Most of us find it challenging to truly go inward. With life’s endless stream of distractions, our desire to be loved and to fit in (in whatever ways that manifests) keep us focused outward. Abraham, the father of the Jewish tradition, discovered the Truth by searching what it meant to be his true self and the responsibilities that come with being one’s true self, while those around him had fallen to worshipping desires and false idols. As we see from this Parashah, sometimes to go further in, you have to go further out.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃1
God said to Abram, “Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you… I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you great. You shall become a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, he who curses you, I will curse. All the families of the earth will be blessed through you.
This week in the Torah is the first time Hashem mentions blessings explicitly, right after telling Avraham to go to the land that Hashem will show him, but without telling him which land it is. The Zohar explains that Avraham evaluated the spiritual nature of each land that he passed through, until he reached Israel (the Promised Land), where he was able to experience Divine Providence directly.2 By not knowing which land to go to immediately, Avraham had to discover for himself which land Hashem meant, thereby building up his desire for the Holy Land.3 When we are tested, our knowledge of what we must do is constricted and hidden from us, and only through our desire to do good, focused on our connection with God, do we find the right path to follow. The answers are in the truest path – the path connected to the ultimate connection, the Creator.4
As we see in this Parashah, Avraham is commanded to separate himself even further, not only spiritually, but also physically. Hashem commands Avraham Lech-Lecha: “go from where you came from and go to where you should be, your Promised Land.” But translated literally, the phrase means, “Go to yourself”, as in go and reach your promised land within.
Pardon my ADD brain for a moment, but as I think of this, I’m reminded of a Seinfeld scene when Jerry looks at Kramer and says, “Oh my God, now I know what I’ve been looking for all these years!” Kramer looks curiously back, and Jerry, in a state of an epiphany, looks at him and says, “Myself”! (cue laugh track…)5
The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that “going” in the Torah has the connotation of moving towards one’s ultimate purpose, of service towards one’s Creator. Here, when it says “to yourself,” it’s speaking of one’s soul’s essence.6
In Talmud Rosh Hashanah it says Meshaneh Makom Meshaneh Mazal (משנה מקום משנה מזל), literally and Idiomatically: “A change of place, a change of luck.”7 So, on a personal level, it’s often good to get out of the space you’re in physically in order to get out of the difficult space you’re in mentally. In the Biblical narrative, Avraham needs to reach the Promised Land so that we all can reach it and receive the blessings that are contained through this journey.
But we learn on Avraham’s journey toward Israel (to the South, Jerusalem) that he finds himself in a famine and is forced to go down to Egypt, as it’s written, “And there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt.”8 This seems like an odd turn of events, after he is tasked with the journey and given blessings of greatness. One possible answer could be that it is a trial, a stumbling block on the way as a sort of test for Avraham, as the Midrash says. Much like we covered last week with the stories of Rabbi Nachum and Rabbi Akiva and their unwavering belief that every moment, no matter how difficult, is for the good, here, too, with Avraham the Midrash says, he “was not angry and did not complain”.9
But The Rebbe points out that this cannot be the case here, since this was not a personal pilgrimage, but one to spread Hashem’s name and gather believers to His faith. The Rebbe teaches that we can find an answer in the famous dictum, “ma’aseh avot siman labanim – the fathers’ actions are a siman (sign or signal) for the sons.” Ramban outlines his approach to the Avot’s (our Forefathers) deeds and actions, seeing the stories about the Avot as prophetic indicators of what will occur in future generations.10 And that the prophecies must be fulfilled, because the Avot’s actions actualize them (e.g. Avraham goes down to Shechem, because of what will later happen there for Dena bat Yaakov; Avraham’s descent into Egypt alludes to B’nei Yisrael’s enslavement there and so on.) And so we see in Avraham’s journeys, the history of B’nei Yisrael was rehearsed and actualized: just as he went down to Egypt, we did the same through the Egyptian Exile, but also just as Avraham went up out of Egypt, we too were brought to Israel, to redemption, and just as Avraham left, “weighed down with cattle, silver and gold,” we did the same, leaving Egypt, “with greater wealth.” This is seen just the same with Sarah: she had protected herself from Pharaoh’s advances and so did the women of Israel when they were in Egypt.11
And so the descent to Egypt was for its departure, which was “weighed down with cattle, silver and gold,” a phrase that was used for Avraham and all of Israel’s ascent, transforming the most secular to the most high in service of Hashem through sacrifices in the Beit Hamikdash. So we see that Avraham’s descent to Egypt wasn’t counter to his ascent to Israel, to Jerusalem, to the Promised Land; it was integral, because out of darkness, comes the greatest light. As my brother, Matisyahu, sings on his single, “Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)”;
Ain’t no one gonna break my stride
Ain’t no one gonna pull me down
Oh, no, I got to keep on moving
Jerusalem, if I forget you
Fire not gonna come from me tongue
Jerusalem, if I forget you
Let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do12
So it is with us, with all that seem like unending descents, hardships and ways to break our stride, we can’t let it pull us down, we have to keep moving, keeping our soul’s essence and the ultimate purpose of spiritualizing reality until our own redemption, both prati (personal) and klali (public/general) become actualized into the final redemption and the redemptive state, the edenic state.
