God of Heaven and Earth

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat LEKH LEKHA

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

 

God of Heaven and Earth

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

"He moved from there to the mountain … and there he called in God's Name" (Bereishit 12:8). Avraham is identified, more than any other quality, by the characteristic of "calling in God's Name," meaning the publicizing of God's existence in the world. The nature of this publicizing is not clear from our parasha, but in parashat Chayei Sara Rashi notes the discrepancy between two verses, one of which describes God as "God of the heavens," while the other refers to Him as "God of the heavens and God of the earth." He explains:

 

[The first time] he does not declare, "God of the earth"… [because] he said: Now He is God of the heavens and God of the earth, for I have made people familiar with Him. But when He took me from my father's house, He was "God of the heavens" but not "God of the earth," for people did not know Him.

 

What is the meaning of Avraham's achievement, namely, "bringing down" God from the heavens to the earth? We may say that the integration of God into the world is achieved and expressed on two levels.

 

On the one hand, we see instances of God's "descent" to the world, whether for the purposes of Divine intervention ("God came down to see the world and the tower that the humans had built"), or for purposes of revelation ("God came down onto Mount Sinai, at the top of the mountain"). On the other hand, there is the possibility of elevating man towards God through spiritual ascent.

 

As important as were Avraham's actions in turning God into "God of the earth" – either by means of His "descent" or through man's ascent towards Him – they carried two dangers. The first danger is that, following God's "descent," He may be perceived exclusively as "God of the earth," and no longer as "God of the heavens." If God, Who is transcendent and abstract, having no body nor any physical form, descends to the level of ruling this world, then the world may lose the understanding that God rules everything – including that which is above and beyond our world.

 

The second danger, no less grave, is that in the wake of God's descent, man may relate to God on his own terms. In other words, people can come to believe that they know and understand God, and depict Him in their thoughts using concepts familiar to them. Such personification must be avoided at all costs.

 

These two dangers are addressed in the declaration, "Hear, O Israel - the Lord our God, the Lord is One." On the one hand, the Lord is One: there is none other, in the heavens or on earth. On the other hand, the Lord is "our God": He is unlike us in any form that we might imagine, and we are unable to understand how He acts or thinks.

 

Avraham's enormous contribution lay in his success in inculcating in the world the understanding that the Lord is God of the heavens and the earth – without ever personifying Him or limiting His Kingship to the earth alone.

 

 

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Lekh Lekha 5763 [2002].)