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PARASHAT LEKH LEKHA

by Rav David Silverberg

 

Perhaps the most famous story about Avraham Avinu among those who attended Jewish elementary school is his having been miraculously saved from Nimrod's fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim. Disillusioned by the widespread, foolish idolatry of his time, Avraham destroyed the graven images in his father's idol shop, a crime for which he was sentenced to death by the evil King Nimrod. God intervened and saved Avraham from his expected death, thus publicizing the existence of the one, true God.

As we all know, however, the Torah makes no mention of this incident. Now while we understand that the Torah chooses its words sparingly and does not inform us of detailed facts regarding its characters' lives, we would nevertheless expect such a seminal event to earn some mention in the Biblical narrative. After all, Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (10) tells that "the people of the land saw and were bewildered, for nothing like this had ever happened since the world was created." Additionally, this event took place publicly, in the presence of Nimrod and his subjects (Bereishit Rabba). Why does the Torah omit such an important event and begin its story of Avraham with God's charge that he emigrate to Eretz Canaan (beginning of Parashat Lekh-Lekha)?

Apparently, the Torah felt that a proper understanding of our people's past and eternal mission is not served so significantly by the spectacular story of Avraham and the furnace. We may consider several reasons why this is so; among the more famous is that of Rav Yehonatan Eibshitz, who interpreted the Torah's silence in this regard as a subtle criticism of Avraham's having risked his life by destroying the idols. While in one sense heroic, this act of defiance may have marked an unwise move on Avraham's part, an unnecessary venture upon which he should have perhaps never embarked.

Whether or not one accepts this particular approach (certainly our childhood image of Avraham's heroism would find such a notion unappealing at best, perhaps even sacrilege at worst ), the Torah clearly sends us a powerful message through its omission of this episode: what makes the headlines is not necessarily of paramount importance. Avraham's emergence from the flames of Ur Kasdim certainly received more press coverage than did his appeal to God on behalf of the doomed city of Sedom or hospitality to the three strangers on a hot afternoon. But when deciding what to record in the Torah, God did not take into consideration the reports of the ancient news agencies; He made His decision based on what we, Avraham's descendants and standard-bearers, most critically need to know.

We are often misled by the fanfare and fireworks of the media and public notoriety. Accomplishments that make waves and earn widespread attention often appear to us as ipso facto more important than that which we do privately without notice. In truth, however, this is not the case. Private life, the unexciting, day-to-day routine that raises no eyebrows, can, when approached with the proper attitude, prove far more valuable and significant as much of our public activity. This point has many ramifications. For one thing, we cannot judge others based on their public image and how they appear to us; what one sees externally does not necessarily reflect the true, inner self of an individual. Secondly, we must pay at least equal attention to our own private conduct as we do to our public image. Looking good is less important than being good, and to be good one must maintain his standards in all situations, both public and private.

*****

Towards the end of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, God instructs Avraham Avinu with regard to the mitzva of berit mila (circumcision). He introduces His command by enjoining the patriarch, "Walk before Me and be complete" (17:1). What does this imperative mean, and how does it relate to circumcision?

The Midrash contrasts the imperative, "walk before Me" with the Torah's description of Noach, "Noach walked with God" (6:9). To explain the difference between walking "before" and "with" the Almighty, the Midrash draws an analogy to a king who walks with his two sons. He has the older, mature son walk in front to lead the way, while the younger, more dependent child walks beside the father clutching tightly onto his hand. Similarly, God asks Avraham to walk in front of Him, as it were, while Noach walked at the Almighty's side, holding on tightly. Avraham, the "older son," served as God's ambassador on earth, preaching His existence and teaching His laws. Noach, by contrast, lived a private life of piety, sheltering himself from the winds of corruption blowing all around him. Thus, "walk before Me" refers to Avraham's mission as publicizing monotheistic ideology and God's ethical code to mankind.

How may we understand the second charge, "be complete" - "heyei tamim"? This same term arises much later in Chumash, in Parashat Shoftim, amidst the Torah's discussion of prohibited forms of magic and sorcery: "When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells… You must be complete ['tamim'] with the Lord your God" (Devarim 18:9-13). "Tamim" in this context may perhaps denote steadfast resistance to the influence of one's surroundings. While the other nations consult all types of superstitious practitioners, Am Yisrael was to cling tight to its heritage and oppose these practices. Similarly, the Torah describes Noach as "'tamim' in his generation." Noach's greatness was manifest most prominently in his ability to withstand the forces of evil that prevailed in his time and remain pious and just. Thus, God here encourages Avraham to hold firm to his principles, even when confronted by foreign influence.

