Drash on Parashat Lech Lecha
Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, VIC
To walk with Integrity
In Parashat Lech L’cha there has always been one verse that I have struggled with. Most would think it would be the first verse of the Parasha:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The Eternal said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you" (12.1).
But in fact, it is from Chapter 17, verse 1:
וַיְהִ֣י אַבְרָ֔ם בֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְתֵ֣שַׁע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיֵּרָ֨א יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ אֲנִי־אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים׃
When Abram was 99 years old, the Eternal appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai.” Walk in My ways and be blameless."
The word in the verse that peaks my curiosity is the last in the verse תָמִֽים. The Israeli journalist, Sivan Rahav-Meir in her book "Parasha, Weekly Insights from a Leading Israeli Journalist", like many others, translates the word as "perfect", but others translate the word as "blameless". There is a stark difference between the two. The website Sefaria offers the following translations: complete, whole, entire, sound, healthful, unimpaired, innocent, having integrity, what is complete or entirely in accord with truth and fact.
It is incredible how one word mistranslated or a choice in translation can change the intention of a verse. Is blameless really what the Torah meant for us to take away? Are we really blameless if we walk with God? Are we perfect if we walk with God? No, I don’t think so. As humans, we know we are flawed, while we are created B'tzelem Elohim, we recognise we are created with flaws. Being human is being imperfect. And, what does it mean to be blameless and under what conditions? Are we blameless under any circumstance? I’m skeptical if the answer is yes.
So perhaps, there is a better answer. Perhaps the answer is complete or having integrity. Perhaps if we walk with God, we walk in God’s ways, we will feel whole and complete. We find meaning in our lives. We are doing meaningful work by following the mitzvot. Judaism gives us a framework to find meaning in the mundane, in the ordinary. And, ultimately, that we should not question our existence or take for granted the blessings that are promised in the first part of Lech L’cha (Gen. 12:2):
וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
The second option, I believe is walk with integrity, and I believe that perhaps this speaks to Leviticus 19, also known as the Holiness code, or perhaps comes after, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l called it in 2008, a Drama in Four Acts, focusing on four areas of denial of responsibility based in the first two parashiot of the Torah, Bereishit and Noach: The denial of responsibility of the personal, the moral, the communal and the ontological, relating in order to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood and to the Tower of Babel. Therefore, in the third Parashah, Lech L’cha, we understand that the human condition, and humanity is imperfect and not blameless. In fact, it is the opposite. Thus, if integrity is about the behaviour of the individual in relation to the self, the communal as well as the spiritual, then surely this would be a more apt translation.
When Abram was 99 years old, the Eternal appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai.” Walk in My ways and walk with integrity.
I’d like to end with a midrash from Ein Ya’akov (Khagigah 2:7) which is familiar to many. R. Zutra b. Tuvia in the name of Rab said: "With ten things the world was created: Wisdom and understanding; knowledge and strength; rebuke and might; righteousness and justice; mercy and compassion."
The world may not be perfect, and we may not be perfect, but we strive to walk in God’s ways and we strive to walk with integrity.