This week’s Torah portion, Lech-Lecha, is perhaps my very favorite. I have always been fascinated and comforted by the fact that all of us are on a constant journey, forever evolving and changing, and recreating with each and every breath we take. In Lech-Lecha, we learn that Abraham’s human journey has come to such a crossroad when God commands him to “Go forth” from his homeland to a land which God will show him.
Midrash, which are explanations of the Torah portions, tell us that Abraham was a radical “anti-idolater” thus, making him the first monotheist. Rabbi Marc Margolis writes that even though this idea is very appealing, it is not the actual meaning of the Torah text. He claims that we learn a different and surprising universal trait which can help us understand Abraham’s relationship with the Divine. When God told him to “Go forth,” he developed a capacity for “hitlamdut,” which is to delve deep into one’s soul to try and find the true authentic self. As Abraham sought to find out who he really was at his core, he realized that the “Self,” or the polytheistic beliefs of his contemporaries, did not resonate with him. God worked deep inside him to give him the courage to change his life’s direction.
Abraham said, “Hineni” when he discovered the Oneness of God through his own cognitive abilities, and, as a result, he became the first of our Jewish fathers. We reclaim Abraham’s courage as our first father anytime someone converts to Judaism, because the name of Abraham becomes part of their Hebrew name. We reclaim Abraham’s journey in our Standing Prayer, the “Amidah,” as his is the first we recite in the prayer, “Avot v’Imahot” (our Fathers and Mothers), as we remind God in this prayer that we also worship the same God as Abraham.
Abraham’s choice to say, “Here I am,” and to go forth on a different journey, serves as a model for us. This story resonates with many composers, such as Debbie Friedman, who also chose to go forth on a musical journey. Like Abraham’s challenge of polytheism, during her formative years, Debbie Friedman felt that her cognitive and emotional sensibilities were challenged by the current synagogue worship style of this time. The 1970s, at that time, was more intellectual and performative. There was little to no participation from the congregation. Worship was witnessed and watched from afar, like fine art, with little to no participation from the congregation. Debbie and her contemporaries longed to fully experience, embody, and participate in worship.
Debbie’s journey led her to OSRUI, where she inspired many of our Jewish singer/songwriters of today. There were certain elements in her music and compositional style which made her a compositional “maverick” of her time. She infused relatable English text alongside one or two Hebrew words, and wrote in major keys. This sounded like the folk music which was written during her time, similar to Joan Baez. In “Lechi Lach” she alternates the feminine with the masculine on the word “Lech,” and uses a similar technique of alternating between our mothers and fathers in her beloved “Mi Sheberach.” As this was a shift in worship style, many did not accept her music in the synagogue, and it was a painful journey for her.
I sadly only had the pleasure of meeting her once before she died. I was visiting HUC for my audition/ae in March of 2010 and was awestruck to see her downstairs in the CL (Common Lounge area). She asked how things were going, and I confessed to feeling nervous about the huge Hebrew placement exam I was about to take. I’ll never forget it—she said, “ugh! Hebrew!” reassuring me that all would be ok, that she also was not a Hebrew Scholar—yet there she was, one of the most important figures in Jewish music, standing right there before me.
She died while I was in my first year of school in Israel, and I regret so much that I did not get to study with her at HUC. But nonetheless, she lived on through her music, and through the other teachers with whom she collaborated.
I have also written a setting of Lech-Lecha based on this same story where Moses answers, “Hineni”. Inspired and influenced by Debbie Friedman’s music, I, too, am attempting to use the folk music, rhythmic patterns, and chord progressions of our time to give this setting a more rhythmic feeling. Please enjoy these two settings: Debbie Friedman’s “L’chi Lach” and my “Hineni” based on Lech-Lecha. May they help you to connect with this parsha, and help you along your life’s journey. May we go from strength to strength in our journey together as the Temple Jeremiah community. I cannot express enough times how grateful and honored I am to serve as your cantor.