To what extremes will people go when they fear the loss of material security? Will they turn against others to avoid those fears? How can we know when our own fears begin to control us and cause us to lose the people we care about? When do our fears cause us to lose ourselves?
This week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha, tells a story about Abraham before he became Abraham. It is the story about a time when his fear caused him to turn his back on the person dearest to him, and it is about how we can avoid doing the same.
The text tells us, "It was when … caused him to come close to enter Egypt, [Avram] said to Sarai his wife, 'Behold, now I know that you are a beautiful woman'" (Genesis 12:11). The verse is difficult to understand on a few critical points.
First, it is unclear what the subject of the verb "caused to come close" might be. Was it Egypt that enticed Avram into approaching its borders, or was it Avram himself who was the cause? Perhaps it was both. Avram's fear of deprivation may have caused him to feel the attraction of Egypt, which lured him into giving up his freedom for false security.
Second, Avram speaks as though he did not know before that Sarai was beautiful. He said, "Behold, now I know that you are a beautiful woman." How could that be? Had he never looked at her before? Obviously not. Rather, this was the first time that Avram had ever seen Sarai's beauty as a threat. He sees her beauty and responds, again, with fear. He tells her, "When the Egyptians see you and say, 'this is his wife,' they will kill me and keep you alive. Please say that you are my sister so that it will go well for me, so that my life will be spared because of you" (Genesis 12:12-13)
In this story, Avram is afraid of everything. He feared the famine, and that led him to enter the land of confinement. As soon as he began to feel the pinch of Egypt's grip on him, he began to fear that others would desire Sarai. It was at that point that he failed to see her as a full person. He began, for the first time, to see her instead as an object—a y'fat mareh--a thing that has a lovely appearance that others would want to take from him. He is so afraid that he disavows his wife and allows other men to take her.
The hidden lesson in this story is about what happens to us when we begin to give in to our fears. We give up little pieces of ourselves to buy some safety or security, but we do not realize how much we are giving up. We do not realize that one devil's bargain inevitably leads to others. Avram entered Egypt rather than face hardship in the land that God promised to him. Once out of his element, he began to see himself as vulnerable in more ways and his fear overwhelmed him. He betrayed his loyalty to his wife and he lost sight of the mission that God had set for him.
It happens to us, too, and it can start early. Perhaps you know someone who has turned away from his or her interests and passions in order to play it safe in life. Perhaps you yourself have sometimes taken a comfortable path at the expense of following your dreams. What happens next? People can become trapped by the choices they make, leading to worse choices. In time, people can discover that they don't even know themselves anymore. They feel as if they are living somebody else's life, all because of choices made in fear.
At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, God told Avram, Lech l'cha, "Go to yourself." God wants us to be our most authentic self, to discover the identity that is formed by our hopes and aspirations, not the path we are scared into following. Early in the story, Avram gets derailed. He drifts away from the promise of the Land of Israel and goes down into Egypt. He gets trapped by material comforts of Egypt. The Torah even tells us that Avram "acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels" (Genesis 12:16) in Egypt. But he was not being true to himself. He had to leave.
The lesson of this week's Torah portion is that in order to be our most authentic selves, we must face up to our fears, not avoid them. In order to heed the call of Lech l'cha, "go to yourself," you must be willing to take the difficult road and stay true to the people who are close to you and to your own passions. That is the path of true reward and true happiness.
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