Abraham's Journey

  • Rav Alex Israel

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

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This week’s shiurim are dedicated by Mr Emanuel Abrams
in memory of Rabbi Abba and Eleanor Abrams

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PARASHAT LEKH LEKHA

 

ABRAHAM'S JOURNEY

 

by Rav Alex Israel

 

            In our parasha, Abraham receives his first Divine directive.  It is a command to leave home and to go on a journey to an unspecified destination.  What is the purpose of a mission of this nature?  What does it aim to achieve?  Our shiur this week will attempt to provide some answers.

 

THE FIRST COMMAND

 

"The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth (lekh lekha) from your land, from your birthplace 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 will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those that curse you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.'

Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him and Lot went with him.  Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Charan.  Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Charan and they set out for the land of Canaan.  When they arrived in the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land as far as Shekhem, at the Oak of Moreh.  At that time the Canaanites were in the land.  And the Lord appeared to Abram and said, 'To your offspring, I will give this land.'  And he built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him." (Genesis 12:1-7)

 

            This is the story.  God appears to Abraham instructing him to leave his home, his father, his entire community.  He is to take his close family and possessions and travel to an unknown place: "to the land that I will show you."  It seems a strange first command; it seems to lead somewhere but then it stops.  We don't know why Abraham travels!  He gets there and then what?  What is the possible meaning of this journey?  Why is this God's first command to Abraham?

 

1. TEN TESTS

 

            In the eyes of tradition, Abraham's life is perceived as a series of tests:

 

"Abraham was tested with ten trials and he withstood them all.  This demonstrates the extent of Abraham's love [for God]." (Avot 5:4)

 

            Abraham is put to the test ten times in his life.  This then is the first of these trials.  But in what way is this journey a test?

 

THE DIFFICULTY OF LEAVING

 

            God's command is worded in a rather strange manner.  God specifies that he must go: "From your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house."  The Ramban comments on the ordering of this verse.  It seems wrong.  When one is departing from one's home, first one leaves home itself, then one's birthplace, and later, at the border crossing, one leaves one's country.  Why is the order reversed in our text?

 

            The Ramban explains that this verse is written in this way to stress the difficulty and pain of leaving one's home.  The order is not listed geographically.  Rather, it is an ascending scale of heartwrenching departure:

 

"Because it is difficult for a person to leave the country in which one has lived, one's social group, the familiar environment.  But it is even harder to leave the place where one was born.  The hardest thing is to leave parents."

 

            Indeed, leaving is a painful process.  Abraham leaves an aging father and his entire life behind him in Charan.  He is not so young. He takes this on at the age of 75!  And for what?

 

PROMISE AND FULFILLMENT

 

            One might point us to the generous promises that God has made.  Who would not want influence, power, land, and a great nation?  But as we shall explain, these promises ring somewhat hollow from Abraham's vantage point.

 

            Abraham is promised a multitudinous offspring which will become a nation.  Let's look at the situation realistically.  Sarah is 65.  We have already been informed that "Sarai was barren, she had no child" (Genesis 11:20).  It is almost a cruel joke!  Abraham and Sarah are 75 and 65 years old respectively and God begins to make promises that "To your offspring I will give this land."  What offspring?

 

            Later on in the Torah, we see how Sarah herself cannot quite believe that she will truly bear children.  She laughs at the prospect of her elderly body pulsing with new life: "Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment?" (Genesis 18:12).  This promise might well have sounded a little exaggerated to the ears of Abraham.  Indeed Abraham and Sarah did not have a child for another 25 years!  It is not as if he could have found the purpose of his journey in his offspring.

 

            Then, there is the promise of the land.  The Torah once again stresses the improbability of the materialization of this.  The verse specifically tells us that the land is otherwise occupied: "And the Canaanites were in the land."  How will this promise be fulfilled?

 

            To add insult to injury, Rashi reminds us that "continual travel lowers the chances of having children, drains one's financial resources and means that one will not be well known."  Travel makes one poor, childless and anonymous.  What is Abraham to think when God tells him: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing?"

 

            All logic would have persuaded him not to embark on this journey, but Abraham follows God.  Why would Abraham do it?  It is so painful!  The promises seem fantastic and simply illogical!  The truth is that there is only one good reason to go, and that is because God told him to.  He was commanded to go.  However absurd, however strange or illogical, Abraham is the loyal servant of God.  Abraham demonstrates his trust, his faith and his love for God.  He believes in Him even when events seem to indicate the opposite of what God has told him.  He will follow God even when he knows not even to where he is headed.

