later in the Torah portion, Avram and Lot part from one another when their shepherds start fighting with one another and it seems that they need more space and more distance between them.  Avram stays in the land of Canaan, while Lot leaves for the cities of the plain.

          But Uncle Avram doesn’t forget his family ties to Lot.  When war breaks out among 9 different armies in the region, and Lot and his household are caught up in the fighting and taken captive by invading armies – Avram springs into action.  Even though he was outnumbered and the odds were against him, Avram knew that he could not forsake his nephew in his hour of need.  As it says in Gen. 14: 14-16:  –[14] Hearing that his kinsman had been taken captive, Abram mustered his retainers, born into his household, 318 of them, going in pursuit as far as Dan. [15] At night he deployed himself and his forces against them, pursuing them as far as Hobah, north of Damascus. [16] He then brought back all the possessions, his nephew Lot, too, and his possessions; the women, too, and the [other] people.

          In Jewish tradition, this passage from Parshat Lekh Lekha became a proof text for the traditional Jewish value of “Pidyon Shevuyim” (“Redemption of Captives”).  As Rabbi Harold Kushner notes in the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary:  “The redemption of captives (pidyon sh’vuyim) in later centuries became a prime responsibility taken on by the Jewish community, which ransomed Jews who been captured by pirates, imprisoned, or enslaved. Some authorities were reluctant, fearful that this would encourage the kidnapping of Jews for ransom.  Still, the basic practice has continued from earliest times to the efforts of behalf of Russian Jews and Ethiopian Jews in more recent times.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary, p. 80).

         We can also recognize this Jewish value of “pidyon shevuyim” in the way that Israeli society remains concerned about the fate of Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier who was captured in 1996 by Hamas terrorists who made a cross-border raid from Gaza into Israel.  They forced Shalit back into Gaza in a kidnapping that became one of the proximate causes of the recent Gaza war.  To this day, Hamas has refused to permit Shalit to be visited by the Red Cross and he remains in captivity but efforts to negotiate his release continue.

          I was also reminded of the Jewish value of “pidyon shevuyim” in recent days when following the news about the rescue of the miners in Chile.  The Chilean government had to do battle with geological formations rather than foreign armies, but the way the entire Chilean people rallied around the miners and committed themselves to their rescue has been an inspiration to the whole world.  There were many media reports warning of the difficult odds of success for the rescuers or of survival for the miners.  But the pidyon shevuyim effort went forward nonetheless.  And the miners themselves inspired us with the way they kept hope alive, shared their limited resources, cared for one another in their underground prison, and worked day and night to aid in their own rescue.

         The Chilean Rabbi Roberto Feldmann shared his thoughts on these momentous events in a dvar torah published this week by the World Union for Progressive Judaism.  Here’s an excerpt  --  Rabbi Feldmann writes:


The government didn't lose a minute, the whole country drilled and drilled through every second, minute, hour, day, week. Three weeks into it, Camp Hope was silent, but was willing to spit any expert in the face were he or she talk about percentages, probabilities and human endurance. Stop calculating, keep drilling precisely, unrelentingly. Even children helped. Australia sent equipment, Germany , the USA , other countries too. 

One day one of the five or six catheters reached just the outside of the refuge almost a kilometer down the earth. The 33 miners were exultant, the whole country exploded in confirmation: hope is more realistic that experts' percentages. The first papers with loving messages, water, food, and medicine were sent. We are alive, we love you, we haven't abandoned you. The response from underneath was immediate: we love you too, we are OK: We knew lately you were drilling towards us, we heard (Elijah's kol dmama daká), a soft, subtle sound of the drilling machines, we knew we were not forgotten. After two weeks, we knew you were coming. We rationed the scarce food, we made routines not to get mad in the darkness, and we sang, we prayed, we even exercised. We had water from the springs, and it was pure to drink, and with hunger we held strong.  

Once communications, a lifeline, a Sulam Yaakov, a Jacob's ladder was created, then life could breathe and bring nourishment for body and soul back and forth through the "paloma", the "dove". Strange echo of Noah's one. As if the miners were in an ark, and had to wait till the flood subsided. The experts disappeared or went mum. The machinery to save them came, and something never tried before in such a scale and depth was put in place. At first the experts talked about half a year to get to them, and get them out. Neither Camp Hope nor the Miners' sense of humor down in the deep despaired. When Independence Day came, exactly falling on this year's Yom Kippur, September 18, (10th of Tishri) there were videos of the miners dancing cueca and singing the national anthem. 

The drilling went so fast, so relentless, as if a whole country spent 70 biblical days drilling and drilling and drilling. The name of the uni-personal, rudimentary lift down was called Fénix. 

When I watched each and every miner entering the Fenix cabin, and start his ascent, I pronounced "Lech Lechah"... ¡Off you go to your new life, reborn from the depths of depths of the kiln! initiated with a knowledge we can only slowly begin to understand and drop by drop, begin to learn. 

This is not about a silly patriotism. This is about something so much deeper and universal, whose scope really sends us a living message: what the human being has in emotional, cognitive and technological tools, can be used to resurrect the ones who have been called dead by the so-called "experts", those who think science has nothing to do with the human heart, and technology has nothing to do with human hope. Thos who think that synergy is collective hysteria and solidarity something for people in state of denial. Actually, they were in a state of denial of something much greater. 

Something divine that ejected Sarai and Avram to their journey of transformation, and whose children we Jews are.   


           All of us up here in Duluth, thousands of miles from that Chilean mine are united in thanksgiving and appreciation for the successful pidyon shevuyim – the rescue from captivity of those brave miners.  May these stories of rescue and redemption – from the Torah to today – inspire us never to abandon those near and dear to us who ever fall captive --- be those captivities physical, financial, emotional or spiritual.  Let’s look out for one another – just as Avram did for Lot and as all of Chile has done for the miners.

          And in all of this we can experience God working through us so that any who are in distress may sing along with the psalmist  -- “Min Hametzar Karati Yah, anani vamerchav yah”  -- “From the narrowest confines I called out to God, and was answered with God’s boundless space” (Ps. 118:5, translation by Rabbi Ron Aigen in Siddur Hadesh Yameinu, p. 205)

         Shabbat shalom.

Posted on October 20, 2010 .