The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
God commands Abraham: "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's home to the land that I will show you." The fact that God must command Abraham to leave his land and birthplace, as well as his father's home, can teach us an important lesson: our land, our birthplace and our parents' home constitute, for each of us, a natural and proper environment, an environment that provides us with our basic education and with our value system. Any departure from that environment can threaten the integrity of our value system. In order to help Abraham deal effectively with that threat, God accompanies His commandment with a promise: "I will turn you into a great nation, I will bless you and bring glory to your name, and your very presence will be considered a blessing in the eyes of all."
The message we can learn from the first verse of this week's Torah Portion is that, without God's promise, being away from the Land of Israel can lead to become estranged from the spiritual foundations acquired with great effdort in your father's home". The concept behind the commandment "Go forth" - namely, the danger inherent in one's departure from the Holy Land - has eternal validity for all generations.
During the present era, we are witnessing an increasing trend towards assimilation that threatens the very future of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. Motivated by the very best of intentions, many Jews who have performed the act of "Go forth" in order to enjoy the benefits of the blessing bestowed on Abraham - "I will turn you into a great nation, I will bless you and bring glory to your name" - have had to confront the inevitable result: ultimately, when you "go forth from your land [and] from your birthplace", you distance yourself "from your father's home". The children of those who have left the shores of the Land of Israel have abandoned the legacy of Abraham and have become assimilated Jews. The reason for this phenomenon is the fact that not every Jew has the same moral level that Abraham had. In fact, as the Bible attests, even Abraham himself was afraid to depart from the Land of Israel and only did so because he was commanded by God: "Abraham went forth in accordance with what God told him" (Gen. xii:4). And, immediately following his departure, he had to contend with trials that posed the threat of distancing him from the values of "your father's home".
Abraham's wife, Sarah, is taken to Pharaoh's court and her husband introduces her as his sister. In order to save his own life, he is compelled to lie and he therefore instructs her: "Tell them that you are my sister, so that I may prosper because of you and so that I may remain alive thanks to you". Had he stayed in his homeland, he would never have had to resort to such means. It is only thanks to God's intervention - "God caused Pharaoh and the members of his court great afflictions because Sarah had wrongfully been taken from her husband" (xii:17) - Abraham does not falter. From Abraham's experiences, we can learn the following: a Jew wanting to perform the act of "Go forth" without first receiving the same promise of a safe journey with which God blessed Abraham will be faced with a maze of complex trials, some of which may, in fact, be insurmountable. This possibility of exposure to insurmountable tasks is the basic factor behind the process of assimilation.
Whereas the immigrants to the various lands of the Diaspora managed to preserve what they had learned in their "father's home", the children of these same immigrants were in quite a different situation, because the paternal home of the children was located in neither their own land nor their own birthplace and because a paternal home on alien soil lacks the spiritual substance to immunize the children to withstand the temptations of the surrounding culture. The difficult situation we are witnessing today - namely, the abandonment of Judaism's values by a significant segment of the Jewish people - will be a source of pain for generations to come.
There is yet another lesson to be learned from this week's Torah portion. Even when a Jew living in the Diaspora seems to have succeeded in preserving the values of Judaism, there is no guarantee that the children or grandchildren of that same Jew will do the same. Short-term achievements in the spiritual realm do not hold the promise of long-term achievements in that realm. Abraham's example teaches us that point: he manages to retain his values beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land and is promised by God: "you will be a blessing for all the families of this earth" (xii:3). Wherever he turns, Abraham brings with him his basic values of religious belief and morality, as we can see in the way he solves the major economic-commercial problem of his era: "While the Canaanites and Perizites were still resident in the Land, a dispute arose between the shepherds of Abraham's flocks and the shepherds of Lot's flocks" (xiii.7). We might well ask ourselves why does the Bible draw our attention to the fact that the the Canaanites and Perizites are still resident in the Holy Land. As we can learn from the Bible, the society in which Abraham finds himself lives by the moral standards of the Canaanites and Perizites, and these standards are vastly inferior to those observed by Abraham. Today, the world of business propagates a value system according to which survival is possible only through the hostile acquisition of our competitors. If Abraham had acted the way business operates in the twentieth century, he would have gained the control of the entire area and then would have leased a portion of the land to his principal commercial rival, Lot. Instead, Abraham turns to Lot with the request: "Let there be no strife between the two of us . . ." and declares: "You can choose whatever portion of the land that stretches out before you; let us part as friends. If you want the land on the left side, I shall take the land on the right; however, if you want the land on the right side, I shall take the land on the left". Ultimately, "Lot chose the Jordan plain". In other words, to obtain peace within his extended family, Abraham gives in and allows his commercial rival to select a choice piece of real estate - a portion of land "blessed with abundant water resources". The high moral standards adhered to by Abraham are certainly not those of the Canaanite and Perizite inhabitants of the Holy Land.
