Lech L’cha (Genesis 12:1 – 17:27)

Yes, we’re back.  Yes, we had a great time.  Yes, pictures of Venice, Montenegro, and Greece will be posted.  Also, though it’s been several days, my mind is still kind of foggy.

(2015 Comments) In grad school, I remember once, while I was walking somewhere but my mind was elsewhere, a person came up to me and kindly asked if I knew where I was going.  This has happened to me several times when I know my destination; I guess my face just looks lost if I am thinking and walking at the same time.  On this occasion, I was startled, because it sounded like an existential question: did I know where I was going in terms of my life, career, and so on?  I didn’t.  But I did know where I was walking.

Abram faces the opposite situation in this week’s Torah reading, Lech L’cha.  [2013: My friend Stanley says this command, “Lech l’cha” is best translated “Get going!”]  He does not know where he is going, physically.  But he knows he will be the source of a great nation through which all families of the earth will be blessed (12:1-4).  He is told by the Lord to uproot himself, at age 75, from Haran and go somewhere he’ll be shown.  We are not told why Abram is chosen, nor if this was the first time he communed with the Lord (rabbinic stories fill in the background).  Abram totally trusts the Lord, packs up his household, and he, Sarai, and nephew Lot take off.

But when they reach Canaan, famine forces them to move to Egypt temporarily.  Because Sarai is so beautiful, Abram is afraid he’ll be killed so she can be taken into Pharaoh’s household as a wife.  He thus asks Sarai to masquerade as his sister.  She does and is taken into Pharaoh’s household as a wife and Abram was treated well as her “brother.”  (By the way, the rabbis call this incident one of the 10 trials of Abra(ha)m!  It’s actually the first example of his problems with women.)  A plague of skin disease alerts Pharaoh something is amiss, the trickery is revealed, and Pharaoh throws out Abram et al.  

Abram’s family issues are just beginning.  He and Lot part company after they return to Canaan.  Lot, living in Sodom, is caught in the middle of a war involving 9 kings and has to be rescued by Abram.  Abram hears again from the Lord about his anticipated reward but is still childless.  Sarai gives him her Egyptian servant, Hagar, as a concubine, but Hagar’s pregnancy makes her act uppity, so Sarai drives her away. (Really, can’t you see Genesis, as least starting with Abram, as a TV soap opera?)  Hagar is advised to return by an angel she met at a well (where else…) because she will bear a son, Ishmael.  And so Ishmael is born when Abram is 86.

Thirteen years pass.  The Lord now makes a covenant with Abram.  His descendants are to accept the Lord as God and they will inherit Canaan.  As a sign of acceptance, the males are to be circumcised.  Also, Abram and Sarai are now Abraham (father of multitudes) and Sarah (princess) and they will have a son, Isaac.  Since they would be 100 and 90 respectively, Abraham’s reaction is laughter [2018 Yes, Abraham laughs. Verse 17:17]  There will be more laughter next week.

(2018) We’re going to see several name changes in Genesis, accompanied by a change or anticipated change in status.  I recall, when I was in my 20’s, that whether, or how, to change your name upon marriage was a particularly sensitive issue.  Then there are the changes others bestow, usually out of carelessness or ignorance. “Greenwald” sometimes became Greenwalt, Greenwall, or Greenwalk.  And after only a few years of marriage, I’d collected 22 misspellings of “Plotzker.”  My favorite was “Blutsger,” denoting our reservation at Cave à l’Atlantique, a Montreal restaurant.  Say that with a French accent.

Name variations are a big issue in Jewish genealogy research, one of my hobbies.  You might have a name in Yiddish approximated in Cyrillic characters and later written down in English as a government clerk heard it.  Also, Eastern European Jews weren’t required to take surnames until only about two centuries ago.  Then names were sometimes picked almost randomly, even within a nuclear family.  Greenwald was originally Grundwag, which I think had something to do with bricklaying, totally unrelated to family occupations.  Plotzker was at least a logical choice, my husband’s father’s family having come from Płock (pronounced “plotzk”) in Poland. 

Sometimes there are surprises.  We had always been told that Cousin Mendel had changed his name from Weill to Rosenberg to sound more American.  I recently learned that his family’s name in Białystok was actually, genuinely, already Rosenberg.  And another cute family story bites the dust.

