Silence, Speech - and Silence
Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
The text of the Torah tells us little about Avram (later called Avraham) prior to the start of “Lech Lecha”.1 However, with those words – Lech Lecha – God speaks, instructs, and promises. And from that moment onward, Avram’s life is changed; in retrospect, we can say that the course of history is changed, the entire world is changed.
(1) God said to Avram, go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a [source of] blessing. I will bless those who bless you and those who curse you I will damn, and all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through you. 12:1-3
We do not know if this was God’s first communication with Avram, though it is the first recorded one.2 We also don’t know exactly when the communication took place. The text reports that Avram was 75 years old when he left Charan, and we would prefer to assume that Avram carried out God’s instructions soon after he received them.3
Rabbinic tradition4 fills in the lacunae in the written text and paints a picture of Avram as an individual who seeks truth and “discovers” God, an individual whose love of God and man inspires him to share his discovery – monotheism – as widely as possible.5 In his hometown, his efforts are met with resistance, eventually leading to a showdown with Nimrod that nearly results in Avram’s death. Avram sets off for a safer venue; at his next location, he apparently enjoys much greater success in inspiring people toward a relationship with God: When he eventually leaves Charan, he is accompanied by a large entourage of students, new adherents to the idea of monotheism.
Avram took his wife, Sarai, and his brother's son, Lot, and all their possessions which they had acquired, and the souls [people] they had made in Charan, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. 12:5
The “souls that they made in Charan” is understood by Targum Unkolus as the people he (and Sarah) had inspired:
All the souls they made subservient to the Torah (Law/teachings)
Rashi cites6 this teaching:7
[THE SOULS] THAT THEY HAD GOTTEN (literally, made) IN CHARAN – The souls which he had brought beneath the sheltering wings of the Shechinah. Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women and Scripture accounts it unto them as if they had made them.
After all of these events – after his near-death experience, after uprooting his family and re-settling in Charan, after successfully spreading the message of the One God, the God of compassion and mercy – at long last, Avraham receives a confirming communication from the God in whom he believes. More than just a confirmation of his belief, Avraham receives directions. He knows how he is to proceed. He knows that his future will be in a new land, where he hopes he will find new opportunities, and perhaps most importantly, where he will enjoy Divine protection and assistance: Unlike his earlier trials and tribulations, now those who attack him will pay the price. At last, everyone will know that Avraham’s belief in God has brought blessing to the world. The promise he receives, “all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through you,” guarantees his success. Avraham starts his journey with the certainty that now things would be different – but would they?
Perhaps the commandment to leave his home – which was bundled together with blessings of success – wasn’t the beginning of the solution, after all; perhaps it was simply one more challenge, one more hurdle, one more of the tests Avraham endured. The Mishnah8 teaches that Avraham was challenged with ten tests – and passed them all. What the Mishnah doesn’t reveal is, what precisely were these tests?9 Was the instruction to leave Charan, albeit laden with Divine blessings, considered a test, a challenge to be met? There were certainly difficulties involved. Despite the blessings he had been promised, other than his wife and his nephew Lot, Avraham left his entire family behind.10 He disconnected himself from the protection and support of his kin and set out to points unknown.
We may well assume that Avram’s stay in Charan was originally intended as a temporary situation, a layover in the journey toward his final destination. When he first set out from Ur Kasdim, Avram’s party included a significant member of his family – his father Terach:
Terach took his son Avram, and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of Avram. And they set out with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to Charan and dwelled there. 11:31
We might argue that this strange idea – Terach’s inexplicable trek toward the Land of Canaan – was in fact an idea planted in his mind by God.11
In a communication recorded subsequently,12 God takes the credit for taking Avraham from his birthplace, Ur Kasdim:
He said to him, "I am God who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit. 15:7
There are those who read this verse in a more specific manner: God is reminding Avraham that it was He who saved him from the Ur – the fire or furnace – in Kasdim.13
And He said to him, I am the Eternal God who brought you out of the fiery furnace of Kasdim, to give you this land to inherit. (Targum Pseudo Yonatan Bereishit 15:7)
“Ur Kasdim” contains within it a reference – perhaps a hint – to the events that are absent in the text but are recounted in the famous Midrash: Avram was thrown into a fiery furnace by Nimrod, but survived due to Divine intervention. Does this episode, which pre-dates God’s promises to Avraham articulated in Lech Lecha, nonetheless fall under the same umbrella of Divine protection? Was the as-yet unspoken promise already in effect during the episodes of Avraham’s life detailed in the Midrash, including his miraculous survival of death-by – fire at the hands of Nimrod? Or does that earlier episode merely foreshadow what the future relationship between God and Avraham will be?
