This portion begins with a command: Lech Lecha, go forth. Twenty-seven years ago, a Jew who had been denied the opportunity to celebrate becoming a Jewish adult heard these words speaking to her. Savina Teubal approached her rabbi, and together they planned a celebration that changed not only Savina’s life, but opened a path of Torah and Jewish connection for many others.
God speaks to Abram, later Abraham, and says: “Lech Lecha, Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” Savina, who was born in Buenos Aries in 1926 to Syrian Jewish emigre parents, like Abraham and Sarah, and like her own parents, went forth from her land, her birthplace and her parents’ house.
In Los Angeles, she celebrated the first Simchat Chochma as part of the Shabbat morning worship at Congregation Beit Chayim Chadashim. What others might have called an adult Bat Mitzvah, Savina named a celebration of wisdom.
After leading the congregation in prayer, in preparation for the Torah service, Savina donned a kittel, a traditional burial shroud, to acknowledge that this celebration was also the beginning of the last chapter of her life. Many of us who joined together on that brilliant Shabbat morning were stunned by the dissonance between Savina’s vitality at age 60 and this stark symbol of death.
Savina began to chant: “Go forth … to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing.” Savina, a biblical scholar, had studied this text, and understood the deep message of this portion: Each of us, like Abraham and Sarah, must leave our homes, and open ourselves to a place that God will show us. That journey lasts a lifetime. And with God’s help, each of us can become great, a source of blessing.
Each Torah portion is a crystalline gem. Savina chose this portion as a bridge from her past to her future. Abram and Sara are given new names, becoming Abraham and Sarah. Savina invited the elders of the congregation and others who wished to claim a new name, to do so with a blessing.
And as God makes a new covenant with Abram, and then renews it with the sign of circumcision, Savina made a covenant of service to her community and to the earth, a covenant that she specified would continue not only throughout her lifetime, but after her death.
Savina invited the composer Debbie Friedman to help her plan this ceremony, and with Savina, Debbie wrote “Lechi Lach.” Now a beloved anthem for thousands of Jews, this song sets music to the Torah text and encourages each of us to be a source of, and an agent for, blessing. Debbie invites each of us to expand our Hebrew vocabularies by opening the song with God’s command in the feminine imperative.
Savina’s ascent to the Torah served to repair the historic injustice of denying half of the Jewish people access to study and celebration, just as Savina’s embrace of her status as an elder reminded us of the Jewish tradition of celebrating every stage of life, and the Jewish value of embracing life and death.
Savina Teubal and Debbie Friedman both left us rich legacies of Jewish wisdom. On this Parshah Lech Lecha, may each of us renew our own journey, consider renewing our covenants and go forth to be a blessing.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as the rabbinic director of the East Geographic Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism.