Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17 )
The first command God issued to the first Jew recorded in the Torah sets the pattern for the entire march of Jewish history. As His very first command, God orders Abraham to abandon his native land, his culture and his family and follow God into the unknown.
Moreover, God informs Abraham that this severing of his earthly ties is not only for his spiritual edification; his earthly prosperity depends on it. He will attain fame, wealth and offspring if he follows God into the unknown, whereas he will die childless if he remains.
THE PARAMETERS OF JEWISH EXISTENCE
Jews are not like other people. Their prosperity does not depend on the usual factors of economy, skill and connections; [the significant inputs of country, culture and family] they are God-dependant. To survive and prosper, Jews have to live where God tells them, not where they consider best, and they have to do what God tells them, instead of following their own judgment regarding their options.
If they follow this prescription they will prosper just as Abraham did, despite the fact that everything is weighted against them -- too old to start a family or open a business, don't speak the language, the natives are generally hostile. [A lot of us have parents or grandparents who can serve as living testimonies to this reality. They established second families and attained financial success in the new world following the Holocaust, when they were really too old, couldn't speak the language, and had no connections or family.]
To understand the deeper implications of the pattern set by Lech Lecha, we have to bear in mind that the acceptance of this command is called one of the ten tests of Abraham mentioned in Pirke Avot (5:4). These tests are described in great detail in Pirkei d'Rebbe Elazar (Chpts. 26-32), where Lech Lecha is listed as the third test. (Ch.26)
LECH LECHA AS A TEST
At first glance it seems almost bizarre to refer to this commandment as a test. Visualize the situation! God Himself appears to a seventy-five-year-old childless, persecuted man [see the story of his confrontation with Nimrod later in the essay]. He informs him that all he has to do is follow God's instructions and move to another country, and God Himself will undertake to make him rich and famous and grant him children. Those who aid him will enjoy good fortune, while those who oppose him will incur God's curse. God promises him that the enormity of his success will be such that the most fervent wish of mankind will be, "If only I could be like Abraham!" At first glance this seems like a test we would all enjoy taking!
We can only comprehend the enormity of what is at stake in this test if we think about it in terms of security. God made another promise to Abraham in our Parsha:
After these events, the word of God came to Abraham in a vision, saying, "Fear not Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great." (Genesis, 15:1)
This idea of God being Abraham's shield is so fundamental to our relationship with Him that we end the very first blessing of the silent Amidah prayer with the words: Blessed are You God, Shield of Abraham.
SECURITY IS MAN'S DEEPEST CONCERN
The shield is a universal symbol of security. Since security is always our deepest concern, as the events of the recent weeks amply demonstrate, it is the first idea we stress in the Amidah prayer.
Security is the flaw in the rosy promises of Lech Lecha. It's great to be the beneficiaries of God's bounty, but accepting God as our source of security is not such a comfortable idea. I can never feel totally at ease when my security is in someone else's hands. The bloody history of the Jewish people amply attests to the disadvantages of the lack of control over our own security. Indeed, the Sages of the Talmud, whose absolute commitment to God's dictates is beyond question, fully recognized this surrender of control over security to God as a heavy burden. They called it 'accepting the Yoke of the Commandments'.
R' Joshua ben Karcha taught: Why does the first paragraph of Shema precede the paragraph of Vehaya im shomoa: So that a person will accept on himself the yoke of Heaven before accepting on himself the yoke of the commandments. (Brachot,13a)
THE YOKE OF THE COMMANDMENTS
The second chapter of the Shema prayer is the place where the Torah most explicitly states that God is the Jewish people's source of security.
And it will come to pass that if you continually hearken to My commandments that I command you today, to love YHVH your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul — then I will provide rain for your land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. I will provide grass in your field for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve the gods of others and bow to them. Then the wrath of God will blaze against you. He will restrain the heaven so there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield its produce. And you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land which God gives you.
Thus the "yoke of the commandments" turns out to be the novel notion of security presented by the passage. We are informed that our physical security is unrelated to the quality or intensity of the effort we devote to good husbandry or defense. Our attachment to God, and our level of observance of His commandments, are the sole determinants of the level of our prosperity and safety in this world. Unlike other members of mankind, who control their own lives -- in the sense that their prosperity and security is at least statistically commensurate with the effort and enterprise invested in attaining it -- the well being of the Jew is solely in the hands of God, and is entirely a product of the man/God relationship.
GOD'S NOTION OF SECURITY SEEMS CONFINING
Such a notion of security is confining to say the least. By entering such a security arrangement, Jews surrender control over their lives to God, and have effectively voluntarily become His dependents. They no longer possess the autonomy or the self-reliance generally associated with freedom and self-confidence. They are constantly forced to abjectly beg for God's handouts. Their lives are full of the anxiety of the dependant. This indeed, is why the commandment of Lech Lecha referred to above is considered one of Abraham's ten tests. It may even have been his greatest test.
