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heshvan 5754

Parshat Lekh Lekha

Understanding Abraham



Summarized by students

Dedicated to the memory of
R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

Adam - Noah - Abraham
The Sages of the Mishna teach us that, "There were ten generations from Adam to Noah, and another ten generations from Noah to Abraham." Adam, Noah, and Abraham mark three phases in the course of humankind's evolution.

Adam was a flawless creation of God. In creating him God had neither intermediary nor assistant. As a result, he was the most perfect being ever created on the face of the earth. Perhaps in this very point lay Adam's principal deficiency. Because of his exceptional perfection he lacked the capacity to interact with the physical world into which he was placed; Adam, as a result, was rendered incapable of elevating all existence. It was for this reason that his encounter with the world was a failure. We might compare Adam to a tree whose branches are many yet whose roots are few. The hold this sort of tree takes in the earth is weak; its many branches, of all things, quickly bring about its fall.

Noah was a perfectly righteous individual. Unlike Adam, Noah succeeds in living at peace with the physical world, and maintaining his righteousness. Yet he too, like Adam, is unsuccessful in influencing his generation and elevating his surroundings. He is a righteous individual, who believes that the best way of dealing with the world - without running the risk of failure and sin - is through divorcing oneself from ones environment. It is possible that the error of the Minim , who claimed that the only way to cling to God and to attain human perfection is though monastic separation from the world, originated with Noah.

Avraham Avinu , our father Abraham, was the first person to successfully unite the physical and spiritual. Abraham sees as his central mission in life the elevation of existence from one level to the next, while maintaining full ties with it. From the moment that he discovers that there is one Creator who created one harmonious world, in which there exists no contradiction between body and soul, he tries to pass on this message to others in any way possible. With this he begins the difficult process of Tikkun Olam (the mending of the world), setting his sights on his ultimate goal: the day when "God will be one, and His name one" (Zechariah 14:9).
In order to bring about the complete union between the physical existence and the Creator, one must live in the Land of Israel. Israel, by her very nature, is an expression of the sanctification of the physical: a physical land which is, at the same time, holy. Accordingly, Abraham receives the commandment, "Lekh Lekha" - "Go away from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."

Lekh Lekha

At the outset of this weeks Torah portion we bear witness to a divine command,
"Go away from your land, from your birthplace... to the land that I will show you."

Even when viewing this commandment in its most plain sense, what we are dealing with here is a difficult trial. Abraham is called upon to leave his natural spiritual setting, and to set out on a new path, a path whose ultimate purpose he knows not.
Abraham is called upon to leave his land, his birthplace and his father's house and to direct his gaze towards an unfamiliar destination - "...the land which I shall show you."

In fact, what we are dealing with here is a twofold trial. Not only is Abraham being called upon to leave his land and his birthplace, but his journey lacks any clear purpose. It could be that reason that God chose not to specify the destination of Abraham's journey is that it is impossible to do justice in expressing the value and greatness of the Land of Israel to one who resides outside of the Land. Therefore, Abraham was called upon to leave his land. Only when privileged to enter the land of Canaan, i.e. Israel, does he merit to truly understand the purpose of his uprooting himself from his land and his birthplace.

Yet, upon closer look, there appears to be even deeper significance to this command. There are those who occupy themselves with determining man's destiny and way of life according to the exact time and place of his birth - astrologers, or in the language of the Sages, Itztagninim . Our Rabbis maintain that the People of Israel are not influenced by astrology. In this very assertion, though, there is in effect a recognition of the actual existence of such powers, and of their ability to influence our lives. All the same, the Jewish Sages insist that the People of Israel are outside the sphere of influence of the stars. It is within the Jew's power to change the very course of nature by attaching himself to God's providence which is above beyond the influence of the constellations.

The standard code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Aruch , rules that a Jew is not to determine his actions according to the stars, yet if his mazal (horoscope) happens to be made known to him it is forbidden for him to blatantly contradict it. The stars are a lower and inferior indication of providence in the world. Abraham is called upon to take his destiny into his own hands, to cling to his Creator, and in so doing to rise above the rule of the stars.
The philosophy which claims that the world, and everything in it, depends upon the place and time of one's birth, weakens the will power and creative forces in man. One who maintains this sort of outlook, finds himself lacking the will to act and to change the world, because after all, everything has already been decided and determined from the outset. For the same reason, it is best that a person minimize his dependence upon blessings given by Tzaddikim (the righteous), as well as their remedies and amulets. This sort of dependence, when it becomes the essence of an individual's struggle with the difficulties which face him during the course of his life, weakens his ability to act and to improve his character. Yet, when a Tzaddik's blessing comes in addition to man's labor, when the request for a blessing comes after personal effort, it no doubt has a place in Judaism.