Reb Natan of Breslov explains that Avraham represents our own souls, ones that wish to serve the Creator in the highest way. “Going to yourself” means looking inward, to “yourself” – as every person has his own point of truth. To find it we each need to leave our “land,” representing the materialism around us (each person falls to different vices). Leaving your “birthplace” represents a person’s physical desires, sensual pleasures and depression. Leaving a person’s ancestry or “father’s house” represents the thoughts of receiving honor and respect from others and, on a literal level, the family who might try to stop the person.13 Freed from those obstacles, one can reach holiness – the Promised Land. Once in the space that’s promised, Hashem will fulfill the great nation blessings by each person revealing Godliness to others. The “I will bless you” comes in because at that point the person is able to draw and receive all the blessings. “I will make your name great” pertains to each person’s vitality increasing, and, of course, with Avraham we see this, even to this day, as the majority of the world falls under the Avrahamic Faith(s), elevating his name and soul by believing in one God. And finally, “you will be a blessing” is manifested through each person’s blessings remaining with them.14 With all of this, one can elevate and transform the physical and connect it back to its source – the spiritual – thus infusing it with Godliness.
וַיְהִ֣י אַבְרָ֔ם בֶּן־תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְתֵ֣שַׁע שָׁנִ֑ים וַיֵּרָ֨א ה’ אֶל־אַבְרָ֗ם וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ אֲנִי־אֵ֣ל שַׁדַּ֔י הִתְהַלֵּ֥ךְ לְפָנַ֖י וֶהְיֵ֥ה תָמִֽים. וְאֶתְּנָ֥ה בְרִיתִ֖י בֵּינִ֣י וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ וְאַרְבֶּ֥ה אוֹתְךָ֖ בִּמְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד.15
Abram was 99 years old. God appeared to him and said, “I am God Almighty. Walk before Me and be perfect. I will make a covenant between Me and you, and I will increase your numbers very much.”
Rashi explains Hashem commanding Avraham to be perfect is a command – as in “walk before Me in fulfillment of the command of circumcision” (known as the covenant of Avraham), and that it is this that will bring a perfected state. Because while he had a foreskin, Avram was blemished. Rashi also explains that “be perfect” is stating that at that time Avram was deficient in five body parts: his two eyes, his two ears, and the male organ. It is then that Hashem added the letter Heh (ה) to his name: Heh represents Hashem and its numerical value is 5. By adding it to Avram (אברם), the numerical value is now 248 (Avraham, אברהם) corresponding to the number of a person’s limbs (it is also the number of positive mitzvot (commandments). Prior to this, he was deficient in five body parts, exposed to external stimuli that could lead to sin. By adding Heh (ה), representing Hashem and the covenant (circumcision), he exerted control over the five parts in order to resist temptation so that Avraham could reach a perfected state by taking action towards Hashem and the infinite and away from leaving himself exposed to the physical desires of this world of finitude. Avram had a constant struggle with the yetzer hara for control over the five parts, but Rashi explains with the circumcision, Avraham was able to reign over them completely and no longer had to ward off the yetzer hara. The Baal Haturim teaches that the Hebrew word for “I will bless you” which is ואברכך is 249 which is equivalent to אברהם (Avraham) which is 248, because in gematria there is a principle of im hakollel which includes the word itself as 1 which makes 248 into 249.16 And so we see that the addition of the letter changed his physical struggle and state, bringing down the spiritual blessings that Hashem promised.
The five senses can’t comprehend emunah (faith), as emunah is above these senses. Ivri, as Avraham was referred to, means ‘Hebrew’, and Chazal (Our Sages) explain that it means that the entire world was on one side (עבר), while Avraham was on the other, spiritually speaking. In Techeilet Mordechia, R’ Shalom Mordechai Shwadron points out that Hashem said to Avraham, “From the same star that you see that you will not have a child, from there I will show you that you will have a child,” showing that from the same source which undermines your emunah will come the emunah which brings salvation.17
In the covenant we are told, “And he believed in Hashem; and He considered it to him as tzedakah – righteousness” as we see from the following pesukim;
וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ.וְהֶאֱמִ֖ן בַּֽה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶ֥הָ לּ֖וֹ צְדָקָֽה.