Rashi translates Lech Lecha: for the sake of your own enjoyment and benefit. So why does Lech lecha pay? Why did God offer Abraham, whom He loved, a security arrangement that has such a powerful downside?
THE POWER OF LECH LECHA TO LIBERATE
When we take a deeper look at this novel arrangement, we find that it is liberating rather than confining. Human beings do not have an appreciable input into the physical universe. God created this universe with fixed laws that are not amenable to change. We cannot make gravity send objects aloft, we cannot alter the speed of light, or tinker with the chemical formula of water. Through science we are able to discover the rules that govern the universe, and indeed much progress has been achieved in this area, especially in the past two centuries, but once we discover how the game is played, we have reached our limit. Theoretically, when science uncovers all the mysteries of the natural world, the course of action that will maximize the possibilities of any given situation will become obvious.
Creative choices are nonexistent in the natural universe. As the rules are fixed, the optimum solution is always a given. Once we understand the processes of nature fully, our options are three:
- Follow the optimum solution dictated by our knowledge.
- Choose to remain ignorant of the rules and therefore unaware of the solution.
- Ignore the optimum solution and select a worse alternative. In human terms, our only real choices are to remain ignorant or poorly disciplined.
The existential possibilities available to mankind in the physical universe are equally limited. Man's meaningful life choices amount to selecting one of similar alternatives, such as picking a career in medicine versus one in law or accounting, selecting a mate from among a pool of pretty homogeneous types and so on. Such outlets for the expression of one's individuality seem quite trivial on the whole.
AIMING FOR IMMORTALITY
Not that such alternatives are unimportant to the individual concerned. But Jewish tradition teaches that God is interested in granting man immortality. The attainment of everlasting life requires expressions of the human spirit that can rationally serve as the underpinnings of individual immortality. If man is to survive his physical death as an individual, he must have transcendent outlets for the expression of his creative spirit. We know that his body dies; it is only his mind that can endure. If the mind lacks significant ways of expressing itself creatively while man is in this physical world, can personal immortality really be accepted as a realistic expectation?
It is in terms of this question that the benefits of the new security arrangement outlined above must be understood. The physical universe is merely the stage for man's significant activities, not the determinant of his fate. His mission in life concerns Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God's name.
MAN'S ABILITY TO SANCTIFY GOD'S NAME
Every human being is created in God's image, and represents a unique expression of the Divine spirit. The way he expresses this Divine spirit in the world is the only transcendent product of his unique personality and vision, and provides the truest expression of man's innate individual creativity. Man's business is not good husbandry or defense, and he is warned against the tragic error of investing too much of his creative energy in this area.
In the command of Lech Lecha God informs Abraham that he need not concern himself with the physical universe, it will always adapt itself to his requirements as long as he is occupied in his real task -- the service of God and the sanctification of His Name. There is no true security to be found in the search for physical survival during man's brief life span on this planet. This precious time must be dedicated to man's real task, the search for a place to "stand" through eternity.
THE SECURITY IS IN TERMS OF THE REWARD
The security arrangement is exactly as stated; "Fear not Abram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great." The promise does not offer physical security in this world, it promises to secure Abraham's reward. In effect God guarantees Abraham his reward in the next world in return for placing his security in this one in God's hands.
In issuing the command of Lech Lecha, God liberated Abraham and his descendants from the tyranny of the body, and provided them with the opportunity to concentrate their efforts on the development of their souls. They were invited to invest their energies in the area left undefined by the rigid rules that dominate the created universe, the only area where God left an opening for the introduction of genuine novelty.
But there is something very perplexing in all this. Jewish tradition teaches that the purpose of creation was to offer eternal life to all human beings. Why did God single out Abraham from the rest of mankind and make him this offer? Shouldn't He have made it to everyone?
WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT ABRAHAM
The Gaon of Vilna once offered what he considered to be the highest accolade to Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto's famous 'mussar' work, Mesilat Yesharim, the Path of the Just. He said that there isn't a single extra word in the first few chapters of the book.
This accolade applies all the more to Maimonedes' monumental Yad Hachazaka. Maimonedes managed to incorporate every single Torah law in both Talmuds and other Tannaic works in the fourteen relatively short books that comprise this monumental work. In such high esteem are these books held by all Torah scholars, that the commentators coined the phrase, "From the days of Moses [ben Amram who wrote the Chumash as dictated to him by God] until the days of Moses [ben Maimon, Maimonedes] there was no one the equal of Moses.