 

            This is expressed, in the eyes of tradition, in the language of the 'test' or 'trial.'  Abraham is given a command which tests his loyalty and commitment.  It demands upheaval, belief and immense effort.  Abraham passes with flying colors.

 

2.  SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION

 

            But this is not the only way that we can view a test.  Do we have to conceive of this journey as an absurd illogical trial?  God does not put people to test without a higher meaning.  A more positive view of the testing of Abraham would say this: A test strains he who is tested, but a test also lets him grow through the challenge which he overcomes.  Abraham is given tests, but they are not meant simply to make his life difficult.  The trials that Abraham faces are designed to refine and hone Abraham's personality.  They develop and advance his religious passion, his commitment to God, his generosity, his ethical sensitivity.

 

            Bible Scholars throughout the ages have grappled with the strange language of the command issued here to Abraham.  "Lekh Lekha" translated literally means, "Go for yourself."  RASHI comments:

 

"Lekh Lekha - Go for yourself: for your benefit and for your good ... there will I make you into a nation; here you cannot have any children."

 

            This journey is not simply hardship.  It is there to provide benefit and good for Abraham.  A comment by Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk in his commentary, Meshekh Chokhma, is most enlightening:

 

"To the land which I will show you: We might suggest that Abraham was commanded to go to the place earmarked for divine service... there he was to publicize the idea of God and sanctify His name... and demonstrate the potential which lay latent in his heart and his commitment to God.  This is the meaning of the phrase 'which I will show you.'  It means that God will exhibit publicly that which hitherto lay hidden in Abraham's heart ... thus Abraham will be 'shown' to himself and will become visible to others."

 

            The Meshekh Chokhma reads the first verse of our parasha in the following way:

 

"Go forth from your land ...to the place where I will show YOU to yourself."

 

            According to this understanding, this journey is not simply a geographical relocation; it is a personal transformation.  In the promised land Abraham will find himself.  He will realize his true potential.  This will not be to Abraham's benefit alone.  God will also 'show' him to the world, indicating to others the dedication to God that is a possibility for all individuals.

 

            Indeed, on his arrival in the land of Israel, Abraham builds an altar to God and "calls in the name of the Lord" (Genesis 12:8).  He moves around the country repeating this practice, spreading the word of ethical monotheism until he is famous as a man of faith.  He is recognized by fellow monotheists (Genesis 14:18,19) and local dignitaries refer to him as "the elect of God amongst us" (Genesis 23:6).  He has made a name for God and for himself.  Abraham travels and spreads God's word.

 

LIFELONG JOURNEY

 

            The Sefat Emet develops this idea a little further:

 

"Lekh Lekha - Go forth: Man is defined by his walking, and indeed man must always move up, level by level.  One must always aim to extract oneself from habit, from the state of the normal.  Even if one has reached a certain standard of Avodat Hashem (religious intensity and practice), that too becomes second nature after a time and becomes the norm.  Therefore, at all times one must renew one's soul and one's religious direction.

Abraham was tested with ten trials and EACH TEST RE-CREATED HIM AS A NEW BEING until he did not know the meaning of a complacent state of normalcy."

 

            Lekh Lekha is a beginning of a journey.  It is a journey to a holy land.  It is a journey of finding God and changing oneself.  In this parasha, Abraham and Sarah alter their country and also change their names.  In this journey, Abram becomes Abraham (17:5), Sarai becomes Sarah (17:15).  The parasha even ends with a transformation of the body; Abraham performs berit mila and Sarah begins a life of motherhood.  They are new people, a new identity; a fresh spiritual reality opens up to them at every step.

 

            The journey continues long after their arrival in Israel.  Abraham continues to wander.  He moves: Shekhem, Beit El, Egypt, Beit El, Chevron; one could suggest that Abraham experiences a concomitant spiritual odyssey.  He continues to develop, to grow, to realize his potential.