We must now address our final question: how do these instructions relate to the mitzva of mila?

Rav Kook ("Midbar Shur," p. 197) and others have noted that the requirement of circumcision posed a particularly difficult challenge for Avraham Avinu. As mentioned, he served as a public religious figure, one who spent a good deal of his life meeting people of other beliefs and interacting with them in an effort to spread the teachings of ethical monotheism. A physical blemish as part of religious ritual would effectively erect a solid barrier between Avraham and his contemporaries. It means a permanent symbol of his essential difference from them, as he becomes distinct not only in ideology, but physically, as well. Moreover, people may be discouraged from meeting with Avraham in fear that he would impose this practice upon them. We may add that circumcision serves as a powerful symbol of ethnic isolation, Am Yisrael's commitment to reproduce only with those from its own kin. Undoubtedly, fulfilling this new mitzva would impair Avraham's ability to fulfill his life's mission of disseminating the belief in God. Rav Kook explains that this difficulty prompted Avraham Avinu to consult with his comrades with regard to this obligation, as Chazal claim (see Rashi and Midrash Tanchuma, beginning of Parashat Vayera).

It is precisely this challenge that the Almighty acknowledges in His opening remarks to Avraham Avinu when introducing the mitzva of berit mila: "Walk before Me and be 'tamim.'" God bids Avraham to remain loyal to both conflicting responsibilities: his role as the Almighty's spokesman, and His distinctiveness and firm opposition to the pagan theologies and unethical norms of his time. To the best of his ability, Avraham must simultaneously fulfill both roles - actively engaging in society while firmly opposing the values (or lack thereof) it represents. His interaction with those of beliefs antithetical to his own was not - and not - cause his personal resolve to fade oironclad faith to diminish.

*****

The mishna in Pirkei Avot teaches that Avraham Avinu successfully withstood ten trials through which the Almighty tested him. It is generally understood by the commentators that the opening commandment of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, after which the parasha is named, marks the first of these trials. Uprooting oneself from his past and resettling in a foreign country with a cloud of uncertainty hovering over his future certainly is a difficult challenge for anyone. If nothing else, the sense of disorientation, language adjustment, and general culture shock contribute to make relocation to a new country indeed a most difficult decision.

In Avraham's case, however, he seems to have had little reason for hesitation. After ten years of childless marriage, he is now promised a family in his new location. He is also guaranteed wealth, prosperity, prestige and honor. With a guaranteed reversal of fortune like this one, was it really so difficult for Avraham to obey God's word and emigrate to Canaan? Why do the Rambam and other commentators on the mishna list his move as the first of the ten great achievements for which Avraham is so famous?

Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l suggests that Avraham faced here not the emotional challenge or physical strain of moving, but rather a theological test. God never explained to Avraham why he can beget a son and earn wealth and prestige only in Canaan and not in his homeland of Charan. What difference should it make? Rav Moshe adds that the population in Canaan were more corrupt than the people of Charan. (Evidence for this assumption may be drawn from Parashat Chayei-Sara, where Avraham adamantly insists that his son marry a girl from Charan, rather than from the local Canaanite populace.) If anything, Avraham would fare better spiritually back in his homeland than he would in Canaan. This was Avraham's trial - to trust God's word even when it seems counterintuitive. He asked no questions; he simply packed his bags and left. Having reached the conclusion of the existence of an omniscient, all-powerful God, he understands that one cannot disobey Him, no matter what demands He makes of us.

If so, then this first trial of Avraham directly corresponds to the final and most famous of his trials: the binding of Yitzchak. (We follow the common position that the "akeida" marked the tenth and final test; some commentators claim that the purchase of a burial site for Sarah - after the "akeida" - constituted Avraham's last test.) Chazal already drew a parallel between these two tests, noting the common expression, "lekh lekha" employed by God in both commands. In our parasha, Avraham is bidden to forego on his past and build for himself a brand new life; at the "akeida," God orders Avraham to destroy his future. Both, however, require him to subdue his own intellect and reasoning in humble submission to God's will.

Avraham's contemporaries could not accept the existence of a non-physical God, they could not perceive anything outside the strict confines of time, matter and space that characterize our world. Avraham advanced the notion of a purely spiritual Being responsible for creating and overseeing the earth. He was then called upon to demonstrate the ramifications of this belief by submitting himself unconditionally to the command of the God that he could not even see.

