Parshat Lech Lecha
The book of Bereshit is the book of creation. It begins with the creation of the physical world and continues to detail the creation of the Jewish nation, the ultimate purpose for the world’s creation. The stories of Adam and Eve, and Noach and his three sons, the progenitors of all humanity today, represent the creation of humankind in general. They do not relate in any particular way to the Jewish people. When we move up to Avraham our forefather, we are talking about the deepest roots of the Jewish nation, the very beginnings of the Jewish nation’s creation.
So that we appreciate where we come from and what is thus expected from us, the Torah gives us much information about Avraham and the holy life he and his wife Sarah lived.
רמב”ם הלכות עבודה זרה פרק א
א כיון שנגמל איתן זה התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן והתחיל לחשוב ביום ובלילה והיה תמיה היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד ולא יהיה לו מנהיג ומי יסבב אותו, כי אי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו, ולא היה לו מלמד ולא מודיע דבר אלא מושקע באור כשדים בין עובדי כוכבים הטפשים ואביו ואמו וכל העם עובדי כוכבים והוא עובד עמהם ולבו משוטט ומבין עד שהשיג דרך האמת והבין קו הצדק מתבונתו הנכונה, וידע שיש שם אלוה אחד והוא מנהיג הגלגל והוא ברא הכל ואין בכל הנמצא אלוה חוץ ממנו, וידע שכל העולם טועים ודבר שגרם להם לטעות זה שעובדים את הכוכבים ואת הצורות עד שאבד האמת מדעתם, ובן ארבעים שנה הכיר אברהם את בוראו,
Avraham Avinu recognized Hashem at the tender age of three years old. As he looked at the sun, the moon, the stars and at the world in general and how everything worked together, he realized that this could not have come about by itself. There must be a creator who controls it. He had no one to teach him and he and his parents and all the people of Ur Kasdim were immersed in idol worship, but he was always looking for the truth. By the time he was forty he came to recognize Hashem and all His attributes.
Maimonides in his book Guide to the Perplexed quotes an ancient civilization called the “Tzaba” who wrote in their history books about Avraham Avinu. These books were translated into Arabic, and Maimonides could understand them.
ספר מורה נבוכים – חלק ג פרק כט
ידוע ש’אברהם אבינו’ ע”ה גדל באמונת הצאבה ודעתם, שאין אלוה רק הכוכבים. וכשאודיעך בפרק הזה ספריהם הנמצאים עתה בידינו, אשר נעתקו ללשון הערב, ודברי הימים שלהם הקדומים, ואגלה לך דעתה מהם ועניניהם, יתבאר לך אמרם בבאור, שהכוכבים הם האלוהות ושהשמש הוא האלוה הגדול. וכן אמרו עוד, ששאר הכוכבים החמישה – אלוהות, אבל שני המאורים הם יותר גדולים. ותמצאם אומרים בבאור, שהשמש הוא אשר ינהיג העולם העליון והשפל – בזה הלשון אמרוהו:
It is known that Avraham Avinu grew up in the Tzaba religion who believe that the only gods are the celestial beings. All the planets are gods, but the sun, which is the biggest, is the god that controls the world.
They talk about Avraham Avinu in their books.
אמנם אברהם, שגדל בכותא, כשחלק עם ההמון ואמר שיש שם עושה בלתי השמש, טענו עליו בכך וכך; וזכרו בטענותיהם מה שהוא מבואר נגלה מפעולות השמש במציאות, ואמר להם – רצונם לומר, אברהם – צדקתם, הוא כגרזן ביד החוצב בו.
However, Avraham, who grew up in Kuta, argued with everyone and said that there is a force behind the sun. They argued against him with different forms of evidence from the obvious way the sun works. Avraham said to them. “You are correct; however, it is all like an axe in the hands of a woodchopper who controls the ax.”
וסוף הענין ההוא זכרו שהמלך שם אותו בבית הכלא, ושהוא התמיד לטעון עליהם ימים רבים – והוא בבית כלאו. ואחר כן פחד המלך שיפסיד עליו ממלכתו וישיב בני אדם מאמונתם, ויגרשו המלך לקצה המזרח, אחר שלקח כל אשר לו.
In the end, they tell how the king imprisoned him because of his beliefs but he continued to convince people from his prison cell, and the king was afraid he would lose his kingdom, so he banished him to the far east after taking all that he had from him.
Not only did Nimrod (the king at that time) imprison Avraham, he tried to kill him by throwing him into a huge fire, ten feet high on all sides, and built a platform next to it from which to throw Avraham in.
Nimrod gave Avraham the ultimatum: Either bow down to my god of fire, or we will throw you in. When Avraham refused, they bound the hands and feet, took him up the platform, and threw him in. The fire was so hot that the men who threw Avraham into the fire were killed by its heat. However, Avraham himself, was unaffected by the fire. The only things that the fire burned were the ropes that bound him. He was walking in the fire like nothing unusual was going on.
This was the very first test through which Hashem put Avraham. How strong was Avraham’s love for Hashem? Enough to give his life for it?