"And God said to Abraham Lekh Lekha..." Abraham complies with God's commandment and goes to the Land of Canaan. After entering the Land Abraham merits an additional divine revelation - "And God appeared to Avram (Abraham) and said, to your offspring will I give this Land" (Genesis 12:7) By virtue of the holiness of the Land, and by virtue of Abraham's withstanding his trial, he merits a divine revelation of an even higher nature. Not only does God speak with Abraham, but he even "appears" before him. "And he built an alter there to God who appeared before him."

Afterwards, Abraham goes about strengthening his hold in the Land. He is no longer an individual worshiper of God in the world. He goes about proclaiming God's name to all, publicizing the faith in one God. Yet from here on God does not reveal himself to Abraham through the term "appeared." "And God said to Abraham, 'lift up your eyes and see.'" On the face of things it appears to be a drop in the intensity of Abraham's revelations - yet this is not the case.

The Sages ask: "How could Isaiah the Prophet have said "and I saw God"; did not God say to Moses: "For man will not see me and live"? They answer that in the case of Moses the reference is to a clear vision, while in the case if Isaiah God was seen in an unclear vision. When man reaches a level of complete identification with his creator, as was the case with Moses, he acknowledges the fact that man is incapable of perceiving God's greatness in its entirety. Abraham has risen to a level beyond 'sight.' He no longer 'receives' divine revelations; rather, through a sense of complete identification with his creator, he goes about proclaiming God's name in the world.

Brit Mila
"God said to Abraham, 'As far as you are concerned you must keep My covenant, - you and your offspring throughout their generations. This is My covenant between me, and between you and your offspring that you must keep: You must circumcise every male. You shall be circumcised through the flesh of your foreskin. This shall be the mark of the covenant between me and you.'" (Genesis 17:9-11)
"Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised on the flesh of his foreskin." (ibid. 17:24)

With the closing of this weeks Torah portion we find Abraham reaching the height of his perfection - Mitzvat Brit Mila , the precept of circumcision. After a hundred years of spiritual elevation and sanctification, Abraham merits reaching a level in which his inner holiness is revealed even in his outer acts. The holiness of his soul takes the form of bodily perfection, by means of the Brit Mila. By virtue of his high level, Abraham succeeded in passing on to his seed after him that same quality of sanctification of the body. At the age of eight days, Jewish boys are circumcised, thus revealing on their very body that which was implanted in their soul through Abraham: the quality of inhering holiness. This trait is absolute and inherent in the Jewish People, regardless of the performance of the Mitzvat Brit Mila. The act of Brit Mila was intended only to reveal this quality. We learn in the Talmud that even a Jewish baby who was taken captive and not circumcised, or a Jew who is not circumcised because of the health dangers involved - for his brothers before him had died as a result of circumcision - are considered circumcised; a non-Jew, though, even if he were to circumcise himself would, in the eyes of Jewish Law, continue to have the status of uncircumcised in all respects.
We find expression of Abraham's elevated state at the beginning of next weeks Torah portion - VaYera ,

"God appeared to Abraham in the Plaines of Mamre..."
What was the purpose of this divine revelation? What sort of mission was placed upon Abraham? What sort of message did he receive? The Scriptures make mention of neither mission nor message. Indeed, this revelation has no specific purpose. Abraham has reached such a level that divine revelation to him is no longer the means to the end of a mission or a message, rather, revelation as and end in itself - a "personal visit."

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Mishna - The oral tradition as recorded by and arranged by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (the Prince) some hundred and thirty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Mishna is the first part and the basis, of the encyclopedia of Jewish law and lore known as the Talmud .

Talmud - The embodiment of the Oral Torah as taught by the great masters between around 50 b.c.e. and 500 c.e. It constitutes the most important text for the Jew outside of the Torah itself, and serves as the foundation of the sea of Jewish law practice and theology.


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