Shabbat shalom, 

Most Outrageous Name Changes

by Stephanie Morrow, March 2009

  1. Changing a Name in the Other Direction

Although everyone on this list has changed their name to something a bit out of the ordinary, a Vietnam teen received the right to legally change his name from Mai Phat Sau Nghin Ruoi, which translates to “Fined Six Thousand and Five Hundred.” Named after the fine his father had to pay for having a fifth child, Fined Six Thousand and Five Hundred’s dad finally agreed to help him change his name to something more traditional after his son continued to be teased in school. Fined Six Thousand and Five Hundred’s new name is Mai Hoang Long, which translates to Golden Dragon.



tph home is where the heart is



Things I Have Learned from Watching Soap Operas [selected]

1. Everybody has a child that they gave up for adoption, or don’t know they have, who appears one day out of the blue as an adult.
4. “I want to be with you the rest of our lives,” means only for the next year.
6. Don’t get into cars. If you do, whatever you do, don’t take that seat belt off even for a second, since that is when the car crashes.
7. If you do, don’t get into arguments. The car crashes.
8. If you do, don’t drive during storms. The car crashes.
9. If you do, don’t be pregnant. The car crashes.
10. If you do, don’t go near cliffs. The car falls off.
12. Don’t ever believe that anybody is dead, even if you saw the body.
16. Serious conversations are always conducted in public where they can be interrupted, overheard and above all, misconstrued.


I’ve sent this out a couple times but couldn’t resist doing so again. IGP

She spent the first day packing her belongings into boxes, crates and suitcases.

On the second day, she had the movers come and collect her things.

On the third day, she sat down for the last time at their beautiful dining room table by candlelight, put on some soft background music and feasted on a pound of shrimp, a jar of caviar and a bottle of Chardonnay.

When she had finished, she went into each and every room and deposited a few half-eaten shrimp dipped in caviar, into the hollow of the curtain rods.

She then cleaned up the kitchen and left.

When the husband returned with his new girlfriend, all was bliss for the first few days.

Then slowly, the house began to smell. They tried everything…. cleaning, mopping and airing the place out.

Vents were checked for dead rodents and carpets were steamed.

Air Fresheners were hung everywhere.

Exterminators were brought in to set off gas canisters, during which they had to move out for a few days, and in the end even paid to replace the expensive wool carpeting.

Nothing worked.

People stopped coming over to visit.

Repairmen refused to work in the house.

The maid quit.

Finally, they could not take the stench any longer and decided to move.

A month later, even though they had cut their price in half, they could not find a buyer for their stinky house.

Word got out and eventually even the local realtors refused to return their calls.

Finally, they had to borrow a huge sum of money from the bank to purchase a new place.

The ex-wife called the man and asked how things were going.

He told her the saga of the rotting house. She listened politely and said that she missed her old home terribly, and would be willing to reduce her divorce settlement in exchange for getting the house back.

Knowing his ex-wife had no idea how bad the smell was, he agreed on a Price that was about 1/10th of what the house had been worth, but only if she were to sign the papers that very day.

She agreed and within the hour his lawyers delivered the paperwork.

A week later the man and his girlfriend stood smiling as they watched the moving company pack everything to take to their new home . .

Including the curtain rods.



Can Mohels Still Cut Up?

By TED MERWIN December 23, 2014, 12:00 am   [excerpts]

What’s a bris without comedy? Time was, the mohel did a stand-up routine throughout the ritual, slicing not just the foreskin but also the nerve-wracking tension that arises from an unusually public, but highly sensitive, procedure on such an essential part of the male anatomy.  Mohels kept everyone (metaphorically) in stitches.

Given the preponderance of Jews in entertainment, mohels have also been routinely featured in popular culture. A 1990 episode of “L.A. Law,” called “The Pay’s Lousy, But the Tips are Great,” included a lawsuit against an elderly mohel for “nicking” a child’s penis during the operation. [I remember that one. The mohel kept saying, “It was just a nick.” IGP]

And don’t get me started on mohel jokes.

So how come brises are so solemn nowadays?

Cantor Mark Kushner, a well-known Philadelphia mohel, told me that because so many brises are now performed by doctors, the ritual tends to be conducted in a more formal fashion. “The key to being a successful mohel,” according to Kushner, “is not to be a comedian but to touch people’s hearts and souls.”

Dr. Sanford Wohlstadter, an obstetrician and mohel in New Jersey, agrees. But his best efforts at making the ceremony more sober can be thwarted; the gags are so well known, he said, that instead of his telling them at the ceremony, the guests inevitably tell them to him!

But it’s never too late for comedy about circumcision. Even some Christian comedians have started to crack wise about the subject. Jim Gaffigan, who grew up Catholic, jokes in his stand-up routine about how Abraham explained his self-circumcision to his wife. “God told me to do it,” he tells her. “If God told you to sacrifice your first born son?” Sarah asks indignantly, “would you do that too?”

Ted Merwin teaches religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa), where he also serves as Hillel director. He writes about theater for the paper. tedmerwin.com

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