The implication of the Divine communication, lech lecha, was that Terach’s participation in this journey would come to an end: “Go forth from your land and your birthplace14 and your father’s house to the land I will show you.” Terach, father of Avram, the man who had started the journey to Canaan, would be left behind.15 Apparently, Terach, the purveyor of idols, had gone as far as he would or could go; he had to be left behind, collateral damage of his own mission.
It is worth noting that in his comments on the verses describing Terach’s truncated journey and Avram’s new mandate moving forward, Rashi explains that Terach would live many more years after the parting of the ways (Bereishit 11:32). Nonetheless, Rashi argues, it was appropriate for Avram to abandon his father (and his filial responsibilities) because Terach was wicked; he was an idolator.16 Later in his life (and at a later point in the text) we find hints that Terach eventually17 abandoned idolatry and ended his life as a penitent (Bereishit 15:15).18 Perhaps Avram’s presence, his heightened spirituality and righteousness, had been holding Terach back; as long as Avraham was around, Terach felt no need to do the hard spiritual work. He left the “heavy lifting” to his son and simply hung on to his coattails. Only when Avraham leaves him behind does Terach realize that he himself must make his own spiritual journey.19
Once again, we return to our question: Is this another test? Was the commandment to abandon his father another means of testing Avram’s dedication, or did Avram perceive this as being finally freed from the burden of his idolatrous father?
Other aspects of the command of lech lecha make matters even worse: Avram did not have any idea where he was headed. Surely the challenge of this journey and the challenge of uprooting his life were amplified by the uncertainty. However, all of these considerations would seem to be outweighed by the promises and blessings bestowed upon Avraham.
Avram and his entourage arrive in the Land of Canaan, and they travel through the landscape to a place called Shechem or Eylon Moreh:
(6) Avram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, to Eylon [the oak] of Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the land. (7) God appeared to Avram and said, “I will give this land to your descendants.” He built an altar there to God who appeared to him. 12:6-7
In what seems like an innocent aside, we are told that the Canaanites inhabited the land at the time. At this juncture, God appears to Avram and blesses him: his descendants will inherit this land. This wonderful news contains two blessings: One, the hitherto barren Avram would have a child who would bear subsequent generations of descendants; and two, the purpose of this trip was to bring him to the land that these descendants would one day call their own. But therein lies the rub: The land was not actually promised to Avraham himself, rather it was promised as a gift to the children and the descendants he did not yet have; for now, the Canaanites inhabit the land, which means that this promise refers to distant future events and realities.
Should this give us pause? Should we perhaps reconsider the other promises he was given, and conclude that these, too, were ‘long-term’ promises that would come to fruition only in some distant future?
I will make you a great nation I will bless you and make your name great and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and those who damn you I will curse and all the peoples of the earth shall be blessed through you. 12:2-3
Were these blessings something Avram could expect immediately? Did they refer to Avraham’s lifetime, or were these promises of protection and blessing, like the promise of the land, something only future generations would see?
Perhaps the very fact that he received these blessings was a test: Would Avram demand immediate gratification? Would he lose faith if he did not see the blessings realized? Would he despair when he understood that he would never personally reap the rewards of his devotion and sacrifice?
To compound the problem, the blessings themselves were clouded by imprecision and a lack of specificity: Which land would he be receiving? What would be the borders and contours of this land? This confusion crescendos in the complex verses that follow. Avraham continues traveling south – perhaps seeking answers to some of these questions.