In what constitutes an almost bizarre departure from his customary habit, Maimonedes devotes the entire first chapter of his Laws of Idolatry to a historical exposition of idolatry and how Abraham was the first human being to refute it. He stresses the fact that Abraham came to the true vision of God that allowed him to overcome the ancient human mistake of idolatry all on his own, totally unaided. It was in recognition of the greatness of this achievement and the correctness of Abraham's vision, that God elevated Abraham to the level of prophecy and gave him the ultimate recognition of communicating with him personally.
The Rabbis also elevate Abraham to almost superhuman status. These were the products of the heaven and the earth when they were created...(Genesis 2,4, the passage that describes the creation of man in detail) the word "created" in this verse is read in Hebrew as behibaram; rearranging the letters gives us b'avraham; from this the sages learn that the world was created for the sake of Abraham; it was the fact that there would be a human being such as Abraham in the world that justified the entire Divine effort of creation (Bereishis Raba 12,9).
But how was Abraham so unique? What happened to Noah? Surely he was no idle worshipper. And what about Shem and Ever who established a Yeshiva where Jacob went to study? These people were all older than Abraham, so how do we know that Abraham didn't learn what he knew from them? Why didn't these great righteous individuals chastise and correct the idolaters long before Abraham came along?
THE FIERY FURNACE
One of the most well known stories about Abraham concerns his confrontation with the evil emperor Nimrod. Maimonedes recounts that when Abraham concluded that idolatry was foolish, he did not keep quiet about it, but initiated an aggressive campaign to convert all of mankind to his point of view. The key to the secret of Abraham is that he was the first one to take on the mission of the sanctification of God's name. We are commanded to sanctify God's name by the laws of the Torah, but Abraham lived before the age of commandments; he took on this mission voluntarily.
Maimonedes tells us that Abraham was so successful at this task, that in the course of time his followers numbered in the tens of thousands. His immense popularity eventually threatened the stability of Nimrod's regime and the king had him arrested.
In a well-publicized public trial he offered Abraham the choice of renouncing his radical views or being put to death in a fiery furnace. Abraham refused to renounce his beliefs and was duly thrown into the furnace, but was miraculously preserved. So goes the story.
THE KEY TO ABRAHAM'S GREATNESS
The key to the greatness of Abraham is in this story. Abraham had not yet spoken to God at this point in his career. He had no notion of the commandment to sanctify God's name by giving up your life. He had no one's example to guide him.
The great tzadikim who lived before him did not undertake this mission of sanctifying God's name to the point of self-sacrifice. They taught those who sought them out, but they did not attempt to shake up the world. They knew that this would lead them into clashing with the authorities. Had God commanded them to preach the truth to the world even at the risk of their lives they certainly would have done so. But in the absence of God's command what made risking your life the right thing to do?
So what made Abraham decide to submit to martyrdom? Who told him that this was the right thing to do? Surely it would have been wiser to continue to live! What would his voluntary death accomplish? Why not continue to live and preach?
ABRAHAM INVENTS LECH LECHA
The answer: it was really Abraham who invented Lech Lecha, and not God who imposed it on him. Abraham figured to himself: If my worldview is correct, I was not placed in the world to worry about my economic or physical well being. God didn't endow man with intelligence so he could become a more successful monkey or horse. God endowed me with intelligence so I could figure my way to finding Him and doing His will.
If this is correct, it makes sense to leave the concern over my physical and economic well being in God's capable hands, and worry about how I can be of service to Him. This situation I find myself in didn't happen by accident. It came about because I attempted to serve God by sanctifying His name. Do I really think that that was the wrong thing to do?
If I truly believe in my vision, then I have to regard the situation I find myself in as a test sent me by God. He wants to see how serious I really am about this business of sanctifying His name. If I look at it this way, what should I logically conclude that God wants of me? Did I dedicate my life to teaching that the sanctification of God's name is the true purpose of human existence, only to renounce God in public and submit to the tyrant, thus demonstrating that physical survival and security takes precedence over all other values?
THE GUARANTEE OF REDEMPTION
The end of the first blessing of the Amidah referred to earlier also stresses the fact that God will bring the Redeemer to Abraham's grandchildren. The security arrangement is fully in place. The bloodiness of Jewish history will find its compensation. We may have forfeited security and safety in this world but our reward is secure. None of us will have lived in vain.
The security at issue is the survival of human achievement, not the delivery of physical inputs. God's part of the arrangement He made with Abraham is to make sure that all his grandchildren retain the benefits of their achievements by insuring that all of them attain their reward. We believe that all the travail of Jewish history is caused by the need to deliver on this promise.
Jewish history is the clearest sanctification of God's name. After all this time and through all this suffering we are still here, and we are still going about our national business of sanctifying God's name by submitting to our unique security arrangement. We have emerged alive from hundreds of fiery furnaces and are still following God into the unknown.