Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 – 17:27)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
The main character in Parshat Lech Lecha is Avraham Avinu, founding father of the Nation of Israel. He is commanded to leave his homeland, Ur Casdim, and sojourn to the Land of Israel. He “makes aliyah”, where he would need to cope with the hardships that often face a newcomer, such as acclimating to a new society, struggling with making a living, battling hunger, and so on.
Conversely, the main character of the previous parsha is Noach, who needed to deal with a corrupt world that was destroyed, and then build a new one after the flood. A quick comparison of the biographies of these two characters reveals an enormous chasm. We are told that when Noach was born, people said that he would comfort the world, and later, he was termed “a pure and righteous person” (Bereishit / Genesis 6:9). To top it all off, we are told that he found favor in the eyes of God.
As for Avraham, we are told absolutely nothing. We know who his father was, and even his two brothers are mentioned in the Torah, but that’s all. And then, out of the blue, God says to Avraham, essentially, ‘Go somewhere else, to a place that I will show you. Leave your warm and familiar home and go somewhere new.’
None of these verses say anything about Avraham’s personality, his positive traits, or anything of the like. When we were in kindergarten and primary school, we learned all kinds of stories about Avraham. One story describes how Avraham wandered around the world in search of his Creator. Another story describes Avraham as a boy who broke the idols his father was selling for a living, and a third story relates how Avraham was thrown into a fiery furnace because of his faith, yet survived. These three stories share something in common: not one of them appears in the text of the Torah.
A question immediately comes to mind: why is it that Torah finds it important to describe Noach and his actions, while not even hinting at any of Avraham’s background? It doesn’t even specify the reason why Avraham was commanded to leave his family and travel to a foreign land. All of the events of the flood and the construction of the ark are described in fine detail, while key elements of Avraham’s life, and the reason he was chosen to be the father of the Jewish People, are left out. Why?
Over many years of Jewish history, the identity of the nation would come to be associated with a full range of character traits. For part of its history, Jewish identity was defined by faith in God and commitment to His commandments. At other times, the nationalistic aspects of this identity were more dominant. Maimonides felt that traits like humility, bashfulness and kindness are characteristics of the Jewish people – so much so that when he recorded his halachot, he stated that people with brazen personalities might not be Jewish, and a background check on such individuals would be in order (later, some rabbis even issued a ruling that if we were to follow Maimonides’ criteria, we wouldn’t be able to get married, because of the brazenness that has grown stronger over the generations).
Had the Torah stated that Avraham was chosen because of this quality or that, it would have been established that having a trait or performing a certain deed is sufficient for being considered Jewish. This is what the Torah is trying to avoid.
The same holds true with regard to living in the Land of Israel: we aren’t here because it is better than other place in some respect. We are here because it is our land, period.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, of blessed memory, said: “Why the Land of Israel? Just because!” The Torah wants to emphasize that after Avraham was chosen (clearly, there were good reasons that he was chosen, which we see in the parshiot the feature him), a fact was established: the nation of Israel exists. Any member of this nation can become fully devoted to it, and play a role in building it up.
Another interesting phenomenon, also related to this parsha, is the mitzvah of Brit Milah, circumcision, which Avraham was commanded to perform. This mitzvah is hardly the most sensible commandment, to say the least, as it involves causing physical injury to a child, and we are hard-pressed to find a reason for it. Nevertheless, it is this very mitzvah that most Jewish people insist on keeping – even those that don’t necessarily keep every tenet of Jewish law.
Not everything needs to be explained or justified. I am part of a family because I am a member of that family, for better or for worse, and we have particular ways of doing things in my family. I don’t always love everything about my family, and sometimes, family members attempt to run away from their families. However, anyone who chooses to be part of a family (or part of the Jewish people) does so wholeheartedly, even when a custom isn’t logical or pleasant. Being a Jew is a life experience packed with content and meaning, even if we don’t know the main reasons behind its principles.