This Week's Torah Portion: Avram is Called

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Lech Lëcha (Genesis XII, 1-XVII, 27)

Last week’s parasha closed with the origin of the first true spiritual giant of the post-Mabbul age, Avram. This week’s parasha opens with an astonishing Divine demand, and a promise:

Vayomer Ha-Shem el Avram, Lech lëcha mé’artzëcha mimoldtëcha umibéyth avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’ekka. Vë’e‘escha lëgoy gadol. And Ha-Shem said to Avram, Go for you[rself] from your land, from your birth-place and from the house of your father to the land which I shall show you. And I shall make you into a great nation (XII, 1-2).

The Talmud (Rosh haShana 16b) tells us that the second verse depends upon the first, that the e‘escha lëgoy gadol came about because of Avram’s ready obedience to the Divine command.

This prompts Rashi to interpret that command as follows:

“Go for yourself” — for your benefit and your own good I shall make you into a great nation, for here [in Charan] you do not merit sons; and more. I shall make known your nature in the world.”

Avram “did not merit sons” in Charan? This is the Avram who, alone among his contemporaries, recognized the existence of the Creator and fought for that recognition at the risk of his life against the despotic, idolatrous regime of Nimrod (Pësachim 118a). This is the Avram who, together with his faithful wife and partner Sarai, made converts to the faith in the Creator and adherence to the seven Noachide commandments, as hinted in v. 5 and made explicit by Rashi ad loc. Who more would merit to have sons?

And further, what is the meaning of “I shall make known your nature in the world”? Is G-d a public relations agent? Did Avram, then, lust after fame?

Rabbi Ya‘aqov ben Asher, the Ba‘al haTurim, also links Ha-Shem’s command to the birth of Avram’s son, Yitzchaq (“Isaac”). He points out that the gimatriya or numerical value of the phrase lech lëcha is 100, thereby hinting at Avram’s age at his son’s birth. He also notes something else which alludes to a very deep significance to Avram’s sojourn:

[The verse] opens with “saying,” with the terminology through which the world was created, for the world was created with ten utterances [ma’amaroth], and in its entirety was created only in the merit of Avram; therefore, “utterance” [ma’amar] is written concerning him.

The Ba‘al haTurim is here referring to the mishna in Avoth V, 1: “The world was created by means of ten ma’amaroth.” The mishna goes on to ask why this was necessary, given that the omnipotent G-d could have created it all at once, and responds that this is in order to have multiple grounds for revenge against wrongdoers (rësha‘im) and for rewarding tzaddiqim. Rësha‘im, says the mishna, bring about the ruination of the world, as must have been still vividly present in the minds of Avram and his contemporaries (he was born only 292 years after the Mabbul).

Tzaddiqim, those who carry out G-d’s will and thus fulfill man’s purpose in the world, are therefore the sole justification for the world’s continuing existence.

As Rabbi ‘Ovadya miBartenura notes in his comment on the mishna, there is no comparing the value of work done in one day to work done over an extended period of time. This is an intuitive human perception. In this way, G-d showed how intensely precious this universe is to Him by seeming to linger over its creation.

However, Torah sources (Mëgilla 21b, Rosh haShana 32a, Bërésith Rabba XVII, 1) note a difficulty with this mishna: If we count the number of times the phrase Vayomer Elo-him occurs in the first chapter of Genesis, we find only nine: vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 20, 24, 26 and 29. Where is the tenth utterance?

The rabbinic sources conclude that the very first verse is that ma’amar, based upon King David’s assertion that Bidvar Ha-Shem shamayim na‘asu (“By Ha-Shem’s word were the Heavens made”; Psalms XXXIII, 6.) It is not coincidental that the verb amar requires an indirect object, someone or something to whom or to which to say, and so could not be used before something had come into existence.

Rashi, commenting on the first verse in the Torah, cites a midrash that explains the grammatically anomalous first word (bëréshith) as meaning that Ha-Shem created the world bishvil haTorah sheniqréth ‘réshith darko’ uvishvil Yisra’él sheniqréth ‘réshith tëvu’atho.’” (“For the sake of Torah, which is called ‘the beginning of His way’ [Proverbs VIII, 22], and for the sake of Israel, who are called ‘the first of His crop’ [Jeremiah II,3]”).