When Lot is taken prisoner of war and when his property is confiscated by an alliance of four evil insurgent kings, Abraham declares war on the alliance and, in doing so, he sanctifies the name of God, as we learn from the words of the king of Salem, Malkitzedek, who blesses our patriarch: "Abram has been truly blessed by God, the Supreme Lord, who has created heaven and earth". Here again we can observe Abraham's morality in action. When he willingly declines to take any part in what was looted during the war (because he feels the loot does not belong to him), Abraham utters the famous statement, "I shall take nothing from you - not one thread, not one shoelace". Instead of emulating the culture of his surroundings, Abraham acts in accordance with a new moral standard, which is totally alien to the five kings he has helped to defend.
As we can see from the story of our first patriarch, the blessings that God bestowed upon him ("you will be a blessing for all the families of this earth") enabled Abraham to exercise his religious and moral values. Nonetheless, what kind of education does Abraham provide for his son, Isaac? Abraham teaches Isaac how to avoid the trials and tribulations brought on when one performs the act of "Go forth". In line with what he has learned from Abraham, Isaac never leaves the Holy Land. Jacob, Abraham's grandson, on the other hand, does depart from the Land of Canaan and takes up residence in Egypt, where the Jewish people become a "mighty nation". That emigration is also the beginning of our first exile, whose bitter lessons have, regr, been learned much too slowly in the course of Jewish history.
Our ancient sages permitted journeys beyond the boundaries of the Holy Land only if the journey was of short duration and was intended to meet practical needs. Thanks to this license, we may travel overseas today in order to participate in international conferences or in training programs, and to go on sabbatical leave. All of these activities can be linked to the blessing bestowed by God on Abraham: "I will bless you and bring glory to your name". In contrast, those who translate into reality the words "Go forth from your land, from your birthplace" on a permanent basis face the danger that their own children or grandchildren will abandon the heritage of "your father's home".
In conclusion, there is yet another element contained in the command "Go forth", and this element can be found in every educational institution. The initiator of the "Daily Page of Talmud" (Hadaf Hayomi), Rabbi Shapira of blessed memory, inscribed beside the entrance to the Lublin Yeshiva the verse "Go forth, my children, and listen to my words, and I will teach you the fear of God"(Psalms xxxiv: 12). When asked to explain the meaning of this inscription, he replied that, while they attend an educational institution, the members of the younger generation certainly obey the command, "listen to my words"; however, the success of any educational institution is put to the test only if the students of that institution, even after graduating, continue to act in accordance with what their teachers conveyed to them. Thus, the emphasis, Rabbi Shapira continued, is on "Go forth, my children": if, even after they have "gone forth," they still "listen to my words", the educational institution they attended has truly done a good job.
This is the educational message behind the phrase, "Go forth": you should go forth only if you are taking with you the heritage of "your father's home".
In light of the above, we should direct the holy work of educating our students such that, even after they have "gone forth" from the university, even after they have received their degree, they will continue to spread the concept of the intermeshing of Torah and science in their own professional and personal lives.
Prof. Moshe Kaveh