He left from there to the mountain east of Beit El, and pitched his tent; Beit El to the west, and Ai to the east. There he built an altar to the Eternal God and called out in the name of the Eternal God. 12:8
Something is missing. God is silent; no further information or clarification is offered. Avraham, for his part, repeats what he had done before. Once again he builds an altar and “calls in the name of God.” Some commentaries imagine Avraham calling out, as he did in Charan, to his neighbors, teaching them to serve the One God. Targum Unkolus understands these verses very differently: Avram calls God by name, searches for Him. Avram is at a loss; he is stymied by the lack of information and he calls to God for answers, for details, for further instructions. But this time, God doesn’t speak.
And then, things get worse. A famine descends upon the land, and still God is silent. Avraham is left to ponder on his own: Was the promise that he would be a source of blessing something he should count on in the here-and-now, or was it, like the promise of offspring and inheriting the land, also a promise for the more distant future? The combination of God’s continued non-communication and the lack of food leads Avraham to a decision: He continues his trek southward.
The Ramban attacks Avraham for his decision to leave Israel, and for causing his wife to enter a morally precarious situation.20 But is this critique fair?21 Did Avram know that the land on which he found himself (Egypt) was outside of the borders of his future inheritance? Based on the communication he had received, how could he have known which land was included in the promise? He feared for his safety; should he have trusted solely in God’s promise to protect him, putting faith before action? When considering the situation, the facts seemed to indicate that the promises – all the promises – were not intended to have any bearing on the present; they were more akin to long-term bonds than to immediate insurance policies. A famine had come; surely the promise of blessing flowing through Avraham to the world had not yet begun. Could he expect Divine protection at this point in history?
The conclusion is inescapable: From the moment God spoke to him, every minute and every aspect of Avram’s life had become complicated. The blessings, it seems, would not ‘kick in’ until the future; God’s deafening silence seemed to confirm this diagnosis.
This wholly unsatisfying model of communication continues for the rest of Avraham’s life: God speaks when He sees fit, and not necessarily when Avraham is in great need of direction, clarification, friendship or mentoring. Only after Avraham separates from Lot does God speak again, although the separation itself might have happened earlier, more seamlessly and peacefully, and with less self-doubt, had God given Avraham some guidance or assured him that parting ways with Lot was the correct course of action.22
Similarly, only after Avraham becomes embroiled in battle between warring kings, and only after the hostilities come to an end, God assures Avraham that he will protect him. Arguably, those comforting words would have been more helpful BEFORE, and not after, the war. Yet God alone decides when to speak and when to leave the courageous Avraham to his own devices. When details are finally provided, Avraham is told that four hundred years will have to pass before the land is his – but his descendants will first suffer angst, servitude and abuse.
When Sarah is taken by Avimelech,23 God speaks to Avimelech,24 not to Avraham. Avraham is left to work the situation out without guidance, without instructions or assurances, only silence. And so it continues: Avraham’s entire life seems to be an ongoing test, an endless series of challenges, some of which are unimaginably difficult. But Avraham marches on with incredible aplomb. His faith is never shaken; he continues his journey armed with promises for the distant future. The tests he faces phase him no more than the hurdles over which a well-trained athlete leaps; Avraham takes them all in his stride. Despite God’s silence, Avraham feels blessed; he knows that he is blessed. He knows it with certainty, because he knows with certainty that the God he loves, the loving God, has blessed him. Even though it will take years, generations, Avraham knows that the day will come when these blessings will be manifest. Sooner or later, it will happen: He will have children and the Land of Israel will be theirs,25 for God had spoken.
Though Avram and his family are introduced in the end of Chapter 11, very little is told about Avram. The various midrashim that fill out the narrative tell of Avraham’s trials and tribulations; while these details are a significant part of Jewish consciousness, they are absent from the text of the Torah, although some textual hints support the midrashic tradition. See below.
According to a midrashic teaching recorded by many medieval sages, the conversation in the 15th chapter of Bereishit chronologically precedes Lech Lecha (the 12th chapter). See Seder Olam Rabbah, Chapter 1; this midrash is incorporated in Rashi, Shmot 12:40 and Bereishit 15:13, and can be found in many other commentaries. Tosfot (Talmud Bavli Brachot 7b) opines that the events recorded in Bereishit 15: 1-6 happened at one point in time, while the events recorded in verses 7 – 21 were at an earlier juncture. Either way, this midrashic insight does not change the thrust of the argument.
