Parashat Lekh L'kha

Shield of Abraham

Gleaning great meaning from the single word this portion gave to Jewish liturgy.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies.

The Tanakh is the quarry from which the siddur [prayerbook] was constructed. Long passages and individual phrases were lifted to create the verbal prayer that became the hallmark of the synagogue. Best known are the three paragraphs of the shema taken from the books of Deuteronomy and Numbers and the many psalms from the Psalter. This week's parashah contributed only a single word to this edifice, but one of unique centrality and resonance.

Abraham in the Amidah

After Abraham's crushing victory over the four foreign kings, who had taken his nephew Lot as captive, God assures him of continued divine favor: "Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; your reward shall be great" (15:1). The Rabbis recast that word "shield" into the phrase "Shield of Abraham," referring to God, in order to make it the conclusion of the first blessing of every Amidah [the central prayer said standing during every service]: "Praised are you Lord, Shield of Abraham" (Magen Avraham). By extension, God's promise of protection for Abraham holds good for his progeny. What greater shield might we have than God's steadfast concern?

But it is a promise often trampled by the course of events. How do we bridge the recurring divergence between our history and our theology? Reality seems to mock our pious constructs. The same blessing of the Amidah has another biblical phrase on which the Talmud offers one of the most remarkable rabbinic homilies on the subject of theodicy that I know. In relating to God prior to our petitions, we praise God in the words of Moses as "the great, the mighty and the awesome God" (Deuteronomy 10:17). The adjectives magnify the image of the shield. Its bearer is nothing less than invincible and omnipotent, making our squaring of the circle still more difficult.

Calamity is Nothing New

The 20th century is not the first in which calamity has devastated Jewish life. The Rabbis imagined the prophet Jeremiah, who foretold and endured the destruction of the First Temple, as emending the text of the Amidah: "Gentiles are dancing in the Holy of Holies, where is God's awesomeness? Thus Jeremiah refused to pronounce the word 'awesome.'"

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.