Out Of This World
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
"And God said to Abraham, go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing."(1)
The first command ever made to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was to leave his surroundings and to begin a new nation that would become the Chosen Nation. The Ramban writes that everything that happened in the life of the forefathers is a portent for the future of the Jewish people, and their behavior teaches us how we should conduct our lives. This concept seems to pose a difficulty: How does the command of 'lech lecha' (go for yourself) apply to all of us? Abraham was alone in his belief in God, and therefore it was necessary for him to leave everything behind and form a new nation. But nowadays the Jewish people is alive and well, and there is no need to leave one's surroundings to live as a Jew.
On deeper analysis it is clear that the command of 'lech lecha' is still very relevant to all of us. God's command to Abraham was deeper than simply an instruction to leave his surroundings. We are given a hint to this by Rashi; He explains why God promised Abraham fame, money and descendants as a consequence of leaving Haran. "Because traveling causes three things, less [likelihood of having] children, less [likelihood of acquiring] money and less [likelihood of having] fame. Therefore he needed these three blessings.. children, money and fame."(2)
The simple understanding of this is that God was compensating Abraham for a course of behavior that would normally cause damage to a person. However, it seems that there is a deeper message implicit in this instruction. God was hinting to him that if he undertook the challenge of 'lech lecha' then he would no longer be subject to the normal laws of nature (derech hateva), rather he would live according to a whole new mode of existence - beyond the normal laws of nature. Consequently, even though traveling should normally cause loss of wealth, fame and children, Abraham would not be subject to that system of cause and effect. Instead he would live on a whole different level of existence and would benefit in all these areas.
This idea is also alluded to by the Midrash Tanchuma quoted by Rashi in the first verse in the Portion where God promises Abraham that "I will make known your nature in the world."(3) Why couldn't the Medrash have simply stated, "I will make you known in the world;" what is the significance of the word 'nature' here?
We can answer with this principle; that God was promising Abraham that he would live on a whole new level of existence that was hitherto unknown in the world. Abraham would have the merit to share this new form of existence with the world, teaching them a whole new approach to life. It is also possible that this message was alluded to in the very words, lech lecha. The numerical value of "lecha" is 50; 49 is a multiple of 7 that represents this world, while eight represents beyond this world. 49 also represents this world, as is seen in the 49 levels of purity and impurity, while 50 represents beyond that, as epitomized by the fact that the 50th day after the Exodus form Egypt was the day of the giving of the Torah, when the world took on a whole new level of supernatural existence. God was telling Abraham, 'go to the level of 50,' a new level of existence, beyond the ordinary laws of nature.
God promised Abraham that if he would live according to a metaphysical reality then he would no longer be bound by the physical reality of cause and effect that drives nature. Indeed, after Abraham successfully passes this test, God reveals to him that he will live according to a different set of rules: The verse says that He took Abraham outside, Rashi explains that God was telling him to leave the confines of the stars, and live on a new level of existence, and that is how he and Sarah could have children even though their mazal (starsign) was to never procreate.(4) The Zohar says that this promise would only be fulfilled on condition that Abraham and his descendants learn Torah and observe the commandments. Keeping Torah is the ultimate expression of living beyond the regular laws of nature.
A person who lives according to the Torah is, automatically living according to a different set of rules of existence from the rest of the world. For example, in many areas of business, the busiest day is Shabbos; a person who lives according to the normal laws of cause and effect will never give up that day's business in order to observe Shabbos. Only a person who recognizes that the Torah prescribes a different mode of cause and effect, can confidently close his business on Shabbos with the assurance that his livelihood will not suffer as a consequence.
We asked how the command of lech lecha is relevant to us today. The answer is that lech lecha was not merely a command to Abraham to leave his evil surroundings; it was a call for him to live according to a different set of rules, defined by the spiritual world. His reward would be that God would in turn treat him beyond the regular set of laws that define the physical world. This lesson is very relevant to all of us. The great Chassidic Master, the Sfas Emes asks why God only said lech lecha to Abraham and not to the rest of the world. He answers by quoting a Zohar that the whole world did in fact hear the call of lech lecha but only Abraham responded to it. Our job is to strive to emulate Abraham and hear that personal call.
1. Lech Lecha, 12:1-2.
2. Rashi, ibid, 12:2.
3. Tanchuma 3.
4. Rashi, 15:5.