 

            Rashi (above) tells us that only in Israel can Abraham and Sarah have children.  In another comment later in the parasha, he links this renewed ability to have children not to the land but to their new identities.  "Abram will not have a child but Abraham will.  Sarai will not give birth but Sarah will" (15:5).  Their new identities, formed by their transformation, bring new vistas of opportunity.  Abraham and Sarah travel a journey of self-development and growth.

 

            Maybe that is why according to tradition, the ten tests get progressively more challenging.  The final test is the greatest of all: the Akeda.  Lekh Lekha, then, represents the idea of the test at its most creative.  It is commencement of a lifelong journey.

 

3.  GALUT: WANDERINGS OF EXILE

 

            Some thinkers have pointed not to the journey but rather to the fact that Abraham leaves his home and remains homeless, wandering.  He never buys land to live on.  He never settles down.  Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (modern Jewish Philosopher, 1908-1992) sees Abraham as an archetype of the Jew in exile:

 

"Usually, exile is understood as a sequence, an abnormal phase following upon a normal one.  Galut, the specifically Jewish form of exile, is rather different: it does not follow; it is at the beginning.

Jewish History begins with God's words to Abraham: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred and from thy father's house to the land that I will show thee.'  The history of Judaism commences with galut.  If exile is at the very start then there must be something in the nature of Judaism, in God's plan for the Jewish people, which is inseparable from it.  Abraham, in order to become the patriarch of Israel, had to leave his father's house and the land of his birth.  He embraced his destiny in a world which was alien to him, to his faith, to his values, to his truth.  He went into exile, because in the world as it existed then, Abraham could not find a home.  He had the choice: either to be true to himself and become a wanderer, or to become one with his surroundings and remain at home.  He chose himself, his personal destiny; but in order to do that he had to go into exile.

...  What is the significance of galut as a starting point?  One might generalize and say: There are certain ideals that are not easily absorbed by the order of the world; there are certain values that are repulsed by the laws of power history; ideas and values that are strangers among man and are of tragic necessity forced into exile.  Such a stranger in history is the idea represented by the Jewish people in the history of mankind ... As Abraham did not fit into the local world of his birthplace, so do his children not fit into the universal world of the nations to the extent that it is dominated by materialistic self-interest and ambitions of power."  (Faith after the Holocaust, pp. 122-123)

 

            Abram cannot grow spiritually while he remains in a power seeking, hedonistic class society of idolaters.  He must move.  And if he can never find a place to fit in, he will continue to be on the move, endlessly.  Better to remain true to one's values and sacrifice comfort than to allow oneself to settle down and thereby lose one's conscience.

 

SUMMARY

 

            We have seen three different explanations of this journey.  The first sees this journey as a test of obedience, a trial of Abraham's faith in God.  The second explanation sees this journey as a metaphor for a spiritual quest.  A spiritual development accompanies the physical journey.  Our third interpretation sees the focus on Abraham's independence of spirit and morality.  Settling somewhere indicates a certain acquiescence to the local value system.  In a world of immorality, Abraham can settle nowhere.  In reality, these are three complimentary perspective of this important voyage.

 

            Each explanation can be seen to stress a different phrase in the first pasuk of our parasha.  The first explanation focuses on the "from your land, your birthplace, from your father's house."  The second explanation emphasizes "to the land where I will show you to yourself" and the third interpretation wants to stress the words of the command "Lekh - Get out."

 

            The Children of Israel are seen to be living in the same pattern as their patriarchs.  We have the same DNA and we seem to follow their path.  We also traveled a journey to the promised land, a hard and demanding journey.  We still wander around the globe, not precisely fitting in anywhere, somewhere along a path towards the Promised Land.  May the word of God give us direction and help us to continually create ourselves anew.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

RASHI - (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) - Troyes, France 1040-1105.  The father of all Bible commentary.  His notes on the Bible are a first stepping stone for every student and scholar of the Bible.

 

RAMBAN - Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman - Nachmanides.  B. in Spain 1194 d. Israel 1270.  One of the most important of all Bible commentators.  A doctor, talmudist and kabbalist and important communal leader.

 

MESHEKH CHOKHMA - Rabbi Simcha Ha-kohen Rabbi of Dvinsk (1843-1926).  Renowned talmudist and respected communal leader.  This book contains his insights on the Pentateuch.

 

SEFAT EMET - The weekly discourses of the Chasidic Rebbe, R. Yehuda Arieh Leib from Ger 1847-1905 (Gur-Kalvaria).