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The Universal and the Particular

Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn


It begins with a word, a command - or perhaps a test:

The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you." (Bereishit 12:1-3)

According to at least one rabbinic source, contained in this verse are two tests:2

...two trials at the time he was bidden to leave Haran, two with his two sons, two with his two wives, one in the wars of the Kings, one at the covenant 'between the pieces' (Gen. 15). One in Ur of the Chaldees (where, according to a tradition, he had been thrown into a furnace from whence he emerged unharmed). (Avot D'Rebbi Natan chapter 33)

Upon contemplation, we might ask a simple question: Why was leaving his hometown a test? Avraham was not exactly the most popular character back home; in fact the opposite seems true. He was vilified, persecuted, attacked and almost killed - until he was miraculously saved from a fiery furnace. Why would leaving such a place be considered a "test"? When we continue our reading of the next two verses, the "test" seems mitigated by a bounty of blessings:

"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

This certainly doesn't sound like a challenge; in fact, it sounds as if Avraham has "hit the jackpot"! The promises are of incredible proportions. Where is the test?

A more careful reading of these verses reveals an almost untenable tension, which may be the key to understanding the angst which Avraham experiences in fulfilling the Divine imperative. Verse 2 is a blessing which introduces a new entity, a new concept which from this point on becomes the focus of the biblical narrative: the nation, specifically "the Nation of Israel."

The joyous, nearly incredible news that a nation will emerge from the loins of Avraham, is tempered by the knowledge that a certain tension will always surround this nation. As this nation emerges, we learn that others will never be indifferent. The nation of Avraham's children will never be "pareve" in the eyes of the world. They will always elicit some sort of reaction from others, always will serve as a source of blessing or a curse for others.

Furthermore, this blessing may be limiting: it is particular in nature, it is directed exclusively to the people who will become known as the Jewish People. In Avraham's eyes, universal dreams may be challenged by particular nationalistic aspirations. Whereas Avraham has seen himself as a citizen of the world on a mission to help elevate all of mankind, his mission now becomes linked exclusively with this new entity, "the Children of Avraham."

At this juncture, what are Avraham's aspirations? Is his dream to start his own nation, or does he wish to impact the people of his hometown? Has his initial failure dissuaded him from continuing his original mission, or does he still dream of local success?

Avraham makes his journey to Israel but he doesn't come alone. His partner Sarah (Sarai) accompanies him, as does Lot, his heir apparent. In addition, we are told of another group who follow their leader:

He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had made3 (acquired) in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan,4 and they arrived there. (Bereishit 12:5)

Avraham has an entourage, which is not all that unusual. What is interesting is that these are not people from Ur Kasdim (Aram Naharaim), they are people collected in Haran. They are not from his hometown, but from his latest temporary abode. In his hometown he seems to have had made no impact.

They arrive in Israel at a specific place, an intentional destination: Their first stop in the Land is at a place called Shechem.5 The Ramban6 points out that the "acts of the Father's are a sign for the children", for it is in Shechem that nationhood will emerge. This is where Dina is abused, and where the local residents offer the family of Israel to join destinies, to join them and form one nation. This offer is rejected, and a process is set in motion: A nation with its own unique history begins to chart its path, undertaking the long march to fulfill its particular, unique destiny. A nation, indeed; but at this point a small, vulnerable nation that rejects the benefits of assimilation into a strong, well-established local clan. This is a defining moment, a decision that crystallizes and forms the Nation of Israel.

Let us take a step back: Avraham's great work in Haran, the monumental educational challenge he has undertaken, has been described by the Talmud as no less than the end of the dark ages:

The Tanna Debe Eliyahu taught: The world is to exist six thousand years; the first two thousand years are to be void; the next two thousand years are the period of the Torah, and the following two thousand years are the period of the Messiah. Through our many sins a number of these have already passed [and the Messiah is not yet here]. From when are the two thousand years of the Torah to be reckoned? Shall we say from the Giving of the Torah at Sinai? In that case, you will find that there are not quite two thousand years from then till now [i.e., the year four thousand after the Creation], for if you compute the years [from the Creation to the Giving of the Torah] you will find that they comprise two thousand and a part of the third thousand; the period is therefore to be reckoned from the time when Abraham and Sarah had gotten souls in Haran for we have it as a tradition that Abraham was at that time fifty-two years old. (Talmud Bavli Avoda Zara 9a)

Biblical chronology is an important key to understanding this piece of Talmud: Avraham was born in the year 1948 (from creation of the world). Therefore, when he was 52 years old the world was precisely 2000 year old, and at this point Avraham began teaching and attempting to influence the entire world. But what was the nature of the "Torah" that Avraham taught and practiced? There is a Talmudic discussion which examines the implications of tradition that Avraham "kept the Torah":