Avraham passed with flying colors. He didn’t flinch. Hashem saved him from the fire, and he emerged ever so much stronger than he entered.
We derive this from the verse: Genesis 15:7
ספר בראשית פרק טו
(ז) וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְדֹוָד אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים
And Hashem said to him: I am Hashem who saved you from the fire of Kasdim.
The Mishna in Pirke Avot (5:3) tells us that Hashem put Avraham through ten tests:
משנה מסכת אבות פרק ה
(ג) עֲשָׂרָה נִסְיוֹנוֹת נִתְנַסָּה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם וְעָמַד בְּכֻלָּם, לְהוֹדִיעַ כַּמָּה חִבָּתוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם:
Avraham our forefather was tested ten times, and he succeeded in all of them, to show the great love of Avraham our forefather of blessed memory.
In explaining the closing words of the Mishna, “to show the love of Avraham our forefather,” the commentaries on the Mishna take different approaches.
The Tiferet Yisroel (R. Yisrael b”r Gedalya Lipshuetz, 1782 -1860) explains.
תפארת ישראל /יכין/ על מסכת אבות פרק ה משנה ג
[ט] להודיע כמה חבתו וכו’ – להכי נסהו הקב”ה כל כך, כדי להודיע להכל, כמה גדולה היתה אהבתו לאלהיו,
ושלא לחנם בחר בו הקב”ה מכל דורו:
This is why Hashem tested him so much. To show to all Avraham’s great love for his G-d, and that it was not for nothing that Hashem chose him from among his generation.
The Tosafot Yom Tov (Yom Tov Lipman haLevi Heller, 1579 – 1654) takes the opposite approach. He quotes Rashi who says:
עתה ידעתי להשיב לשטן ולגוים התמהים מה היא חבתי אצלך
“Now I have what I need to answer the Satan and the gentiles who wonder why I love you, Avraham, so much.”
After thinking about this a little more, we can easily say that there is really no argument here. It started with Avraham’s great love for Hashem, Who, when He saw Avraham’s great love for Him, returned the love to Avraham.
What is the meaning of what the Tiferet Yisroel said: This is why Hashem tested him so much? Because Hashem knew that Avraham loved Him, that is why He tested him? If Hashem already knew that Avraham loved Him, what was the reason for the test?
This question applies to all the tests that Avraham passed, especially the last and most difficult one, the binding of Isaac. If Hashem knew that Avraham would comply, why put him through it?
Let’s define our terms. When we talk about a test, we are referring to a challenge whose outcome is not guaranteed. There are many formidable obstacles that stand in the way that need to be overcome. The nature of the task is such that it is daunting to the protagonist and will require much effort and tenacity on his part to successfully complete it. When the protagonist uses his G-d given resources to devise strategies and tactics to overcome the challenge, and doesn’t let those obstacles deter him, he has created within himself a new skill set that did not exist before. He has made himself a greater person. These new skills are now part of him and can be repeatedly used for new challenges. Until it is actualized, potential remains dormant and has no effect on the person. It is only through activating the potential that it becomes part of the person’s makeup and contributes to his greatness. One will never grow or reach his potential unless he challenges himself to go beyond his comfort zone.
Therefore, because of the love that Hashem saw Avraham had for Him, He challenged Avraham with ten extremely difficult tests, to bring out the great potential that lay dormant within him to build Avraham into the great person that he became.
The Tosfot Yom Tov notices that this is the first Mishna in which Avraham is called Avinu – our forefather. In the earlier Mishna, he is referred to as Avraham without the Avinu.
תוי”ט על מסכת אבות פרק ה משנה ג
אברהם אבינו – שאנו זוכים ומקבלים טובה בזכותו זה שעמד בכל נסיונותיו לפיכך קראו התנא בכאן אבינו.
We merit and receive goodness in the merit that Avraham stood up to all the tests. Therefore, the Mishna here calls him “our forefather”.
The Tosfot Yom Tov is referring to one of the very foundations of our religion, זכות אבות the “merit of our forefathers.”
This is something we invoke in our prayers every day. When we stand to say the Amida, we start by saying, “Our G-d and the G-d of our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov …” Very often throughout our prayers, we ask Hashem for something in the merit of our forefathers. “Hashem, please remember how Avraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, Hashem please remember Rachel’s act of kindness to her sister Leah,” etc. etc. It is one the most formidable supplications we can offer.
The big question is, how exactly does this work? It doesn’t seem fair, just because we happen to be lucky enough to be the grandchildren of Avraham, Isaac and Yaakov that we should be entitled to special leniency.
Imagine the following case. Two teenage boys robbed a convenience store together. They were brought before the judge for sentencing.
The judge looks at the first boy, unkempt in dirty worn clothing, ruddy complexion, street smart look on his face, and alone, with no family members present in the courtroom. After reviewing the facts of the case, the judge sentences him to two years in prison.