He then took [Abram] outside and said, “Look at the sky and count the stars. See if you can count them.” [God[ then said to him, “That is how [numerous] your descendants will be.” [Abram] believed in God, and He counted it as [tzedakah] – righteousness.18
Emunah without the need to understand was what was considered Avraham’s tzedakah (charity). Rambam explains this in Moreh Nevuchim:
The word “tzedakah” comes from tzedek – righteousness… and because of this, every good virtue is referred to as tzedakah. (The verse) says, “And he believed in Hashem, and He considered it to him as tzedakah.” This means that he had the virtue of emunah.19
Rambam teaches that acting according to the letter of the law is mishpat (justice), while improving one’s good qualities is known as tzedek (righteous).
This choice of Avraham and his descendants, the Chosen People, came because of this emunah and bitachon (trust) – this spiritual quality that is greater than any other quality. It is this quality that is demonstrated in Naaseh V’nishma: Naaseh – “we will do” – first, and then, V’Nishma, – “we will hear and understand.” This was seen even with Noach building the ark prior to knowing the reason why (i.e. that a flood was coming) and, of course, with us as a people accepting and receiving the Torah prior to knowing what we were accepting.
Avraham’s spiritual greatness was in his emunah, that even when something was not rational and was beyond his comprehension, he maintained his belief. This trait is what set Avraham– Ish Ivri– apart from everyone else in the world. The phrase Ish Ivri is interesting since, to this day, we refer to Hebrew as Ivrit. Pesikta Rabbati20 explains that it stems from when Hashem saw the entire world worshipping idols, while Avraham separated himself from them, He called Avraham an Ivri, referring to the fact, as we mentioned above, that Avraham took the opposite “side” of the rest of the world. The Midrash21 gives a few different explanations for the phrase. One is that the entire world was on one “side” (‘ever’) of a scale, and Avraham would stand on the other, but because of Avraham’s great stature the scale would balance. Another opinion is that Avraham was called an Ivri as a genealogical marker to show that he descended from Eber (‘Ever’), who was a great-grandson of Noah’s son. Shem22 A third opinion is that the name came because of his Mesopotamian origins from the other “side” (‘ever’) of the Euphrates River, and because he spoke Ivri (which is what they called the “Hebrew”) language.
The task of Lech-Lecha, to go inward to yourself, informs us for each of our own journeys towards self-fulfilment which is actualized by serving Hashem. Philosopher Alan Gewirth defines self-fulfillment as “carrying to fruition one’s deepest desires or one’s worthiest capacities.”23 Barbara Kerr, author and Ph.D., defines it as “the attainment of a satisfying and worthwhile life well lived.”24 The Torah and its mitzvot, the Avot and their actions are all to pave a path for a worthwhile life well lived, not only in this world but for the next.
Traveling in the midbar (desert), represents an inward journey, a space of silence and wisdom. Rebbe Nachman expounds on Talmud Eruvin where Rabba bar bar Chanah set out to explore humility in the way that when a person likens themselves to a desert to be tread upon, everyone steps on them.25 This treading upon represents the level of humility where a person allows embarrassment and humiliation to pass over themselves, the person can hear an insult directed at them, but not retort. The Talmud asks what is the meaning of the verse, “and from the desert a matanah (a present)”26 and answers that if a person humbles themselves for all to “tread upon” like a desert, Torah knowledge will be given to them like a matanah, like a present. From here we see that revelations of Godliness can only come to a person through studying Torah in humility.27 In this way, a person will continue to reveal and honor God, at the expense of their own honor, allowing themselves to become like a “desert.”
The desert also represents shtikah (silence) which is tied to humility. It says in Avot, that silence is a fence for chochmah (wisdom). Rabbeinu Yonah expounds on this that a wise person listens attentively to other people’s views and opinions and is open to learning from them. And in this way silence is a means of achieving wisdom.28 Rebbe Nachman teaches that silence is also the aspect of keter (crown), a sort of “fence,” which acts as a boundary, encircling and crowning the sefirah of chochmah. This fence is made by remaining silent.