FOUR HUNDRED AND THIRTY YEARS – Altogether from the birth of Isaac until now were 400 years, and we must reckon from that event, for only from the time when Abraham had offspring from Sarah could the prophecy (Genesis 15:13) "Thy offspring shall be a stranger" be fulfilled; and there had been 30 years since that decree made at "the covenant between the parts" until the birth of Isaac. It is impossible to say that this means that they were 430 years in the land of Egypt alone, for Kohath was one of those who came into Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46:11); go and reckon all his years and all the years of Amram his son and the whole eighty years of Moses, the latter's son, until the Exodus and you will not find that they total to so many; and you must admit that Kohath had already lived many years before he went down to Egypt, and that many of Amram's years are included in the years of his father Kohath, and that many of the 80 years of Moses are included in the years of his father Amram, so that you see that you will not find 400 years from the time of Israel's coming into Egypt until the Exodus. You are compelled to admit, even though unwillingly, that the other settlements which the patriarchs made in lands other than Egypt come also under the name of "sojourning as a stranger" (גרות), including also that at Hebron, even though it was in Canaan itself, because it is said, (Genesis 35:27) "[Hebron] where Abraham and Isaac sojourned", and it says, (Exodus 6:4) "[the land Canaan], the land of their sojournings wherein they sojourned". Consequently, you must necessarily say that the prophecy, "thy offspring shall be strangers… [four hundred years]" began only from the time when he had offspring. And only if you reckon the 400 years from the birth of Isaac will you find that from the time they came into Egypt until the time they left it, was 210 years (as alluded to in Genesis 15:13). This was one of the passages which they altered for king Ptolemy (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 12:40; Megillah 9a).
The text (12:4) only states that Avraham was 75 when he left Charan but doesn’t state his age when God spoke to him. See previous note.
בראשית פרשת לך לך פרק יב:ד
…וְאַבְרָ֗ם בֶּן־חָמֵ֤שׁ שָׁנִים֙ וְשִׁבְעִ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה בְּצֵאת֖וֹ מֵחָרָֽן:
It is worth noting that these Midrashic teachings of Avraham’s life are not considered as simple stories or folk tales, but as the Rambam (Laws of Idolatry 1:3) codifies these episodes when he tells the early history of monotheism.
As soon as this giant was weaned he commenced to busy his mind, in his infancy he commenced to think by day and by night, and would encounter this enigma: How is it possible that this planet should continuously be in motion and have no leader—and who, indeed, causes it to revolve, it being impossible that it should revolve itself? Moreover, he neither had a teacher nor one to impart aught to him, for he was sunk in Ur of the Chaldeans among the foolish worshipers of stars, and his father, and his mother, like all the people, worshiped stars, and he, although following them in their worship, busies his heart and reflects until he attains the path of truth, and, by his correct thinking, he understood when he finally saw the line of righteousness. He knew that there is One God; He leads the planet; He created everything; and in all that is there is no god save He. He knew that the whole world was in error, and that the thing which caused them to err was, that their worshiping the stars and the images brought about the loss of the truth from their consciousness. And, when Abraham was forty years old he recognized his Creator. After he came to this comprehension and knowledge he started to confute the sons of Ur of the Chaldeans, and to organize disputations with them, cautioning them, saying: "This is not the true path that you are following", and he destroyed the images, and commenced preaching to the people warning them that it is not right to worship any save the God of the universe, and unto Him alone it is right to bow down, to offer sacrifices, and compound offerings, so that the creatures of the future shall recognize Him. Moreover, it is right to destroy and break in pieces all of the images, so that the whole population of the future be not led to an error like unto these who imagine that there is no God save these images. When he had them subdued by his well supported contentions, the king tried to put him to death, but he was saved by a miracle, and went hence to Haran. There he stood up anew and called out in a great voice to the whole world, to let them know that there is