Rab said: Our father Abraham kept the whole Torah,7 as it is said: Because that Abraham hearkened to My voice [kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws]. R. Shimi b. Hiyya said to Rab: Say, perhaps, that this refers to the seven laws? - Surely there was also that of circumcision! Then say that it refers to the seven laws and circumcision [and not to the whole Torah]? - If that were so, why does Scripture say: 'My commandments and My laws'? Raba or R. Ashi said: Abraham, our father, kept even the law concerning the 'eruv of the dishes,' as it is said: 'My Torahs': one being the written Torah, the other the oral Torah. (Talmud Bavli Yoma 28b)

There are certain sources that would seem to maintain that Avraham and Sarah's spiritual lifestyle was no different from our own. On the other hand, many authorities8 prefer to read these sources for the symbolic9 or deeper10 understanding,11 rather than in a literal way. The latter approach maintains that only after Sinai did people begin to observe the 613 commandments, but the forefathers' acute spiritual perception and close relationship with God enabled them to fulfill the spirit of the entire Torah while not necessarily obeying the letter of the laws of the Torah as they became formulated at Sinai and thereafter. Thus, the Meshech Chochma explains that when the Talmud says Avraham kept Eruv Tavshilin, it doesn't mean that he observed even the minutiae of halachic observance. Rather, what the Talmud means is that Avraham comprehended and fulfilled the philosophical concept that is the underpinning of this law. An Eruv Tavshilin enables us to cook for unexpected guests on a holiday which falls on the eve of Shabbat. This approach encapsulates the open personality of Avraham, always waiting for the unexpected guest,12 who would be fed and bidden to make a blessing. To Avraham, the spirit of the law was as natural, clear and possessed of internal "spiritual logic" as our present practice and the accompanying text recited before the onset of a festival was to the rabbis who formulated it.

An alternative opinion resolves the question of Avraham's observance with a much less complicated approach: Avraham was the first monotheist. He taught monotheism and the seven Noachide laws,13 and that was the content of his spiritual world.14

All this being said, we know of one particular commandment which Avraham received and fulfilled, namely circumcision.

If Avraham fulfilled all the commandments of the Torah, there are many who have asked why Avraham didn't perform circumcision prior to his being commanded. Prior to being circumcised Avraham had something in common with the people of his generation. He was able to reach out to them and shower them with blessings and kindness, to feed them and give them drink and to bring them close to the shekhina. However once he was circumcised he was elevated to a different level, and now people were afraid to come near him... and in place of kindness (chesed) now there were boundaries and strictness... (Tiferet Shlomo Moadim Sukkot)

Avraham's basic approach was inclusive. His tent was open on all sides; he placed no limits, erected no boundaries.15 In fact, the Meshech Chochma 16 sees this universalism as Avraham's motivation to travel to Egypt. He went to Egypt at a time of drought, choosing Egypt not despite its reputation for corruption but precisely because of its reputation as a morally corrupt society. In Avraham's worldview, if Egypt can be redeemed, the entire world will be elevated, and by a quantum leap. Avraham saw Egypt as a boundary, a spiritual and ethical border to be crossed and dismantled. This, like so much else in his biography, reflects a deep humanism: Avraham did not want to push away his wayward son Yishmael. He interceded on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom, despite the knowledge that their beliefs and behavior contradicted everything he himself believed and practiced. A lesser man would have accepted God's judgment and anticipated the annihilation of Sodom with satisfaction, a sense of moral superiority, perhaps a sense of validation. These people, after all, were the living antithesis to Avraham's weltanschauung and to the message of morality and kindness he was working to spread. The destruction of Sodom would have made his job so much easier. But for Avraham, these were not evil, corrupt enemies of his faith. They were misguided people who simply had not yet found truth.

With the command to perform the Brit Milah Avraham's life will change. There will now be a boundary between him and everyone else.17 He will now be viewed even more suspiciously by his neighbors. In fact, the rabbis express their sensitivity to Avraham's conflict between universalism and nationhood as a "hesitation" on Avraham's part when he was commanded to perform circumcision.

