Parshat Lech Lecha: “Avraham the Hebrew” – Particularity, Universality and What is Between Them
Rabbi Dr. Tomer, Zohar and their son Michael Yeshurun Corinaldi are Straus-Amiel shlichim in southern Italy, where Rabbi Corinaldi heads the Kumi Ori center for the advancement of Jewish life and education
“Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house.”
The first Divine call to Avram was to depart from his birthplace and leave his surroundings. Immediately following this we see the consequence of this departure:
“And in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”
Ostensibly, the Torah seems to be describing two contradictory movements: separation from one’s surroundings vs. connection and reproduction.
If we read on in the parsha we will notice that both these notions continue to co-exist. Avram arrives in the Land of Israel as instructed by God and receives a very particular national blessing:
“To your seed I shall give this land.”
And immediately following this, we read:
“…and he built there an altar unto the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord”
– this verse denotes a general calling upon the Lord.
The famine compels Avram to go down to Egypt, where the story of Pharaoh and Sarai takes place. Driven by fear and detachment, Avram introduces Sarai as his own sister, an action which leads to separation once again:
“And they sent him away and his wife and all that he had.”
Avram returns to the Land of Israel, to the very spot where he had initially built his altar, and once again calls out to the entire world:
“And Avram called there upon the name of the Lord.”
The pendulum never ceases to move between two extremities, swinging constantly between segregation, on the one hand, and a connection to the world, expressed by calling upon the name of the Lord, on the other.
The story continues and we are told of the dispute that broke out between the shepherds of Avram and the shepherds of Lot. Avram then asks of Lot:
“Separate yourself, I pray thee, from me.”
And once again Avram receives the blessing of the Lord for his descendants:
“For all the land which thou seeth, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed forever.”
In the section that follows, Avram goes out to war against the Four Kings in order to save Lot, and following his victory he receives the blessing of Malkitzedek, king of Shalem:
“Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth.”
This verse clearly expresses the acknowledgement of an outsider, one who is defined as a “Priest of God Most High” and even receives from Avram a tenth of all the revenue (as explained by Rashi).
God then promises Avram as follows:
“Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs…”
This promise is immediately followed by the story of an Egyptian maidservant – Hagar. Sarai deals harshly with Hagar until the latter “flees from her”.
Once again, we are witness to this dual motion – connection vs. detachment from the surrounding nations/the local environment.
At the end of the parsha we see something quite extraordinary, even paradoxical.
God changes Avram’s name to one bearing universal significance:
“As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Avram, but thy name shall be Avraham; for the father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.”
However, in this very same covenant, God also says:
“And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land of thy dwellings, all the Land of Canaan…”.
Furthermore, the covenant between Avraham’s seed and God is manifest in a way which is extraordinarily unique:
“This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.”
One cannot but wonder how is it that in the very covenant in which God changes Avram’s name to Avraham – a name denoting that Avraham will be the father of many nations, a name signifying universality – God also commands him to perform an extraordinary act that has become a sign and symbol of the Jewish people throughout history, marking their individuality, segregating them from all others; an act that was even looked upon negatively by the gentiles of the world, so much so that it led to the forceful conversion and awful persecution of Jews!
A fascinating explanation of this paradox is offered by R’ Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev in his beautiful book Kdushat Levi:
“‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations (Bereshit 17:4). The idea that is conveyed here is that the main task of the tzaddik is to elevate the lower spheres and bring them closer to God Almighty. As is written in the Zohar – ‘We wish to stand before the King’. However, the tzaddik is in great peril when he descends for the purpose of uplifting, because the tzaddik must constantly be close to the infinity of God. For this reason, God promised Avraham – “My covenant is with thee”. The covenant is the connection with the Almighty. In other words, what God wished to say was that He would be with Avraham even at such times when Avraham is ‘the father of a multitude of nations’. And this requires more careful reading.” (Kdushat Levi, Parshat Lech Lecha on the words “‘As for Me, behold, My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be the father of a multitude of nations”.)
Put more simply, owing to the universal mission with which Avraham was tasked by God – to elevate the lower spheres of reality – there was a need for a special covenant that connected him to God in an extraordinary and particular manner.
It seems to me that the ostensibly contradicting trends that are given expression in our portion can be explained in the above manner as well. In order to operate and have universal impact, one must separate oneself, segregate from all others, subject oneself to a covenant that is unique to us only, one which connects us to God.
This explanation is complemented by yet another fascinating explanation of the Kdushat Levi in Parshat Toldot, where he refers to the matter of Avram’s name being changed to Avraham:
“And the reason Avraham and Sarah’s names were changed, and not that of Yitzhak, is that the trait of chessed [“charity and kindness”] signifies the spreading and extension of the infinite Divine light (behirut) of God Almighty. When this infinite Divine light descends into this world, it must converge into itself and diminish itself. Anything that descends from the world above to the world below must, by definition, lessen itself so that this world may contain it. Similarly, Avram’s name had to change to Avraham. He was Avram before he descended and diffused into this world, when his light was still very bright. But after he descended and spread out into this world, his infinite light had to diminish itself, and that is why he was given a different name – Avraham…”
R’ Levi Yitzhak goes on to add:
“Before he diffused into this world, he was called Avram. For Avram is a name of the world above, which is called ram [“lofty and high”], but after he had spread out, and his behirut consequently diminished – he was called Avraham, av hamon goyim, father of a multitude of nations, for he had now descended into the world of the multitudes. Hence, before he had spread out into the lower world, he could not father offspring. Only after he had extended himself and spread out into the world below and his name was changed to Avraham, could he bring forth progeny.” (ibid.)
The name Avram – av ram [“a mighty/lofty father”] denotes a higher level than the name Avraham – av hamon goyim [“the father of a multitude of nations”]. Avram, a dweller of the lofty world, had to diminish himself into an Avraham in order to descend into the world of the multitudes. Only then could he realize his potential and bear children of his own.
The notion that a person must depart from his place in order to act and do for the Jewish People even at the risk of “undermining” his own “spirituality” is a well-known one. However, R’ Levi Yitzhak teaches us a novel idea: Even for the sake of engaging in positive activity among the nations of the world, one is obliged to diminish and lessen oneself and descend spiritually. For only in this manner was it possible for Avraham to fulfill the mission for which he was chosen.
“Ma’ase avot siman lebanim,” is a well-known quote – “the actions of the fathers are a sign unto the children.” In my opinion, it is possible for us to achieve both of the ideas presented above. On the one hand, we must always remember that we are unique, connected to God. Not only has He stamped the seal of the covenant between ourselves and Him into our very flesh, we are also bound to Him with our souls and the Torah we study. As is written:
“Lo, it is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” (Bamidbar 23:9)
Southern Italy – an area which was once under Spanish rule, and from which Jews were expelled during the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain with the aim of erasing any sign of Judaism – has experienced an astonishing Jewish revival in the past generation.
This Jewish Renaissance is manifest in different ways. Firstly, there is renewed interest in Jewish history and culture, new research is underway, new museums are being built and Jewish historical sites and synagogues are being renovated. Secondly, various groups are showing interest in Jewish life and Jewish & Hebrew Studies, and even in observing Jewish traditions. Thirdly, we have been witness to a growing number of non-Jews who have shown interest in converting and joining the Jewish People. Additionally, many Jews have recently moved to southern Italy from other parts of the world.
Most noteworthy is the San Nicandro community in the Apulia region, which has turned the ancient synagogue in Trani into a Jewish center. Furthermore, the Jewish communities of Sicily, Palermo and Catania are equally noteworthy.