Rashi is telling us that the ultimate purpose of Creation was that Israel, the Torah-nation, should come into existence and infuse Creation with sanctity by using it for mitzvoth. The Talmud (‘Avoda Zara 3a) makes the same point by telling us that G-d created the world conditionally: “If Israel accept the Torah, [the world] is made good, and if not, I shall return you to chaos!” The Ba‘al haTurim, in telling us that the world was crated “in the merit of Avraham,” is merely pointing at the beginning of the process. But Rashi’s point (also noted by the Ba‘al haTurim) is that the process would not have gone forward had Avraham not accepted the challenge of lech lëcha, “and here you do not merit sons.” Yitzchaq, the next link in the patriarchal chain, would not have been born. Why?

There is another mishna in the same chapter of Avoth (V, 3) which sheds light on this question:

Avraham our father, peace be upon him, was tested with ten challenges and he withstood all of them.

The mishna goes on to explain why he was put to these tests:

[T]o make known how great was the affection of Avraham our father.

The major commentaries Tif’ereth Yisra’él and Tosëfoth Yom Tov tell us that this “affection” refers to Avraham’s great love of G-d, and the Rambam, in his commentary, tells us that the first of these trials was ours, lech lëcha mé’artzëcha, and the last was the ‘aqeida, when Avraham was commanded to sacrifice his son and heir Yitzchaq.

The mishna throws into relief Rashi’s second comment on our verse: “… and further, I shall make known your nature in the world.” Avraham’s entire personality, the hub around which his world revolved, was his complete and utter love of G-d. The Talmud (Sota 31b) emphasizes this by remarking: “Why is ‘G-d-fearing’ said of Avraham? He acted out of love (i.e., not fear)”.

The ÉshDath, the previous Ozherover Rebbe, explains that the nature of each of Avraham’s trials lay in the sense of aloneness, of alienation, of abandonment which it engendered, the feeling that G-d was far away, His purposes inscrutable. In Charan, Avraham had been secure in the bosom of family and friends, honored and respected, in a familiar place, comfortable. The beginning of his trials therefore consisted of the removal of that security. It was Avraham’s readiness to obey that call and embark on an open-ended adventure, not knowing where it would end but trusting faithfully that in the end there would be an eretz asher ar’ekka, which demonstrated to him and the world his fitness to be the father of Yitzchaq and hence the ancestor of the Torah-nation. Had he stayed in Charan, it would not have become known.

All of his successive trials served to heighten that sense of alienation and inscrutable Divine purpose, culminating in the order to slaughter the son whom he had been granted so late in life, the son of whom he had nearly despaired (cf. Genesis XV, 2-3). To receive that order, to cut the golden patriarchal chain which alone gave meaning to the world’s existence, was surely the ultimate in alienation and inscrutability. But Avraham was allowed to know that this, too, was a test, for there again he was told Lech lëcha (XXII, 2), “go for your benefit, for your good,” and he rose even to that superhuman challenge.

The Ramban, in his Séfer haEmuna vëhaBittachon (chapter 6) warns us:

Do not think that the status of Avraham was so great because he fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given … but rather because he withstood ten trials.

We must be careful not to misunderstand the holy Ramban; he is surely not advising that Torah observance is not important. Rather he is telling us that the circumstances under which we try to learn and observe Torah are what delineate our characters.

We are all subjected to trials in life, and they are good tests; they stretch us to the limit of our moral and spiritual capabilities. What is necessary is to maintain the proper perspective, to realize that we are not given tests which we cannot pass, that they are all in the category of “for your benefit, for your own good.” It is according to our ability to withstand these tests and to continue to learn and observe Torah that we are measured and judged.

There is a wonderful story told of the first visit by the late Szatmárer Rebbe, Rabbi Yo’él Teitelbaum, to Eretz Yisra’él after the Holocaust. Needless to say, he was thronged by chasidim seeking his advice and blessings during the entire length of his stay. As he prepared for the journey back to New York, one of his chasidim cried out in anguish:

But Rebbe, who will give us blessings if you leave?

The Rebbe replied:

Find a Jew with a concentration camp number tattooed on his arm who is putting on tëfillin (phylacteries). He is a tzaddiq; ask him for a blessing.

Not necessarily a great scholar, rabbi or rebbe, but a simple Jew who had withstood his trials.