Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27)
In last week’s Torah reading, we were engrossed in the history of humanity as a whole, and in how it was nearly entirely destroyed in The Flood as a punishment for deeply-ingrained moral corruption. In contrast, this week’s reading, Parshat Lech Lecha, focuses on the roots of a specific nation, the Jewish People, the direction it took, and why it was so successful.
Hidden among all of the names of nations and people listed in the past two readings, we find fleeting mention of the family of Terah, who had three children: Abraham, Nahor, and Haran. The family made its way from Ur Casdim, in Babylonia, to the land of Canaan, though the text does not elaborate on their journey, its significance, or reason it was mentioned at all.
Indeed, Abraham seems to have come out of nowhere, before we are given any information about his personality. The Torah chooses an “unorthodox” way, to say the least, of describing the Abraham’s first encounter with Hashem: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you” [ibid., 12:1]. We have just met Abraham, but we still do not know who we are, what our calling is, or the purpose of our existence!
In comparison, the Torah provides a description about Noah before we meet him: he was righteous and just, and had found favor in God’s eyes [Gen. 6:8-9].
Perhaps the difference in the way these two people, Abraham and Noah, are introduced serves to underscore the enormous gap between them, even before we have learned about their prolific lives. Clearly, both were very righteous people who had earned God’s good graces due to the wonderful things they had done. But we need only glance at their names to understand their fundamental difference.
Noah, whose name means “comfortable” in Hebrew, was indeed a comfortable person for other people and even animals to be with (lest we forget, Noach survived a forty-day “cruise” with the ancient equivalent of the San Diego Zoo), and he seems to have lived a rather comfortable life, spending much of his time resting in bed, day and night, hesitant to make any changes to anything.
Such a man could not succeed in bringing about a revolution within his surroundings, and would even struggle to take care of himself and his family. When God addresses him, he will tell him how to save himself, and he does not even hint at a way Noah could repair the world or bring about its salvation.
The exact opposite is true with regards to Abraham. God meets him when he is already on the march, and tells him to keep going (they might have halted for various reasons). Later, God appears to Abraham and commands him to continue walking. Abraham is a character in perpetual motion, who understands that the world needs to be repaired and improved.
The statement of “and all families of the Earth shall be blessed through you” [ibid. 12:3] takes on special significance in light of the fact that he is the forefather of the Jewish People. He is being given the mandate to bring change and blessing to the entire world, not just to himself and his own family. Many Midrashic tales relate how Abraham discovered God, since these verses make no explicit mention of this encounter. Below is a particularly well-known one:
Rabbi Yitzchak said: this may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a castle aglow. He said, “Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it? The owner of the building looked out and said, “I am the owner of the castle.”
Similarly, because Abraham our father said, “Is it possible that this world has no guide? No one to look after it?,” the Holy One, Blessed be He, looked out and said to him, “I am the Master of the Universe. [Breishit Rabba 39:1]
This Midrashic account, which tells us about a man wandering and wondering who the owner of the castle (the world) is, seems imaginative and rather detached from the verses in the text. From where did our rabbis derive this?
We recall that the first verse to discuss Abraham’s actions describes how his father took his family: “…they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees to go to the land of Canaan…” [Gen. 11:31], and immediately thereafter, we encounter God commanding Abraham to “go forth” and leave everything behind. It is then that we understand that for Abraham, walking and searching are not random events, but rather actions that constitute the very essence of his existence.
To want to go anywhere, we need to feel mystified about what exists in a less familiar place. By definition, walking means abandoning old and familiar habits, as the Torah specifies, “from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s home” [ibid., 12:1].
Abandoning that with which we are familiar is one of the most terrifying things a person must face in order to grow. A baby taking his first steps feels insecure when he needs to stand up and walk forward, leave a familiar place, and take himself somewhere else.
An individual’s efforts to develop faith and morality are no less vital, despite the risks involved. It involves leaving the idol-worshipping world that surrounds you, saying, “I believe in one God” – and to go down that new path.
The expression “go forth”, or “lech lecha” in Hebrew, is a play on words achieved by changing a word’s vowels. Here, “go forth” means “go for your own sake”. In other words, although Abraham is commanded to perform a seemingly heroic act involving the abandonment of everything he has, the Torah describes this act as something vital that will work to his benefit and for his sake, since this is the essence of a person’s existence: to advance himself and others.
This is one of the most important lessons from Abraham: our mission as a Jewish society is to constantly assess where we are going and what our direction should be to get there. And most importantly – always be on the move, never standing still.
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