*****

Parashat Lekh-Lekha tells of Avraham's successful and decisive intervention in a major war that was waged in Canaan. The four major powers of the east launched an attack on the populous Jordan River Valley region, taking captive the residents of the area's largest city, Sedom. Lot, who had recently emigrated to Sedom, was among the prisoners. Avraham mobilized a small army and chased the four kings in an effort to rescue his nephew, ultimately retrieving all the captives and their property. Upon Avraham's triumphant return, the king of Sedom greeted him and offered him all the booty that he had saved from the enemy forces. Avraham replied, "I lift my hand to God Most High, Creator of heaven of earth: I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours… " (14:19).

Avraham's choice of words here requires some explanation. "I lift my hand to God" clearly expresses the taking of an oath, by why did Avraham use specifically this expression? Why did he simply not say, "I swear"?

Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk (the Meshekh Chokhma) explains that Avraham's lifting of his hands symbolized his having attributed his military success to the Almighty. He took no credit for himself, acknowledging that without divine assistance his efforts would have been futile, not to mention unsuccessful. For this reason he denied himself all privileges regarding the spoils of war; he deserved no "perks" from this war since he had, in his mind, contributed little to the effort. The Almighty alone is to be credited with victory.

It has been suggested that this analysis may help explain an enigmatic passage in the Gemara (Masekhet Chulin 89a). In reward for Avraham's refusal to take even "a thread or a sandal strap," his descendants received two special mitzvot: the threads of tzitzit and the straps of tefillin. How may we understand the connection between Avraham's turning down of the king's offer and these commandments? Tzitzit and tefillin are mitzvot that one places directly on or around his body, demonstrating that even his most elementary, physical activity depends on the Almighty. All our limbs belong to the Almighty, who created them to begin with, and they must therefore be subjugated to His will. Avraham's legacy to us, his descendants, is this critical recognition of our absolute dependence on the Almighty. Avraham has thus bequeathed to us two powerful symbols of this awareness, the strings and straps that envelop our bodies and bound them to the will of our Creator.

*****

Today, the seventh of Marcheshvan (which actually began last night), Jews living in Israel begin inserting the special prayer for rain, "ve-tein tal u-matar," in the weekday shemoneh esrei. Those living in Diaspora, however, begin adding this prayer only in several weeks from now, on December 4th (on some years they begin on December 5th), sixty days after the autumn equinox. The reason for this discrepancy involves the varying levels of urgency for rainfall. In Eretz Yisrael, there is a dire need for rain beginning immediately with the onset of autumn. Jews in Israel do not begin asking for rain before or during Sukkot, since rain is considered a curse of sorts on this festival (since it prevents us from performing the mitzva of sukka). In the time of the Mikdash, when Jews would travel to Jerusalem for the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, there was an interest in having the rains delayed until all the pilgrims return home. Therefore, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael began asking for rain two weeks after the conclusion of Sukkot, on the seventh of Marcheshvan. Even nowadays, when in the absence of the Temple we do not observe the mitzva of "aliya le-regel," we nevertheless continue this practice, and Israeli Jews begin reciting "ve-tein tal u-matar" only on the seventh of Marcheshvan. (However, many authorities maintain that if a resident of Israel mistakenly added the insert after Sukkot but before this date, he need not repeat shemoneh esrei - as he would if this occurred before the end of Sukkot - since the rainy season has, in effect, already begun.) Diaspora Jewry, which was originally centered in Bavel, did not need rain as urgently during the autumn weeks; the critical period began only later, closer to the official onset of winter. The custom therefore evolved that Diaspora Jewry add "ve-tein tal u-matar" only sixty days after the autumn equinox.

On a personal note, my wife and daughter and I are currently visiting family in North America and are thus not home in Eretz Yisrael on the seventh of Marcheshvan. The question arises, must we recite "ve-tein tal u-matar" here in the Diaspora starting from last night? On the onhand, everyone around us continues to recite the summertime text of "ve-tein berakha." On the ohand, as permanent residents of Israel, who certainly share in the dire need for rain in the Holy Land, perhaps our recitation of the shemoneh esrei requires the insertion of "ve-tein tal u-matar"?

