Monday, October 31, 2011

Get up and go forth! / Lech Lecha

Meet Abraham. He’s 75 years old and embarking on a new career long after many of us would think to retire. His new career promises travel and adventure, challenge and reward. Of course, Abraham hasn’t a clue where he’s going or what he will face. He’s a trusting soul -- that’s why God chose him.
The Lord said to Abram: “Go forth (lech lecha) 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.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
Please also meet a team of eight young graduate students from The Johns Hopkins University who are just starting their careers. They have developed an Antenatal Screening Kit to test thousands of pregnant women and newborns in developing countries for eclampsia, malnutrition, gestational diabetes, and urinary tract infections -- for just pennies per test. They have left their comfortable American homes, university classrooms and laboratories, and traveled to India, Tanzania, and Nepal to observe firsthand the challenge of delivering scarce health care resources in rural, impoverished locations.

When we leave our familiar surroundings and comfort zone, we gain an entirely new perspective on the world and on ourselves. This was true for Abraham and I’m sure it has been true for the eight young biomedical engineers from Johns Hopkins.

God tells Abraham: Lech lecha. Lech lecha is a peculiar construction. This is not the common doubling of a verb form for emphasis. Lech lecha could mean “Go for yourself” or “Go to yourself.” Did God want Abraham to leave Haran for his own good, to gain a new perspective, and escape the stifling influence of his native culture? Or did God have in mind for Abraham to engage in a journey of self-exploration, to discover his true beliefs, and forge a relationship with God? I think both. God has designated Abraham to be the progenitor of a nation that will pass a covenantal tradition through the generations, shaping the lives of many who, as Torah says, are meant to be a blessing to the world. Abraham’s journey is for his own good, allowing him to realize his full potential because it is a journey of self-exploration. The two are inextricably bound.

The journey of the biomedical engineering graduate students has been both “for them” and “to them.” They have gained a new perspective and insight concerning the health challenges faced halfway around the world, and they have learned just how much they can contribute.

A bit more about their remarkable work: Urine tests are used to diagnose a variety of conditions that threaten the life of a pregnant woman and the fetus she carries. In impoverished nations, cost severely prohibits access to care. The standard way of conducting these tests involves a strip of paper impregnated with a variety of chemicals that is dipped it into the woman’s urine. These strips do not seem costly by our standards, but they are prohibitively costly in developing nations. The students developed chemical-filled pens that can be used on paper to produce test-strips on the spot -- for mere pennies. One marker for each chemical test. If a mark turns the color on the cap of the pen, the test result is positive. Their accomplishment won grand prize recently in an international competition sponsored by ABC News and the Duke Global Health Institute. Kol hakavod!
The Lord said to Abram: “Go forth (lech lecha) 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.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
Abram journeyed out to gave rise to a nation; lives came into being because of him. These students journeyed out to save lives; their Antenatal Screening Kit will save countless lives.

God blessed Abram. His life was full and rich, and he left a legacy. His named is great -- he is remembered in love to this day, and his name is evoked in prayer by his descendants several times each day. Abram has certainly been a blessing.

The students have been blessed in many ways, not the least being the love, support, and encouragement they receive from family and friends, and the superb opportunities and education they receive at Hopkins. They are making names for themselves in the world thought work that will save lives. And in that way, they are certainly a blessing to us all.

And for both Abraham and the eight students, the opportunity to be a blessing is probably the biggest blessing of all. Lech lecha -- They went forth, leaving their familiar environment, and ventured into the world both for themselves and to themselves. They became blessings, and thereby blessed us, as well.

Have you gone forth? Is it time for you to go forth “for yourself” and “to yourself”? Traveling hundreds or thousands of miles is not the only way to “go forth.” The world is a big place to explore, but you are a world to be explored, as well. Where is your journey taking you? Whose life will you bless?

The students from The Johns Hopkins University who invented the Antenatal Screening Kit are:
Front row: Matthew Means, Sherri Hall, Mary O’Grady and Shishira Nagesh. Back row: Peter Truskey, Maxim Budyansky, Sean Monagle and James Waring.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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