[Abraham] asked: ' If circumcision is so precious, why was it not given to Adam? ' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: 'Let it suffice thee that I and thou are in the world.' If thou wilt not undergo circumcision, it is enough for My world to have existed until now, and it is enough for the uncircumcised state to have existed until now, and it is enough for circumcision to have been forlorn until now.'' Said he: ' Before I circumcised myself, men came and joined me [in my new faith]. Will they come and join me when I am circumcised?'" 'Abraham,' said God to him, ' let it suffice thee that I am thy God; let it suffice thee that I am thy Patron, and not only for thee alone, but it is sufficient for My world that I am its God and its Patron.' (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 46:2-3)

Abraham said: ' Before I became circumcised, travellers used to visit me; now that I am circumcised, perhaps they will no longer visit me? ' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: ' Before thou wast circumcised, uncircumcised mortals visited thee; now I in My glory will appear to thee.' Hence it is written, And the Lord appeared unto him (Gen. 28:1) (Midrash Rabbah - Genesis 47:10)

Amazingly enough, here Avraham hesitates.18 When commanded to offer up his long-awaited son, his heir, the key to the fulfillment of all that God has promised him, Avraham marches forward like a knight of faith. But here, in this test, Avraham questions: If circumcision is so precious, why was it not given to Adam? Why isn't this a universal command? Why is this command only being given to Avraham and his descendants? He worries that this new status will jeopardize his mission, setting him apart from those he has hoped to impact. He fears this will put an end to his stream of visitors. God's response is telling: "I will visit you, and that is truly enough. Your relationship with Me is more important, and your mission is less universal and more particular than you know."

Clearly, then, the Brit Milah is a test. The challenge may be heightened by the paradoxical nature of the command which he receives:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Avram ; your name will be Avraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." Then God said to Avraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner-those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant." (Bereishit 17:1-14)

Avram is told that from now on his name will be Avraham, signifying that he will be a father of many nations - Av Hamon Goyim. This would seem to be the ultimate universal message: Not only will Avraham be a part of the larger universal existence, he will bring nations toward God. And in the next breath he is told to perform circumcision which creates boundaries and will forever separate Avraham and his descendents from all others. In one fell swoop, the universal vision and the narrow, parochial, particular approach. Apparently, Avraham is confused. How can he impact the entire world when he must first perform an act of self-mutilation that people will view as grotesque? Hachnasat Orchim, and Eruv Tavshilin (welcoming guests and making accommodations to feed them on holidays and Shabbat), were much easier.

Apparently, what Avraham still lacks is "holiness" - kedusha - which is literally rendered as "set apart". This separateness is a new phase for Avraham, and not one to which he would have come without God's command. This separateness may be seen as that which contradicts Avraham's innate attribute of chesed, the attribute through which he has served God up to this point in his life.

How is he to reconcile chesed with kedusha? How is he to be a part of the world - involved, engaged, interested, even responsible for the world - and live a life of kedusha, set apart, indelibly marked by "differentness"? How will he and his descendents reconcile living in a mundane world with their unique destiny and closeness to God?

The answer presents itself later on in the text, as Avraham finds himself enmeshed in his next paradoxical challenge: the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac. Here, too, logic is defeated. If Yitzchak is to be offered, how can he effectively be the living progeny destined to carry on the family line? Avraham and Yitzchak nonetheless set out to fulfill God's command, and they bring two other people along. Our Sages19 identify them as Yishmael and Eliezer - Avraham's first son, and man who was like a son. Rashi, citing the Midrash, tells us that as they approach the appointed place Avraham sees something that appears to him to be ethereal, but he is unsure if it is real or surreal, physical or spiritual. He sees a cloud, he sees the shechina; he turns to question Yishamel and Eliezer, but they see only the mountain. He turns to Yitzchak, who sees the cloud, tied as if by rope to the mountain. Avraham then turns to the other two and says, "Wait here with the chamor (donkey)." My teacher Rabbi Soloveitchik pointed out that at times we neglect the rest of the verse:

Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place far away. And Abraham said to his young men, 'Stay here with the donkey; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you.' (Bereishit 22:4-5)

Those last words, "and come back to you," cannot be ignored. Avraham encapsulates a unique religious experience in this short statement, and we should take note of every element: This awesome religious experience would not be complete until Avraham came down the mountain and shared with others his epiphany, his feelings and his enlightenment. Avraham would have the greatest impact on the two men he left behind only after parting ways, dedicating himself to the more particular religious experience at the summit, and then returning to their company. Similarly, for the Jewish People to have an impact on the world, we must first disengage, separate ourselves, and fully explore our unique relationship with God. There will be times when we must wrest ourselves away from our deep involvement, even our responsibility for the world. We must climb lofty mountains, even engage in divinely-mandated, though seemingly paradoxical, behavior. But we must always remember that eventually we must come down from the mountain, re-engage, return to the people that we left at the foot of the mountain. We must find the language and establish the relationship that will allow us to share with them what we learned at the summit.

Avraham learns to resolve the tension. Both the universal and the particular are important, but they are intertwined. The way we can accomplish our universal responsibility is by first becoming separate, different - as holy as we can possibly become. Only this will enable us to fulfill our mission of tikun olam, to enlighten, to educate, to heal and repair the world.