Fortunately, halakhic authorities have already addressed this issue, though they have arrived at varying conclusions. The Be'er Heiteiv (O.C. 117:4) cites several authorities who claim that the halakha in such a case depends on whether the individual left behind his spouse and/or children in Eretz Yisrael. If he did, then he must recite "ve-tein tal u-matar" starting from the seventh of Marcheshvan, as he would in Eretz Yisrael, regardless of the intended length of his stay overseas. If his family accompanies him, then he follows the practice of his Diaspora brethren and delays the recitation of "ve-tein tal u-matar" until December 4th. The Peri Chadash, however, disagrees, arguing that the issue depends on how long the Israeli plans to stay overseas. If he intends on returning home during that same year, he conducts his prayer as he would in Israel. Otherwise, he delays inserting "ve-tein tal u-matar" until December 4th, in accordance with the practice of Diaspora Jewry.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (in Iggerot Moshe, O.C. 2:102) explains that both these views operate on the same principle: the halakha depends on whether or not the individual has direct, vested interest in rainfall in Eretz Yisrael. According to the first position, we gage this interest based on his family. If his family is located in Eretz Yisrael, then he prays on their behalf for rain in Israel, and thus begins adding the recitation on the seventh of Marcheshvan. The Peri Chadash, by contrast, focuses on the individual himself, rather than his family. If he plans on returning to Israel that year, than this winter's rainfall there will directly benefit him. He must therefore pray like an Israeli. If he will not be coming home for another year, then he depends on the rainfall of his current location and therefore follows their practice.

The Be'er Heiteiv cites a third view, that one simply follows the practice of his current location. The Mishna Berura likewise cites this view but questions its scope; he speculates that this position may apply only to an individual who does not plan on returning to Eretz Yisrael. Regarding someone who embarks on a temporary trip, even this view may agree that he prays as an Israeli.

We will iy"H continue our discussion of this issue tomorrow, focusing on Rav Moshe's final decision.

*****

Yesterday we addressed an interesting halakhic issue that my family and I happen to face during this period on the calendar. This past Tuesday night (the seventh of Marcheshvan), Jews in Israel began adding the special prayer for rain - "ve-tein tal u-matar" - in their shemoneh esrei service. Diaspora Jewry does not begin reciting this prayer until the beginning of December. (We briefly discussed the background to these divergent practices yesterday.) Israelis such as myself visiting overseas during the interim period, between the seventh of Marcheshvan and December 4th, face a dilemma of sorts as to when to begin reciting "ve-tein tal u-matar." Yesterday we saw four possibilities raised in halakhic literature:

  1. The issue depends on whether or not the tourist's family joined him on his trip. If his family remained in Eretz Yisrael, then he has interest in rain in Israel and therefore begins praying for rain on the seventh of Marcheshvan, like he would back home. If his family is with him, he follows the local practice and begins the recitation on December 4th.
  2. The determining factor is the intended duration of his trip. If he plans on returning to Israel that year, then the winter's rainfall in Israel directly affects him, and he must therefore follow the Israeli practice. If he plans on remaining in the Diaspora for longer than a year, he waits until December.
  3. One view cited by the Mishna Berura argues that one follows the practice of his current location, regardless of any other factors.
  4. The Mishna Berura raises the possibility that the aforementioned position (#3) spoke only of one who moved permanently to the Diaspora. If he plans to return to Eretz Yisrael at some point, he follows his hometown practice.

For me, who left with my family and plans to return to Eretz Yisrael after a relatively brief family visit, these positions would yield the following conclusions: according to 1 and 3, I should continue reciting the summertime text - "ve-tein berakha" - until my return to Israel, whereas positions 2 and 4 would have me begin reciting "ve-tein tal u-matar" on the seventh of Marcheshvan, as I would if I had never left Israel.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, however, raised a different argument advocating the recitation of this prayer beginning on the seventh of Marcheshvan in these situations. As we saw yesterday, Diaspora Jewry delays the recitation until December because when this segment of Jewry centered in Bavel, given the geographical reality of their region they did not need rain so direly until later in the winter. This gave rise to the custom of Jews in all areas outside Israel to begin including this prayer only in December. However, the Rosh maintains that this practice is not binding upon all of Diaspora Jewry. Those living in regions that rely on winter rains for their water supply should, in fact, begin their recitation of "ve-tein tal u-matar" on the seventh of Marcheshvan, as is done in Israel. The Beit Yoseif cites authorities who accept this view of the Rosh but note the prevalent practice to the contrary. In deference to the widespread practice of categorically delaying the special request for rain until December, Diaspora Jewry follows this custom despite the fact that strictly speaking the halakha follows the Rosh's view. We do, however, act in accordance with the Rosh's position in certain situations. A Jew living in the Diaspora who mistakenly recited "ve-tein tal u-matar" after the seventh of Marcheshvan but before December 4th need not repeat shemoneh esrei. Since, according to Rosh's view, the individual actually recited the proper text (assuming he lives in a location requiring winter rains), the accepted practice would not warrant his repetition of the shemoneh esrei.

