In this week’s Parsha HaShem commands Avraham (Abraham), our father, with the well-known commandment lech lecha, “you shall surely go”. Avraham is commanded to leave his land, the place of his birth, his father’s house to sojourn to the land “that I shall show you”.
This is how the written Torah chooses to introduce us to the first Jew, from whom came the entire nation of Israel. The Torah tells us that Avraham was, at this time, a young man of seventy five when he undertook the fulfillment of this commandment. I hear this and I stop to think just how difficult of a request that this was for Avraham. Granted he had already left the land of his birth, as the Torah states clearly at the end of last week’s Parsha, however, to leave his father’s house, from the land that he had become accustomed to. In short to leave it all behind. Leave all that is and was ever familiar to him to follow G-d into the unknown.
This is the first test of Avraham that is recorded in the Torah. In total, over the course of his life, the Mishna in Avos (5:3) teaches us that Avraham was tested by HKB”H 10 times in total. Of those, according to the mefarshim the mitzvah of Lech Lecha, was number 2. But what was number one? Well that was when Avraham willingly gave up his life in Ur Casdim in order to sanctify HaShem’s name.
Now, which one of these two is more severe? Clearly, if HaShem was testing Avraham then, as the testing progressed, it got more and more difficult. No one gives someone a hard test and then an easy test! Once I have already demonstrated that I can bench-press 200 pounds there is no point to someone testing me at 100 or 150 pounds! So clearly the commandment of Lech Lecha was the more difficult test. Why is this true?
It would appear to me that the following axiom is the answer to this question. As many of my students tell me “I’m up to die al Kiddush HaShem! No problem”, but then I tell them “While that may be true it is an even greater feat to LIVE al Kiddush HaShem”.
It is quite possible that if we are confronted with a situation in which we are asked to give up our own life for a totally altruistic reason and in the heat of the moment we find within ourselves the strength to rise to the challenge. Even if the cost is our very life.
In times of war, for example, where the axiom “there are no atheists in the foxholes” is a truism, we can find soldiers of dubious backgrounds doing the utmost, most altruistic things on behalf of their fellow soldiers, their families, and the nation. But like all wars they eventually end. Then these self-same soldiers go back to “real life” and to who they were before the war.
Many were the Israeli soldiers who served their country and their people in defense of the onslaught of the Arab invaders in both the 1969 and the Yom Kippur wars. Many of them reached great heights in emunah and were witness to clear feats of outright hashgacha pratit (personal Divine intervention) and even spoke of them in awe among their friends… and then, in the words of a certain Ba’al teshuva that I know, “they turned around and went back to feeding the chickens”.
The “ten tests” of Abraham in many ways present a paradigm that we need to look at closely and consider, as the RaMBa”N (Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman) teaches us concerning many of the stories related in Genesis “the actions of the Fathers are a sign for the children”. This means that these seeming “stories” of the avos that the Torah tells us about are there to teach us, the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov something about ourselves as well.
The following is the lesson that I feel that Lech Lecha is teaching us:
In the important sefer Netivos Shalom, by the Slonimer Rav, HaRav Shalom Berzofsky, he notes a Midrash on this week’s Parsha that says there are two mitzvos in which the language of lech lecha is used. The first is the one above when Avraham is commanded to leave his present place to go to a new one. The second is the famous akeidah (sacrifice) of Yitzchak, where the Torah says (24:2) lech lecha el Eretz ha Moriah, (go to the land of Moriah). The Midrash then says a puzzling statement “and I was not sure which of these was preferable”. How says the Netivos Shalom, could it not be clear which was the preferable of the two? Clearly, the akeidah story, being the last of the trial of Abraham, should have been the greater of the two!
To which he answers that there is a very basic difference between the two tests. The first lech lecha is a constant test, it re-appears on almost a daily basis, as opposed to the second which was much more transitory in its nature. But in truth both of these ideas share a commonality lech lecha, say the commentaries (see Malbim, ad loc.) means that these are the tests that will build YOU, that will make you into the greatest potential YOU. Lech lecha = go to (become) you.
As I mentioned previously, going back to the full commandment that HaShem told Avraham, “go from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house”. That’s a lot to consider. But before moving on let’s ask yet another question that we find in the commentaries.
When looked upon from a logical standpoint these three commands are out of order! After all we start our lives in our birthplace, in our parent’s home and lastly in the land in which we dwell, yet the Torah here tells us to leave the land in which he dwelled, the land in which he was born (which he had, as RaSh”I points out, already left long ago) and lastly his father’s house. Why did it do that?
In a nutshell, all of the above is to teach me that in order to reach the greatest potential “me” there are things about myself that I need to leave behind.
In the world at large, especially in academia, there is a great debate about which is the most powerful influences on man. Is it “nurture” or is it “nature”? Without getting mired down in that debate, the Torah here is telling us that we are “nurtured” by many different things. It is the order of their importance and their magnitude that the Torah is describing to us.
