The First Test

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

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This week of Torah learning at the Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash
 is being sponsored by Ronni & Nachum Katlowitz
in honor of Ronni's father's birthday.
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PARASHAT LEKH LEKHA

 

THE FIRST TEST

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

Although the story of Avraham Avinu began briefly last week, the essence of his life, the ten trials he faced,[1] only begins in earnest at the beginning of this week’s parasha, culminating with the trial of Akeidat Yitzchak at the end of Parashat Vayeira.  Of the ten challenges that Avraham had to overcome, the first opens our reading:

 

Now Hashem said unto Avram: “Get yourself out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.” (12:1)

 

This first trial does not appear to be anything particularly challenging.  Although one midrash describes it as “a trial within a trial,”[2] involving the uprooting of all past emotional attachments and the willingness to travel without any awareness of a future destination,[3] the simple reading implies differently.  It begins with a command (request?) to leave the comfortable environs of family and country, yet it is immediately followed and sweetened by a sevenfold promise of great blessings, including fame, prosperity, and the founding of a great nation.  Clearly, the later challenges that Avraham would face, including the capture of loved ones by foreign powers (Sarah twice, Lot once), strife within his household (Sarah and Hagar, Yitzchak and Yishmael), and the concluding command to sacrifice Yitzchak to Hashem on an altar were challenges that would have tried most men.  Here, however, the temptation of the accompanying blessings appears too irresistible to resist. 

 

That Avraham chose to follow Hashem immediately appears almost pre-destined.  Clearly, Hashem knew his customer, as it were.  Not even one tiny question escapes Avraham’s lips. (Indeed, when Avraham chooses to speak to Hashem during his trials and when he chooses silence as policy is worthy of noting as his life story is read.)  What motivates Avraham’s initial obedience?  Is he simply a God fearing man, acting out of religious motives?  Or does he follow Hashem to the new land inspired by great ambition and the promise of future reward?  The text remains silent on this point.  Why is this, the first episode recorded in Parashat Lekh Lekha, considered worthy of inclusion among Avraham’s trials?

 

1 Now Hashem said unto Avram: “Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, unto the land that I will show you.

2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you will be a blessing.

3 And I will bless those that bless you, and he that curses you will I curse; and through you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

4 So Avram went as Hashem had spoken unto him, and Lot went with him; and Avram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran.

5 And Avram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Haran and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.

6 Ad Avram passed through the land unto the place of Shekhem, unto the terebinth of Moreh. And the Canaanite was then in the land.

7 And Hashem appeared unto Avram, and said: “Unto your seed will I give this land;” and he built there an altar unto Hashem, who appeared unto him.

8 And he removed from there unto the mountain on the east of Beth-El, and pitched his tent, having Beth-El on the west and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar unto Hashem and called upon the name of Hashem.

9 And Avram journeyed, going on still toward the south.

 

A cursory glance at the opening section seems to confirm our earlier suspicions.  No sooner does Avraham arrive in the land of Canaan than Hashem reappears to reassure him that this land is indeed destined to belong to his descendants forever. 

 

However, a close reading that pays attention to the use of repeated words, the leitvort (in Hebrew – milat mancheh), reveals a very different picture.  Seven times within this short section, the word “land” (eretz) appears.  Each time it appears, however, it carries a different connation than the previous one.  The following table should clarify this important point:

 

APPEARANCE

 

REFERS TO

1 – verse 1 – “your land”

Avraham’s homeland, the place of his family and friends, which he is required to abandon.

 

2 – verse 1 – “the land that I will show you”

The land of Canaan – the vague, unspecified land that Hashem dangles before Avraham in exchange for his obedience.

 

3 – verse 5 – “and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan

 

The direction of Avraham’s travels, although it has not yet been specified as his ultimate destination.

4 - verse 5 – “and into the land of Canaan they came.”

The point of arrival in Avraham’s travels.  We would have expected Hashem to appear here and announce that finally, Avraham has arrived at the correct location.  Instead …

 

5 – verse 6 – “And Avram passed through the land unto the place of Shekhem”

Even within the land of Canaan, Avraham appears to wander restlessly.  Why?  We can suggest that the next appearance of the word “land” eretz provides a clue …

 

6 – verse 6 – “And the Canaanite was then in the land”

The land where Avraham arrived is already occupied – by an entire people, no less!  One can imagine Avraham being extremely perplexed by the situation.  How can he reconcile the Divine promise to transform him into “a great nation” with the reality of the entrenched Canaanite settlements?  (One can then explain the constant and restless motion that epitomizes Avraham’s movements when he first arrives – is he searching for a small uninhabited corner of the land to call his own.)  

 

7 – verse 7 – “Unto your seed will I give this land”

Hashem appears to Avraham and both reassures and clarifies the promise.  Yes, this is the correct land.  However, the land will not go to him, but to his descendants.  They will be the one to inherit Canaan – the fate of the Canaanite is left unanswered (for now).

 

This reading provides us not only with the form of this specific trial, but an understanding of the nature of the Divine tests that Avraham will face.  Avraham is not only wrestling with the explicit challenge to leave his past behind for an unknown future.  He is constantly grappling with his understanding of the Divine communication (more specifically, the promises of great rewards) and attempting to reconcile it with the difficulties and impediments that his present reality places before him.  If this land is somehow to become his, then why must he face a famine that drives him away almost immediately (in textual, if not actual, time)?  If his destiny involves numerous progeny, how does this reconcile with Sarah’s barrenness?  Each challenge, therefore, also ends with a Divine communication that explains, encourages, and strengthens his resolve to continue.  Slowly, as the years unfold, he begins to understand the profundity and messages that Hashem is conveying though the medium of life’s tests and trials.  Hopefully, his successes will inspire us, his children, to continue with the same strength that he did. 

 

Shabbat Shalom!

 



[1] Variant listings of the ten trials can be found in Pirkei Avot 5:3, Shemot Rabba 15:27; Tanchuma Lekh Lekha 18, and Pirkei De-’Rabbi Eliezer 26:1, among dozens of midrashic sources.

[2] Tanchuma, Lekh Lekha 3.

[3] Whether or not Avraham actually knew if Canaan was his final destination is a matter of debate among the commentators.  Several early midrashim vividly portray Avraham wandering through the various nations of the earth, all in the hope that Hashem would suddenly appear and announce that here, where Avraham stood, was the promised land.  Other commentators suggest that the land of Canaan was already well-known as a place that would encourage spiritual growth, and therefore it was the natural destination that Avraham would head towards it (see the Seforno’s commentary to Bereishit 12:5).  Terach’s aborted journey to Canaan, as described previously, only strengthens this contention.  A third approach, between the two above extremes, is suggested by the Ohr Ha-Chaim Ha-Kodesh (commentary to Bereishit 12:1-4).  Clearly, he argues, Hashem initially increased the challenge to Avraham by deliberately omitting the final destination.  Once Avraham responded and began to travel, however, the Ohr Ha-Chaim argues that it is self-understood that Hashem would reveal his destination.