Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Lekh Lekha

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

Parashat Lekh-lekha 5759/1998

Abraham's Tribulations

Dr. Ephraim Yitzhaki

Dept. of Talmud

"The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.'"

Our parasha opens with God choosing Abraham over all other people to make of him a great nation, to bless him and make him famous-- for no apparent reason. By what right did Abraham merit this choseness more than any other man or woman?

Noah, for example, was also singled out to be saved from the Flood, but an explanation, however brief, was provided by the Torah:

But Noah found favor with the Lord (Gen.6:8)... Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God (6:9)

Also Moses was singled out in an abrupt fashion, at the Burning Bush, without any detailed explanation why he merited revelation and was assigned a great mission. Yet the previous chapter describes Moses coming to the aid of the oppressed and opposing evil in the incidents of the smitten Jew and the daughters of Jethro, from which we can deduce the reason he was singled out. But of Abraham we have no description of his actions before he receives the command of "Go forth" and the promise of great blessings.

Nahmanides addressed these questions directly (12:2):

Now this parasha did not explain things at all, for why should God command Abraham to leave his land and why would God bestow upon him such greatness, the likes of which there never was, without stating beforehand that Abraham was a worshipper of God or "blameless and righteous" [like Noah], or why not state that the command to leave his homeland was to bring him closer to God? The way of Scripture is to write, "Draw near to me and I will do good for you", as was said to David and Solomon and as the Torah says in general, "If you follow My laws. ..I will grant your rains"(Lev.25:3-4). And Isaac was promised [good] "for the sake of My servant Abraham"(Gen.26:24) but this makes no sense if [all Abraham did was to leave the land.]

The Rabbis were aware of this difficulty, and they related many tales about Abraham's youth: How he recognized his Creator at the age of three, how he broke his father's idols, how he was thrown into the fiery furnace, and so forth. But the fact remains that none of this is related in the text of the Torah.

Nahmanides takes it as a fact, that the Aggadot about Abraham in his youth and his problems with idolatry are the historic truth. As for the question why none of this is related in the text, he replies: "The Torah did not want to enlarge on the opinions of idolaters and to state explicitly the differences between Abraham and the Chaldeans in matters of faith." In other words, the Torah spares us the details, but actually Abraham was commanded to leave his homeland and those who cursed him because of his belief in one God, and was instructed to go to Canaan, where those who cursed him would be cursed.

The Maharal of Prague in his work Nezach Yisrael (ch. 11) sees things differently. God indeed chose Abraham for no specific reason, because the choseness of Israel is not dependent on any virtue; for if Heaven forbid Israel shall one day be deemed unworthy, their choseness will not be canceled.

Perhaps we can offer another explanation: Abraham's destiny was to propagate the name of God in the world. In order to be suited for this mission Abraham had to be prepared to make a total break with his past: his country, his homeland, even his father's house. He would now have to wander from place to place. He had to accept being different from others, even being persecuted for his beliefs. Therefore "Go forth", lekh lekha, is Abraham's first trial, a most difficult (though not the most difficult) task. The Torah sees no purpose in telling about Abraham's past or youth because Abraham's assignment and his being chosen did not depend upon his past activities but rather upon the future-- his ability to stand up to the challenge of going forth in the world.

This challenge demands total dedication, without limits. A man must be prepared even to sacrifice his life and all that is dear to him for this goal. Therefore in Abraham's last trial, the Sacrifice of Isaac, God tests Abraham to see if indeed he is prepared to sacrifice the dearest thing to his heart, his son, and thereby to destroy his future. If we compare the two trials, the first and the last, we see a similarity:

Lekh lekha                          The Sacrifice (Gen. 22)

The Lord said to Abram              He said to him

Go forth                            Go forth

to the land that I will show you    to the land of Moriah

Abraham went forth                  and he set out

as the Lord had commanded him       of which God had told him

The similarity in language echoes the similarity in content. The first trial involved cutting himself off from his past. The last trial asks Abraham to risk his future. For he who bears the name of the Lord--God's uniqueness in the world, has to be prepared for these sacrifices. Since the Torah is not a history book, it relates to us only matters which are relevant to the lesson it wishes to teach us. Therefore we are only told about Abraham that which is relevant to his mission and destiny in the world.

The actions of the fathers are a lesson to their sons. The Children of Israel, during their long exile, wandered from land to land, suffered expulsions, in order to keep their faith and to carry forth the name of God. Abraham's children carried on the tradition of "Go forth" without thinking about their past, the standing and material wealth which they had accumulated in their respective countries, and took in hand the wanderer's staff. Likewise, entire Jewish communities were wiped out in acts of martyrdom, to sanctify God's name. They offered up their future for the sake of Judaism and the name of God. These children of Abraham continued the tradition of the Akedah, Isaac's sacrifice.

The trials of "Go Forth" and the Sacrifice of Isaac were re-enacted many times in the exile, but the blessing of "I will bless you and make your name great" never came to fruition. For the success of individual Jews in the Diaspora as scientists and creative thinkers did not lead to greater esteem of the Jews as a whole, nor to "And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you"(12:3). The Torah links these blessings to "the land that I will show you". Only in the Land will these blessings be fulfilled.