Man is a social creature. Despite the fact that he doesn’t necessarily have a deep and abiding relationship with it, the society that he lives in has a powerful effect on him. It is from a society that we are indoctrinated with many of the core concepts that truly rule our lives. Our understanding of “fairness”, of “right vs. wrong”, of what is “good” and what is not, and many, many other core concepts are indoctrinated into us from the society that we live in without our conscious knowledge. For those of us that live in America, for example, the concept of what a beautiful woman is looks roughly like someone who isn’t quite – but almost! – is on the verge of starvation and/or anorexia. In Roman times that was not the case. Then it was thought that a woman of stout nature was the epitome of beauty. In China it was/is women of dainty feet, to the extent that they would/will mutilate their own feet by forcing them into shoes that were too small.
Justice changes from place to place as well. In America, justice is served, in general by placing the offender into prison, where he is to be “re-educated” at best or at least kept off the streets and away from others. In Taiwan justice is served, in many cases, with direct capital punishment. Canning, for example, is a common punishment. In Sedom (Sodom and Gomorrah) justice was met out by logical-illogical inference. If a person gave alms to the poor (tzedakah) they were punished for having committed a capital offense. If someone struck their friend and caused them to bleed the injured party had to pay the attacker for having done the injured man a service – bloodletting! Indeed there is a famous story about Eliezer, the servant of Avraham, who came to Sedom and was attacked in the above manner. When he tried to sue the attacker for damages the judge ruled that Eliezer had to pay his attacker for having performed bloodletting. Eliezer, genius that he was, immediately picked up a stone, smacked the judge over the head with it and said: “You two work out the bill amongst yourselves!”
Above and beyond that is the place that we were born. This point is stressed by our sages, ob”m, who note that it is strange that HKB”H commanded Avraham to leave the land of his birth since had already left it years before! To answer this our sages, ob”m, say (see Rashi, ad loc.) that even so – he still had to further remove himself from it. The reason for this is because this place is even more powerful than the place that we live.
During our formative childhood years, we are truly indoctrinated in ways that we cannot understand. Not to be P.C. there was a saying during the days of slavery that went “You can get the black man out of Africa, but not Africa from the black man”.
We experience the power of our childhood whenever we, as adults, encounter something that is reminiscent of our childhood years. All of a sudden we feel like we are kids again as we are overcome with the memories and emotions that accompanied all of our activities and days during that formative time. In many ways, most of our life-patterns, habits and customs are from this time in our life. It is much harder, therefore, to un-learn bad traits and patterns that we learned as children than it is those that we learned at a much later point in our lives. It’s not enough, therefore, just to have left our place of birth – to grow we have to leave it far behind. “Keep going further”, said HKB”H to Avraham, “you’re not quite far away enough yet”.
Of all things, though, the most powerful influence in a person’s life is that which he lived and breathed in his parent’s home. It can be either the most powerful source for becoming a good person, with proper upbringing and manners, or the opposite can be true. Terach, Avraham’s father, although I’m sure he had many positive traits, was a source of toxicity when it came to using the world in the proper manner, as an Oved HaShem. It was for this reason that Avraham was told to leave his father’s house. In fact, as Rashi noted at the end of last week’s Parsha, he was told to do so even at the “expense” of forfeiting the mitzvah of kibbud av v’em (honoring one’s father and mother). That’s just how bad it was.
The reason for this, it would appear to me, is stressed in the Torah when we find that the Torah in this weeks Parsha parrots the words of last weeks Parsha, thereby comparing Avraham to his father. At the end of Parshas Noach, the Torah tells us about Terach (11:31) …and he left with them to go to the land of Canaan and they came to Charan and they settled there. Whereas by Avraham it says (12:5) …and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and the came to the land of Canaan.
Terach had aspirations at one point in his life, he, too, wanted to get to the land of Canaan, but he stopped half-way because he was comfortable there. Avraham, on the other hand, saw things through to the end. He planned to and actually made it to the land of Canaan. But to do that, HKB”H told him, he has to recognize that he was – at present – weighed down with anti-spiritual baggage. The only way to go to Canaan and make it, to continue on life’s voyage of spiritual growth, it to recognize the how our lives are affected by our society, childhood and parents house and to recognize that if we truly want to grow there is much of the above that we have to give up on.
Everyone knows themselves, the weaknesses of our youth, our society etc. if we want to grow we have to be able to take a really good accounting of ourselves and get rid of the spiritual “ballast” that is keeping us small, mediocre people, instead of soaring to the heights of greatness.
There is no growth without sacrifice. There is no growth without difficulty. If I recognize that there are things that I am doing in my life because of my society, childhood, and home which are “a part of me” and therefore how can I possibly give them up, that is because we recognize that these things are, in actuality, keeping us down.
Life is full of tests. In fact, says the Messilat Yesharim, that is the point of life. But HaShem doesn’t test us so that we fail. He test’s us so that even if we fail we will prepare and grow to eventually pass that test. But if we refuse to allow that the above is holding us back and that the only way to continue to progress in life, (and not stagnate) is to give them up… then LECH LECHA! Go make you into the potential you! Give up on these things that are miring you in mediocrity and prepare to ascend!