The judge then looks at the second boy, a clean -cut boy, wearing a suit and tie. He is in the courtroom with his parents, also very respectably dressed. The judge looks at the name on the case and looks up at the boy’s father, and says; “John, did you go to University of Michigan back in 74?” “I did!” responds John. “I thought I recognized you! We were in some of the same classes together! Nice looking boy you have there, John.” The judge then looks at the boy and says: “Do you realize what you did wrong?” The boy responds, “I do and I will never do it again.” The judge then says, “Ok, you can go home with your parents.”
Wouldn’t we call this a miscarriage of justice? Here, the two boys committed the very same crime, and because the second boy happened to be the son of a classmate of the judge he gets off scot-free?
Isn’t this what we are saying also? Hashem, You know my grandfather Avraham! You loved him, remember? Can you please let me go because of that?
The Talmud says:
(1) תלמוד בבלי מסכת ברכות דף טז/ב
תנו רבנן אין קורין אבות אלא לשלשה ואין קורין אמהות אלא לארבע
The Rabbis taught: We only call three people- fathers, (Avraham, Isaac, and Yaakov) and we only call four people- mothers (Sarah, Rivka, Leah, and Rachel).
What is the meaning of this statement? In order for someone to be considered my father, he must have a direct influence on who I am. Every child inherits the qualities of his two parents, but the farther we go from our ancestors, the smaller the influence they have on us. The Talmud is telling us, that as far away as we may go from our forefathers and foremothers, they still have a direct and tangible influence on us. There are certain character traits and good qualities that every single Jew has, just because he is a grandchild of the forefathers and foremothers.
These indelible traits of the Jewish nation, are the results of the difficult tests that they passed, which in doing so, made the benefits accrued to them from those tests, the very fabric of their persona, and a trait to be inherited by each and every Jew until the end of time.
When we are invoking our forefathers in our prayers, what we are really saying is, Hashem, I have the innate ability to serve you as the forefathers did. My potential is unlimited. Please give me another chance to actualize that potential.
This is why our sages tell us, that we are obligated to strive to reach the greatness of our forefathers.
(4) תנא דבי אליהו רבה – פרק כה
לפיכך הייתי אומר שכל אחד ואחד מישראל חייב לומר מתי יגיעו מעשי למעשה אבותי אברהם יצחק ויעקב
We have been given the potential to reach the highest levels of service to Hashem. We need only put in the effort.
This would be the reasoning behind the seeming miscarriage of justice in the court case of the thieves. If the judge knew that by sending the boy home with his parents, they would provide the proper measures to make sure the boy would never get involved with the wrong types of people again, and would never do it again, of course that would be the best scenario for the boy. Why send him to prison where he would learn from the hardened criminals there?
But the other boy, who had no home to go place to, and no parents to look after him, would be inclined to do the same thing time and again. The best judgment for him would be to take him off the streets, and maybe he will think that prison is not so good, and stay away from crime when he gets out.
Rabbi Chaim ben Isaac Volozhiner (1749 -1821) in his commentary on the Mishna quoted above derives this concept from a verse in Proverbs 20:7.
ספר משלי פרק כ
(ז) מִתְהַלֵּךְ בְּתֻמּוֹ צַדִּיק אַשְׁרֵי בָנָיו אַחֲרָיו:
When a Tzadik goes in righteous ways, praiseworthy are his children after him.
Reb’ Chaim explains: Many of the attributes that the righteous person worked and toiled to attain, are like second nature to his children, and can be acquired with just a small amount of work. As we have seen throughout the generations, that even the simplest Jew when faced with a test has chosen to give his life instead of bowing to an idol. This is a direct result of Avraham Avinu going into the fire of Ur Kasdim.
In this week’s parsha, Hashem tells Avraham to leave everything behind and go to the land of Israel. This too was a great test to Avraham Avinu. As a result of his passing this test, says Reb’ Chaim, every Jew feels a love and affinity to the land of Israel.
When Avraham arrived there, there was nothing to eat. There was a famine in the land. Avraham did not question Hashem. He accepted it and moved on. He could have complained and said to Hashem; “What gives? I give up everything to come here, you promised me all kinds of good things, and I can’t even make a living? But, Avraham rolled with the punches, and made the best of the situation without complaining. This is another inborn trait of every Jew, to accept the adversities that Hashem gives us with understanding and patience.
This is what makes us different. It is our genetic makeup based on the great parents that we each have, the forefathers, and the foremothers. This cannot be changed, by any means.
This is why they say: “You can change your noses, but you can’t change your Moses.”
All around the world, thoroughbred horses are tracked for their pedigree. The American Stud Book, for example, currently includes all Thoroughbred horses foaled in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. It also includes any Thoroughbreds imported into those places from other countries, as long as those countries’ Thoroughbred stud books are approved by The Jockey Club. The purer the lineage, the greater chance the horse has of winning a race.
Guess what? You are a thoroughbred from the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. How special we should feel to be the grandchildren of such great people, and to have their character traits.
The Kotzker Rebbe, once said. Having excellent lineage is like having 6 zeros. If you put a 1 in front of them, you have a million. If you don’t, you are left with the worthless zeros. You are the 1! If you align yourself with your ancestors, you reap the benefits of all their accomplishments and hard work. If not, they are worth nothing.