Rav Moshe felt that "our places," which refers to at very least the eastern seaboard of the United States (Rav Moshe lived in New York City), if not the majority of that country, falls into this category discussed by the Rosh. Meaning, this region relies very heavily on the winter rains (and snows) for its population's water needs. Therefore, the Rosh would have these areas begin reciting "ve-tein tal u-matar" on the seventh of Marcheshvan. However, as stated, the accepted practice dictates waiting until December everywhere outside of Eretz Yisrael. But since this delay arises only by force of accepted "minhag" (custom), Rav Moshe notes, one follows this practice only in situations when the custom evolved to wait until December. As Jewish visitors from Israel to the Diaspora was relatively uncommon, Rav Moshe contends that no custom developed for these visitors to delay the special prayer. Therefore, such a visitor should begin reciting "ve-tein tal u-matar" already on the seventh of Marcheshvan. Rav Moshe does, however, limit this ruling to cases when the individual has direct interest in rainfall in Israel, such as when he left his family behind or he plans on returning there in the near future.

Indeed, the rabbi I asked concurred with this ruling and instructed me to begin reciting "ve-tein tal u-matar" on the seventh of Marcheshvan, even though I am currently visiting North America.

*****

At the center of Parashat Lekh-Lekha stands the "berit bein ha-betarim," the covenant between God and Avraham conducted through the offering of a sacrifice and in which God promises Avraham Avinu a large nation in Eretz Canaan. God bids Avraham to look at the stars in the sky, declaring, "Look toward the heaven and count the stars, if you arable to count them… so shall your offspring be" (15:5). Avraham then asks, "how shall I know that I am to possess it?" (15:8). It is at this when God orders Avraham to bring the special sacrifice, after which the Almighty reveals Himself and promises Avraham that his many children will inherit the land.

Already Chazal addressed the question as to how Avraham doubted God's word, especially in light of the Torah's comment just two verses prior to Avraham's question: "And because he put his trust in God, He reckoned it to his merit." Could Avraham have questioned God's commitment to His promise?

Chazal explain that Avraham doubted not God's willingness to follow carry through on His promise, but rather his descendants' ability to follow through on their obligations to earn the land. How can he rest assured that his offspring will always adhere to their side of the covenant? What will happen then? Will the Almighty renege on His terms of the agreement? To this, Chazal claim, God responds by informing the patriarch of the system of korbanot (sacrifices), which brings the people atonement for their sins. Even in the absence of a Temple, our ongoing study of the laws relevant to the Mikdash service grants us protection and the ability to survive the long and bitter exile.

Another explanation offered takes into account a different question: why did Avraham pose this question now? This is not the first time God promised the land to his descendants. Why only now does Avraham ask for a guarantee? This approach claims that Avraham questioned the quality of the nation promised to him. In an earlier revelation to Avraham, God promised that He "will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted" (13:16). In the "berit bein habetarim," as mentioned, God likens Avraham's descendants to the stars in the sky. This metaphor points to more than a large number. While the "dust of the earth" describes a nation like all others, the "stars of the sky" represents a nation of a certain spiritual makeup, one which reflects a higher standard and ambition. It was regarding this type of "yerusha" (inheritance) that Avraham needed reassurance. How will this supreme standard be maintained generation after generation throughout the millennia?

God's response was the institution of korbanot, the Temple service. Benei Yisrael will pass the test of time because they will have a place representing this standard by which they must live. The Mikdash, the representative House of God in the nation's midst around which religious life was centered, signified the spiritual quality that is to define Avraham's nation. A place of intense sanctity raises the standard of the areas around it - the rest of the country, charging the nation with the responsibility of striving towards that supreme level of existence. Even in the Temple's absence, such a place exists: "From the day that the Beit Ha-mikdash was destroyed, God has in His world only the four cubits of halakha." Torah study has replaced the Mikdash as the "abode" of the Almighty, the "place" where man experiences direct communion with God. This unique spiritual quality ensures the nation's existence, even during the turbulent centuries of exile and persecution.

 

 

 

To see this year's S.A.L.T. selections:

 

www.vbm-torah.org/salt.htm


 

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