Abraham reaches out to help

June 24, 2009

4 min read


Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )

The Talmud describes the afterlife as "a world turned upside down." This means that many of the people who have been given little respect here on earth will be accorded much honor in the afterlife, and conversely many who were prominent in this life will receive little attention there. In other words, from our vantage point here on earth, we simply have no way of knowing the true righteousness of people.

Rabbi Aryeh Levine, known as the "Tzaddik of Jerusalem," told of a cobbler he would see everyday in the Jerusalem marketplace. Though they never really spoke with one another, whenever he passed the cobbler's way, something would compel Rabbi Aryeh to put some money in a charity box the cobbler had placed in his store. Then one day, out of the blue, the cobbler invited the rabbi to a special meal commemorating the completion of a tractate of Talmud.

At the celebration the following night, Rabbi Aryeh found the cobbler teaching a group of elderly Jews the last passage of the Zohar, the core text of Jewish mysticism. Listening to their discussion, Rabbi Aryeh - himself a great Kabbalist - was overwhelmed by the group's great profundity and understanding of Kabbalah.The next morning, Rabbi Aryeh went to seek out the cobbler. When he arrived at his shop, however, he found the doors shut. The cobbler had passed away the night before.

Jewish tradition teaches that in every generation there are "36 hidden Tzaddikim" - people whose presence justifies the world's existence. This cobbler may have been one of them.

But it is not always a good thing that righteousness be "hidden." A classic example is found in this week's Torah portion, Lech Lecha. In the parsha, Abraham is told by G-d to "leave your land, your birthplace, and the house of your father - and go to the land that I will show you." The commentaries explain that had Abraham stayed in Haran, he would not have been blessed with children; the lack of holiness in Haran would not have allowed the birth of the great Isaac, the only patriarch never to
leave the land of Israel. So if Abraham was to have Isaac, he had to go to the
Holy Land.

Abraham's journey to Canaan was a great test. Leaving his parents behind, he did not know whether he would ever see them again. Moreover, venturing into a foreign land was always dangerous, as one never knew what kind of welcome there'd be from the natives! But the possibility of receiving G-d's blessings - and obeying G-d's will - encouraged Abraham to make the journey.

Though this journey was for Abraham's benefit, the Midrash makes clear it was also for the world's benefit. The Midrash likens Abraham to a bottle of perfume: As long as the bottle is sealed, no one can enjoy its scent. But once it has been opened, everyone can benefit. In a similar vein,
the Midrash explains, as long as Abraham remained in Haran, people in other
lands could not be exposed to him or to his message. Abraham's journey thus
allowed others to share in his revolutionary concept of monotheism.

The Chafetz Chaim, the spiritual leader of European Jewry in the early 20th century, severely censured people for not taking such a "journey." Ibn Paquda, author of the ethical classic "Duties of the Heart," insists one must be willing "to get down into the mud, and if need be also become muddied, to help people rise from spiritual devastation."

Of course, there are limits to the risks one should take. For example, we are not to endanger our own lives in order to help others.

The bottom line is that the paths we walk are very narrow, and though a person may appear to be righteous, in truth his actions may be self-serving. We must be dedicated to helping others as well. And it is only in the next world that the full and unadorned truth will be revealed.

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