Jumping back into the verses above, it says, “there will be” in regard to Avraham’s offspring. The Baal Haturim points out that the gematria of there will be (יִהְיֶ֖ה) is 30. This comes to teach that there is no generation where the offspring won’t total at least 30 righteous people of the stature of Avraham. So Hashem was telling Avraham, there will always be amongst your descendants the count of יִהְיֶ֖ה o(=30) righteous ones. As it is stated, “Now Avraham is sure to become a great and mighty nation.” In Talmud Chullin it expounds on there always being at least thirty righteous Jews in the Land of Israel and fifteen in Babylonia [i.e. outside of Eretz Yisrael when the nation is in exile] whose merit sustains the world. And that there will always be thirty righteous non-Jews whose merit will sustain the non-Jewish nations of the world.29
The blessings given to Avraham, which are the first blessings given in the Torah, include Avraham’s name being great and his being a blessing. We see that Avraham’s name and teachings are indeed the greatest in all the world, as all the major religions stem from it and are named the Avrahamic religions (i.e. monotheistic religions that worship the God of Avraham. Beyond Judaism, these include Christianity and Islam, as well as the Baháʼí Faith, Samaritanism, the Druze Faith, and others.).
A Sweet Soul’s Elevation
There is a concept of aliyat neshama, that one elevates a person’s soul when doing a mitzvah in the person’s name or memory. In this sense, all of Torah stems from Hashem’s blessing Avraham, and so we are all elevating Avraham’s soul and memory, which shows the power and truth of these first verses in this Parashah. We repeat this three times a day when we recite the Amidah, also called the Shemoneh Esreh (שמנה עשרה, the silent 18 prayers we say daily). We open the Brachah (blessing) calling out, “Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God if Avraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob” and as we close that first brachah, we repeat “Blessed are You, Lord, Shield of Avraham.”
It happens to be this Shabbat, yud Chesvhan (5782 י חשון), is the yahrzeit (one year since she passed) of my Mom (Frida Levona bat Shalom). These dvar Torahs and this sefer (book, Light of Infinite) is an attempt for a aliyat neshama for her and for my kids’ bubby (Yehudis Chava bat Yakov Dov) whose yartzeit (5780 י״ד אדר) marked the first time I attempted to write one of these dvars. When I think of these women, I think of tzedaka and chesed, words that are hard to translate because they capture the real depths of words like ‘generous’, ‘giving’, ‘loving’, and ‘kindness’. These two women embodied and exemplified these qualities to an angelic degree: so full of life, love, warmth, and light, at every turn, every single moment. Being around them inspired me to be more loving, more giving, more full of a zest for each moment in life.
With great blessing comes great responsibility. As Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes in The Lonely Man of Faith, “The Biblical account of the original sin is the story of man of faith who realizes suddenly that faith can be utilized for the acquisition of majesty and glory and who, instead of fostering a covenantal community, prefers to organize a political utilitarian community exploiting the sincerity and unqualified commitment of the crowd for non-covenantal, worldly purposes. The history of organized religion is replete with instances of desecration of the covenant.”30 And so each of us is tasked with not only upholding the covenant of Avraham, but of doing right with all the blessings that come from it – going inward to elevate ourselves to the most high, and spiritualizing reality which inspires all those around us to do the same.
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Notes & Sources
- Genesis 12:1
- Zohar I, 78a, Likutey Moharan I, 44
- Likutey Halachot II, p 45a
- Likutey Halachot II, p 212a-424
- Seinfeld, S7 : E22 “The Invitations”
- Likkutei Sichot, Vol V, pp. 57-67
- Rosh Hashanah 16b
- Genesis 12:10
- Bereishit Rabbah 40:2
- Cf. Ramban 12:6, Bereishit Rabbah 40
- Shir Hashirim Rabbah 4:12
- Matisyahu, “Jerusalem (Out of Darkness Comes Light)”
- Likutey Halachot Viii, p.207a-207b
- Likutey Halachot II, p145a
- Genesis 17:1-2
- Baal Haturim Chumash, Bereishit, p. 98
- R’ Y. Nachshoni, Hagot B’Parshiot HaTorah, p. 57
- Genesis 15:5-6
- Moreh Nevuchim 3:53
- Pesikta 33
- Bereishit Rabbah 42:8
- Genesis 11:21–24
- Alan Gewirth Self-Fulfillment, pp. 3–5
- Barbara Kerr, Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity, and Talent, pp. 63–65
- Talmud Eruvin 54a
- Numbers 21:18
- Likutey Moharan 6:6
- Avot 3:13
- Talmud Chullin 92a, and Baal Haturim to Deuteronomy 26:1
- Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith