Lech Lecha 5779
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:3) tells us that Hashem tested Avraham Avinu – our Forefather – with 10 tests, and he passed them all. One of the tests was the command to Avraham in this week’s portion to leave his father’s house, his city of birth, and homeland to go to an unspecified place. The parsha begins with these words. (Genesis 12:1)
ספר בראשית פרק יב
א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְדֹוָד אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
12) And Hashem said to Avram, go for yourself (for your own good) from your country, from your birthplace and from your father’s home to the land that I will show you.
(In the verse he is still Avram, since his name hasn’t been changed yet, but I will refer to him as Avraham)
When the Mishna talks about a test, it is referring to a challenge whose outcome is not guaranteed with many formidable obstacles that stand in the way which 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. When the protagonist uses his G-d given resources to devise strategies and tactics to overcome the challenge, he has created within himself new powers that did not exist before, making himself a greater person. These new skills are now part of him and can be repeatedly used for new challenges. Until the skills were actualized, they were merely dormant potential, and couldn’t have any effect on the person. It is only through utilizing the latent 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 step out of his comfort zone.
That being the case, one may wonder, what was so daunting about the test of לך לך(Go for yourself)? It is common for a boss to tell an employee he must relocate to a new state and city because the business needs them there. It is also very common that students leave town to study in a yeshiva or school out of state or even out of the country, in order to further their education. So what was so difficult about this particular commandment that qualifies it as one of the 10 tests that Hashem tested Avraham with?
There are different approaches to answer this question. Here are a few.
- Maimonides writes in the laws of Idol Worship (1:3)
רמב”ם יד החזקה הלכות עבודת כוכבים פרק א
ויצא לחרן והתחיל לעמוד ולקרוא בקול גדול לכל העולם ולהודיעם שיש שם אלוה אחד לכל העולם ולו ראוי לעבוד והיה מהלך וקורא ומקבץ העם מעיר לעיר ומממלכה לממלכה
Avraham went to Haran and began to call in a great voice to the whole world and to let them know that there is only one G-d who controls the whole world and only He should be worshipped. He would go from city to city and country to country etc.
In the course of time, Avraham influenced tens of thousands of people in Haran to leave idol worship and to believe in one creator, Hashem. Leaving Haran meant that he had to leave all of his disciples behind. About 300 people went with Avraham, but what would happen to the thousands who would remain in Haran without their leader to guide them? Avraham realized that leaving Haran meant leaving behind all the souls that he had worked so hard to bring close to Hashem, to revert back to their old ways of idol worship. How would the new souls that he would meet and influence in the future be any better than those that he had already brought close to Hashem? What would be the point? This was a very difficult test for Avraham.
Avraham overcame the thought to “help Hashem” by staying with the tens of thousands of adherents in Haran, packed his bags and got going.
- Hashem promised Avraham many blessings for going to “the land I will show you.”
The next verse in the Torah says:
ב) וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה
2) And I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.
Hashem promised Avraham that he would receive children, a great nation, wealth and fame if he would do what Hashem asked of him. It sounds like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t he go? What more could he ask for? What kind of test could this be?
The Sages explain, that this was exactly what the test was. To see if Avraham would go to the place for the personal gain that he would receive, or would his motives be pure and go just to fulfill the will of Hashem. The Torah reports (12:4) that Avraham passed the test.
ד) וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו יְדֹוָד
4) And Avraham went as Hashem had told him.
Avraham did not mix any personal desires in his motivation in going on the journey. He went strictly because Hashem had asked him to.
It is interesting to note that Hashem did not reveal to Avraham where exactly He wanted him to go. Hashem was very sure not to tell Avraham any more than “to the land I will show you.” “You just get started, I will let you know where to go.” The commentaries explain that this was intended to increase Avraham’s merit with each step that he would take. It is much harder to travel when you have no idea where you are going.
There is a question on the original verse that these two explanations do not answer. Hashem told Avraham – go for yourself (for your own good) from your country, from your birthplace and from your father’s home. Isn’t the order reversed? When one travels from home, first they leave the house, then they leave the city and lastly, they leave the country. So Why did Hashem tell it to Avraham in the reverse order?
Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch צז”ל (1808-1888) presents the following explanation of the test of לך לך.
A person is influenced by his surroundings. Maimonides writes in the sixth chapter of the Hilchos Dayos:
רמב”ם הלכות דעות פרק ו הלכה א
דרך ברייתו של אדם להיות נמשך בדעותיו ובמעשיו אחר ריעיו וחביריו ונוהג כמנהג אנשי מדינתו
1) A person was created to be drawn in his ideas and his actions to the ideas and actions of his friends and the people he associates with, and he will act like the people of his country.
Maimonides continues to say that if a person lives among evil people, he must move to a different country where the people are good so that his ideas and deeds are not influenced negatively by them.
While we may feel proud to be American, many people from other countries look down at us as being very plain and unsophisticated. We are as American as apple pie, not a croissant or anything delicate like that. You would never catch an Englishman or a Frenchman biting into a hotdog and bun loaded with relish catchup and mustard.
When people from New York visit Detroit, they think the city is closed for cleaning. There are no people around, and those that are aren’t rushing around like there is no tomorrow. The Detroiters walk so calmly they seem to have nothing to do with their lives.
We are definitely influenced by the country and city we live in, but that is nothing compared to the influence from the house we grew up in. The personalities, values and attitudes of our parents mold and shape us from the time we are infants.
The directive to Avraham Avinu was, Go to yourself, the pure soul that I created in you before it became tainted by your environment. Strip away all the negative and foreign influences that you received from the country you lived in, the city you were born in, and the home you were raised in. I want you to isolate the pure soul that I gave you at birth, and live life of pure service to me. If you succeed in doing this, I will make you the father of a great nation; one which has a holy and pure foundation at its source.
This is why it is listed in reverse order. It is listed in the order of difficulty. It is easiest to shed the influence of the country, more difficult to shed the influence of one’s city, and most difficult, maybe even impossible, to shed the influence of one’s home. This was quite a difficult test, and Avraham passed it with flying colors.
The big question is, how did Avraham know what he originally was, and what an external influence was, that he needed to remove? This question really applies to us as well. Who are we in essence, without the outside influences of our homes, cities and country?
The Torah teaches us that Avraham Avinu kept the entire Torah before it was given. We derive this from the verse in Genesis 26:5
ספר בראשית פרק כו
ה) עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי
5) Because Avraham listened to my voice and kept my safeguards (Rabbinic safeguards to the commandments), my commandments (the logical ones – do not steal, do not murder) , my decrees (that have no logic), and my Torahs (Written and oral).
The Midrash asks:
מדרש תנחומא ויגש – פרק יא
ומהיכן למד אברהם את התורה רשב”י אומר נעשו שתי כליותיו כשני כדים של מים והיו נובעין תורה שנאמר אף לילות יסרוני כליותי (תהלים טז) ר’ לוי אמר מעצמו למד את התורה
Where did Avraham learn the Torah from? Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said. His two kidneys became like two pitchers of water that overflowed with Torah. Rabbi Levi said, he learned it from himself.
How could he have learned it from himself? What sources would he have used?
Our Sages teach us a very deep concept. The Zohar says, that Hashem looked into the Torah, and from it He created the world. We could compare it to the blueprint that a builder looks at as he builds a building. The architect drew on the blueprint all the specifications of the building, and the builder follows the instructions set in the blueprint. Once the building was built, it would be possible to look at the building and redraw the blueprint from the specifications of the building, since they accurately reflect the information that was on the original blueprint.
Similarly, Hashem used the Torah as the blueprint for the world, and Avraham Avinu was able to look at the world, and figure out the blueprint – the Torah – that it came from.
There is another layer of depth to this concept, and that is that the Torah is also like the blueprint for the Jewish person. There are 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments in the Torah. The 248 positive commandments correspond to the 248 limbs of a person, and the 365 negative commandments correspond to the 365 veins and sinews of a person. Through looking into himself and understanding how he was constructed he was able to arrive at the 613 commandments. This is the opinion of Rabbi Levi who says “from himself” he learned the Torah.
Avraham was able to discern the 613 commandments, and even the rabbinic laws that would later be enacted to safeguard them. We do not have the ability to comprehend the greatness of Avraham who was able to do this. It goes without saying that Hashem helped him.
King Solomon tells us in Ecclesiastes 7:29:
ספר קהלת פרק ז
אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה הָאֱלִֹקים אֶת הָאָדָם יָשָׁר וְהֵמָּה בִקְשׁוּ חִשְּׁבֹנוֹת רַבּיםִ
29) Hashem made man straight, but they sought out different calculations.
If we were to just follow the pure soul that we were created with, we would naturally follow the straight path. Unfortunately, we are so inundated by the values and perspectives of world around us we cannot help but be influenced by them.
Our Sages teach us an interesting fact. They say that if a Jewish child did not come into contact with any other people, he would automatically begin talking לשון הקדש (Hebrew) at the age of two. This shows that the Torah is deep within our souls, and to the degree that we remain pure of outside influences, it can shine forth more brightly.
I see this as our greatest challenge in todays world. If we allow it to, technology will expose us to any and every type of lifestyle, idea or value held by even the most depraved people in the world. We have no way of knowing if they have somehow insidiously affected our way of thinking. How are we to follow the directive of לך לך, to return to the real me?
There is only one way and that is to study the Torah and its holy and pure concepts and try to integrate them into our lives. The true Torah thoughts and ideas that we have in our minds, will ultimately drive out all the false and erroneous ones. It is a lifelong effort, and I wish you much success.