One God for the whole universe, and unto Him it is proper to render service. And thus he went onward with his proclamations from city to city, and from government to government, until he attained the land of Canaan amidst his outcry, even as it is said: "And called there on the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God" (Gen. 21.33). When the people who congregated about him asked him concerning his preachments, he replied by imparting knowledge to each and every one according to his mentality, to the end that he was able to turn him to the path of truth, until there congregated about him thousands, even tens of thousands, and they became the people of Abraham's household, in whose heart he implanted this great cause, concerning which he compiled books, and which he imparted to his son Isaac. Isaac, from his seat of learning, gave instructions and admonitions. And Isaac, in turn, imparted it to Jacob and appointed him head master, who, at his seat of learning, gave instructions and supported all who flocked to him. And Jacob our father instructed all his sons, but separated Levi and appointed him head master, and established him in a seat of learning where to instruct in the path of the Name and in the observance of the charges of Abraham. He, moreover, commanded his sons not to interrupt the succession of the sons of Levi to the presidency of the school so that the learning be not forgotten. So did the movement advance intensely among the sons of Jacob and their followers that the world saw a God-knowing nation called into existence, until Israel spent a long time in Egypt, when they turned to be instructed in their practice and to worship the stars as they did, save only the tribe of Levi, which remained faithful to their ancestorial charge; for the tribe of Levi at no time worshiped stars. Verily, in but a short space of time, the root which Abraham had planted would have been uprooted, and the sons of Jacob would have turned to the universal error and wandering; save because of the Lord's love for us, and because He observes the oath of covenant with Abraham our father, He appointed Moses our Master lord of all prophets, and made him His messenger. After Moses our Master was endowed with prophecy and the Lord chose Israel as an inheritance, He crowned them with commandments, and made known to them the way to serve Him, and what will be the judgment rendered against idolatry and all its erring devotees.
See Midrash Rabbah 30:4
However, Rashi continues and explains that the “pshat” is that these are people who were acquired
וּפְשׁוּטוֹ שֶׁל מִקְרָא עֲבָדִים וּשְׁפָחוֹת שֶׁקָּנוּ לָהֶם, כְּמוֹ עָשָׂה אֵת כָּל הַכָּבֹד הַזֶּה (שם ל"א), וְיִשְׂרָאֵל עֹשֶׂה חָיִל (במדבר כד יח), לְשׁוֹן קוֹנֶה וְכוֹנֵס:
However, the real sense of the text is that it refers to the men-servants and to the maidservants whom they had acquired for themselves. The word “עשה” is used here as (in Genesis 31:1), “he has acquired (עשה) all this wealth”, and (Numbers 24:8), “And Israel acquires (עושה) wealth” – an expression for acquiring and amassing.
Which also found in Bereishit Rabbah 39:14
Mishna Avot 5:3.
With ten trials was our Forefather Abraham (may he rest in peace) tried, and he withstood them all; to make known how great was the love of Abraham, our father (peace be upon him).
The only episode in Avraham’s life which is called a “test” in the text of the Torah, is the instruction to offer his son Yitzchak. Various Midrashim and commentators enumerate the tests, and their lists differ significantly. For a sample of the differences, see Avot d’Rebbe Natan Chapter 33; Pirki d’Rebbe Eliezer chapter 26 and the commentary of Rabbi David Luria (RADAL),;Rambam – Commentary to the Mishna; Rabbenu Yona – Commentary to the Mishna.
According to one tradition Lot was also Avraham’s brother-in-law, see Rashi, 11:29, who identifies Yiscah, the daughter of Haran, as Sarah. Lot was the son of Haran.
See Rabbenu Meyuchas 11:31 and 15:7, who says that God gave the idea to Terach to take his son Avram to the Land of Canaan. Also, see Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 11:31 and 15:7 : God took Terach on this journey in order to facilitate Avraham’s journey; God did not yet communicate with Avram, but he (Avram) was already spiritually enlightened. He perceived the holiness of the Land of Israel from afar. Also see Hizkuni 11:31, who opines that God commanded Terach to leave Ur Kasdim. See Sfat Emet, Bereishit 5632, based on the Zohar (Bereishit 165b) that God spoke to everyone – but Avram was the only one who listened. Also see Kuzari 4:27: God’s instruction was a response to Avram’s religious yearning and his righteous behavior.
We noted above that according to the Seder Olam Rabbah, this conversation took place when Avram was seventy years old.
See Midrash Rabbah 44:13.
Avraham’s precise birthplace is the subject of some debate, and beyond the scope of this essay. See Ramban 11:28, and 12:1.
The acknowledgement that Terach had left Or Kasdim with Avraham helps explain what some see as an awkwardness of the sequence of the instructions in text, and the claim that leaving his father’s home should have been first, now we realize, that his “father’s home” had left his birthplace. And therefore, after leaving his birthplace, Avraham needs to leave his father’s home.
Rashi Bereishit 11:32.
AND TERAH DIED IN CHARAN after Abram had left Charan (as related in the next chapter) and had come to the land of Canaan and had been there more than sixty years. For it is written, (Genesis 12:4) "And Abram was seventy five years old when he left Charan", and Terah was seventy years old when Abram was born (Genesis 11:26), making Terah 145 years old when Abram left Charan, so that there were then many years of his life left (i.e. he lived many years after that – as a matter of fact, 60 years, as he was 205 years old when he died). Why, then, does Scripture mention the death of Terah before the departure of Avram? In order that this matter (his leaving home during his father's lifetime) might not become known to all, lest people should say that Avram did not show a son's respect to his father, for he left him in his old age and went his way. That is why Scripture speaks of him as dead (Bereishit Rabbah 39:7). For indeed the wicked even while alive are called dead and the righteous even when dead are called living, as it is said, (2 Samuel 23:20) "And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada the son of a living man."
As previously noted, Rashi follows the Seder Olam in the understanding that the Brit bein habitarim transpired prior to “Lech Lecha”, making it much more complicated to contend that Terach subsequently repented.
Rashi Bereishit 15:15, Based on midrash Rabbah 38:12. For various changes in Terach’s belief system see Panim Yafot, Bereishit 11:31.
UNTO THY FATHERS – His father was an idolator and yet it (the text) announced to him that he (Abraham) would go to him! But this teaches you that Terah repented of his evil ways
Similar to the ruffians who lived in the neighborhood of Rav Zeira, See Sanhedrin 37, for more on this see the Crowns on The Letters page 431,432.
In a comment on Bereishit 12:1, Ramban himself allows for the possibility that Avraham does not know the destination which God has in store for him. It is possible that even after arriving in the Land which will be known as Israel, that Avraham doesn’t know the precise borders.
It is possible that the separation from Lot was the completion of the Divine instruction to leave his father’s home. Lot’s accompanying of Avraham is complex, for at first it seems that Lot “tags along” and only subsequently is he taken. Compare the description in verses 19:4 and 19:5. See Comments of Rashi 12:2, and Ramban where he cites Rashi and ibn Ezra (yet the Ramban disagrees).
Avram went forth as God had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Charan. Avram took his wife, Sarai, and his brother's son, Lot, and all their acquisitions which they had acquired, and the souls/people they had made/purchased in Charan, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.
FROM THY LAND – But had he not already departed from there together with his father and had reached as far as Haran (Genesis 11:31)? But thus God in effect said to him: Go still further away – leave now thy father’s house also.
Bereishit Chapter 20.
Bereishit Chapter 20:3-7.
Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller in his commentary to the Mishnah, Tosfot Yom Tov, notes that in the Mishnah in Avot which spoke of the ten tests (5:3), the tanna uses the term “Avraham Avinu” – “Our forefather Avraham”, while in the previous Mishnah he was only described as “Avraham.” The implication of the addition of “avinu” in this context is that we, as Avraham’s descendants, inherit reward from our forefather based on those same actions. This idea is expanded by Rav Chaim of Volozhin in his Ruach Hachaim, where he points to the self-sacrifice exhibited by even “simple,” unlearned Jews – even to the point of death. Rav Chaim explains that this was imprinted on the collective Jewish soul by our Forefather Avrah