Rabbi Dr. Ulrike Offenberg | Juedische Gemeinde Hameln, DEU
The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 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. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Gen 12:1-3).
Our weekly portion Lech-Lecha starts with a great promise and blessing to Abraham, and it ends with the announcement of an eternal covenant between God, Abraham and his descendants, sealed by circumcision (chapter 17). And still, this parashah conveys a strange contrast between the divine promises of offspring, land, blessings and eternal covenant, and the despair of the human protagonists Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. And to be clear about it: There is no solution within this week’s reading; all the promises of becoming a great nation, as numerous as the dust of the earth and the stars of the heavens remain unfulfilled – no proof of realization in sight. Sure, Abraham is a wealthy man with a very beautiful wife but another outstanding characteristic we learned of Sarah was that she cannot become pregnant. And regarding Abraham’s only son Yishmael from Sarah’s maid Hagar, God was very outspoken in pointing out that the lineage is not going to continue through him.
So, what can you do when you are already 99 and your wife is 90 years old? (And we shall not waive these numbers as a fairy-tale age, not passport-proven; it is a rather a way of the Torah to tell us how unlikely the expectation of parenthood was). What is realistic to hope for? In a moment when God is again complimenting Abraham and promising him an abundant reward, it breaks out of him: “God, what can You give me, when I am going to die childless?!” (Gen 15:2). It is clear that all the Divine promises require children, and this is what life had so far withhold from Abraham and Sarah. During this week’s portion we see some of their coping strategies, from pouring out the heart to God, adopting a nephew, later a servant as heir, to surrogacy through Hagar which ends up in an awful enmity between the two women. But nothing seems to help. Of course, we as readers of today know that the story is going to have a Happy End, and we are even named after their grandson Israel but the protagonists don’t. They are in despair because their deepest wishes don’t come true, despite the repeated Divine announcement. In fact, eight times offspring is promised to Abraham and Sarah till Isaac is actually born.
And we? What are our coping strategies when the realization of our dearest hopes is withheld from us? What do we do when our partner doesn’t get better after a stroke despite all medical progress? How do we cope when a grown-up child breaks off and refuses to have contact with us parents? Where do we take our patience from when a close friend develops a mental illness? There are so many ways how life can hit us, destroy a prospective future, a loving relationship, a promise of growing old together. We never know when and how a happy ending will come, and it is hard to bear the disappointment and the despair. Each of us tries to cope in different ways but hopefully supported and cared for by family, friends and congregation. At a turning point of her despair of being expelled by Sarah, Hagar feels: “You are El Ro’i – you are the One who looks upon me”. Divine empathy is conveyed to suffering people by an open ear, a sympathizing face, a warm hug by people around them. “God full of mercy”, is how we usually translate El Male Rachamim – in an odd twist it could also be understood as “God full of wombs”. Sometimes God solves the problem of infertility by a pregnancy, sometimes the help to the problem might take a different way. The main thing is not to give up, not to lose hope. By the end of this parashah, a solution is not in sight. But despite the fact that the fulfilment of God’s promises is overdue and apparently not realistic (an occasional laughter being in place), in deepest despair Abraham, Sarah and Hagar don’t give up. Lech-Lecha is usually read as a story of breaking off roots and setting off to an unknown land, and yes, it is about courage and trust. But it is also about hanging on to relationships and to hope in seemingly unviable situations. I wish that also each of us finds strength and support to endure despair when our deepest wishes are being withheld from us. And hopefully to be able to say some day: “God has heard your affliction” (Gen 16:11).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).
 These eight promises are: Gen 12:1-3; 12:7; 13:14-16; 15:4-5; 15:13-16; 17:2-9; 17:15-19; 18:10-15.