What is interesting is that the nefesh asher asu b'Haran, the people "acquired" in Haran,20 the people attracted by a spirituality devoid of holiness, all disappeared. In fact, the prototypical outreach that Avraham was famous for, his open tent and encouraging people to bless God, is recorded after the circumcision was performed.

And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God. (Bereishit 21:33) A grove' - Rav and Shmuel, one said an orchard to bring fruits for guests' meals, and one said an inn for guests and it had all kinds of produce. 'And called there' - he used the eshel to call God master of the universe: After people would eat and drink, Avraham would instruct them to bless the One who provides food. He would say, "You think the food came from me? It came from He who spoke and caused the world to exist. (Rashi Genesis 21:33)

The house of Avraham and Sarah was both open to all, yet set apart; universal and separate at one and the same time. Only now were they able to impact others in a permanent way.

Our world, then, is not so different from that of Avraham and Sarah after all. The world still lacks holiness. By observing the commandments, both those we understand and those that seem to us paradoxical, we add holiness to our lives. We set ourselves on a higher rung, as it were. And as holiness accrues, we will find our spiritual, ethical and social abilities exponentially increased, and thus our ability to effect change and fix a broken world.


  1. A version of this essay with Hebrew sources and footnotes can be found at . (return to text)


  2. Though there is a consensus in Rabbinic thought that Avraham was tested ten times, there is no consensus as to what the ten tests were. (return to text)



  3. Rashi, in his first interpretation, tells us that these were the men and women whom Avraham and Sara (respectively) taught and "converted". However, in a second explanation - which Rashi labels "p'shat" - the straightforward meaning of the text - Rashi explains that these were the people that were acquired; i.e., slaves and members of the household staff. (return to text)


  4. Previously Avraham's father Terach started to make his way to Canaan. The Seforno (12:5), posits that both Avraham and Terach choose Canaan as their destination because it was known as a spiritual place. (return to text)


  5. Bereishit 12:6. (return to text)


  6. Ramban Bereishit 12:6. (return to text)



  7. The Midrash, which takes the same basic approach, nonetheless states that Avraham did not keep Shabbat. See Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 11:7: R. Johanan said in R. Jose's name: Abraham, who is not reported to have kept the Sabbath, inherited the world in [limited] measure, as it is written, 'Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it' (Gen. 13:17). But Jacob, of whom the keeping of the Sabbath is mentioned, viz. And he rested [E.V. 'encamped'] before the city (ib. 33:18), Which means that he entered at twilight and set boundaries before sunset,6 inherited the world without measure, [as it is written], And thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, etc. (ib. 28:14). (return to text)


  8. The Ohr Hachaim (Bereishit 49:3) maintains that the forefathers only kept laws that he found useful, or more precisely would not keep lows that they found an impediment to them. (return to text)


  9. The Shem MiShmuel understand that Yaakov fulfilled the commandments - even if he didn't quite perform them. He explains that commandments have bodies and souls, and Avraham was attuned to the souls and therefore didn't need the "body" of the physical performance. (return to text)


  10. The Noam Elimelech Parshat Dvarim, states that Avraham had certainly achieved the spiritual perfection of someone who had performed all the commandments. (return to text)



  11. The Degel Machane Efraim (Acharei Mot SV Vod, and in Ekev SV Vrak) understands that the ultimate objective of the commandments is the understanding that there is One God, and the rejection of all pagan entities, and that Avraham fulfilled with a vengeance, he was cognizant of this truth all his days. A similar idea is found in Moar Vshemesh Rimzey first day of Sukkot. (return to text)


  12. See Rashi's comments to Berishet 21:33 where he explains that one of the reasons for Avraham's magnanimous hosting of guests aside from imitatio dei is his desire to teach people to bless God and thank God. (return to text)


  13. The Arvei Nahal understands that all 613 commandments are subsumed within the seven Noachide laws. (return to text)


  14. See Rambam Laws of Idolatry chapter 1. (return to text)


  15. According to the Meshech Chochma, Yaakov personifies setting up boundaries, to prevent assimilation. Hence Yaakov keeps even Eruv Tehumin. (return to text)


  16. Meshech Chochma Bereishit 33:18. (return to text)


  17. See the comments of the Beit Halevi Bereishit 17:1. (return to text)


  18. The Alshich Hakadosh notes that here because Avraham senses that others would be impacted Avraham hesitates, but with regards to the Binding if Yitzchak, where only he will suffer he doesn't hesitate. (return to text)


  19. See Rashi ad loc. (return to text)



  20. See Meshech Chochma Bereishit 21:33 and the sources he cites.(return to text)



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