Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh Lekha 5769/ November 8, 2008

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


“Go forth” – Whence and whither?

Yeruham Shimshovitz

Doctoral Student in the History of the Jewish People

Parashat Noah concludes with the account of Abraham’s family leaving Ur of the Chaldeans and arriving at Haran, where Abraham’s father Terah died.  This week’s reading, seemingly a direct continuation of the narrative at the end of Parashat Noah, begins with the famous words, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1).   According to the division of the parashot, Parashat Noah ends in the middle of the story, leaving us waiting with bated breath for the continuation.  But, since the Torah is not of the genre of adventure stories, rather it is the revelation of the Lord’s word to mankind seeking deliverance, we cannot settle for an interpretation based on literary devices.   So, what is really happening here?

As this week’s reading continues, after the account of the battle of the kings in Genesis 14 (the first explicitly described war to be fought in the world) and the renewal of G-d’s promises, the Holy One, blessed be He, says to Abraham:  “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession” (Gen. 15:7).  We cannot help noticing the similarity between this verse and the verse that begins the Ten Commandments:  “I the Lord am your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 20:2).  Indeed, there is a tradition [1] that prior to the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites used to recount their own “Passover Haggadah” about Abraham’s exodus from Ur of the Chaldeans.  Since then this story became a sort of introduction to the main theme, which is the exodus from Egypt.   The gemara tells us further that the day will come when the story of the exodus from Egypt itself will be but a preface to the main story – the end of subservience to foreign governments (from the Passover Haggadah, as related in Tosefta Berakhot 1):

Ben Zoma said to the Sages:  Has it not been said, “Assuredly, a time is coming – declares the Lord – when it shall no more be said, ‘As the Lord lives, who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt,’ but rather, ‘As the Lord lives, who brought out and led the offspring of the House of Israel from the northland and from all the lands to which I have banished them’” (Jer. 23:7-8).  They answered him:   not to supplant the story of the exodus from Egypt, rather so that [the end of] subservience to foreign rulers will be the main point and the exodus from Egypt secondary to it.

These parallels teach us that just as the Israelites who left Egypt and the exiles who came from the northland and from all the lands returned to their own country and not to a foreign land, so, too, Terah and his family left Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan.  In other words, the Hebrews who survived the persecution of Nimrod and his fiery furnace [2] decided that the time had come to return to their own place, at that time called the land of Canaan.   Since that which is well-known needs no proof, Scripture does not bother with further details. It is only as the narrative continues, when we get to the verse, “The Canaanites were then in the land” (Gen. 12:6), that Rashi explains that the Canaanites “were conquering the land of Israel from the descendants of Shem, for it had fallen into Shem’s allotment when Noah apportioned the land to his sons… Therefore it says, The Lord appeared to Abram and said, ‘I will assign this land to your offspring’ – I will restore it to your children, who are descended of Shem.”   This is also the meaning of the expression le-rishta (= to inherit it; rendered in the JPS: “as a possession”) in the verse which we cited above:  it is your inheritance from your ancestors, and you must take action in order to inherit it. If so, what is meant by the words, “from your native land,” if the land of Israel is the true native land?

The clue to the answer lies in the weekly reading breaking off the story with the death of Terah, at the end of Parashat Noah, and then resuming with a new beginning in this week’s reading.  By breaking the narrative here the Torah is informing us that Abraham was not simply continuing a process that had begun with Terah.  That initiative had been correct, even though it was not preceded by a divine command.  Human beings do not need to be commanded to return home from exile; however here we have a change of dimension:  henceforth, Abraham’s initiative receives affirmation from the Holy One, blessed be He.   Similarly the initiative taken by Moses in Egypt, when he went out to see how his brethren were faring, [3] received confirmation from the Holy One, blessed be He, at the burning bush.   Now, when you have embarked on undertaking, as related in Pirqe Avot,  you are told to complete it, [4] even though it is not entirely up to you to finish the task (for Joshua was destined to finish the undertaking), nevertheless you are not at liberty to shirk it. [5]   Incidentally we learn that leaving exile is completed only upon entering the land of Israel. [6]   Rashi [7] explains that Terah lived at least another sixty years after Abraham set off from Haran for the land of Canaan.   But the wicked are spoken of as dead even in their lifetime, and the righteous are spoken of as alive even after they have departed.

Genesis Rabbah [8] explains that the words, me-artzekha u-me-moladetekha (lit. “from your land and the place of your birth,” but rendered in JPS as “from your native land”) do not refer to your land and the place of your birth, especially not in the contemporary sense of the word.  Your land, so the midrash says, means “your district” (the midrash uses the Greek word, iparkhia), and place of birth means “neighborhood.”  This midrash makes an important refinement of meaning:  since your true land is the land of Israel, what is meant by “your land” here?  If a person lives in a certain place, does he become owner of that place?   Abraham had such a relationship to the land of Israel.  In that case the “yours” indeed was his.  Since he was not sovereign of Ur of the Chaldeans or of Haran, the words “your land” have to be taken in the plain sense of “the district in which you reside,” and “the land of your birth” as your neighborhood.

This also explains the seemingly illogical order of things, since, geographically speaking, when a person leaves a given place, first he leaves his house, then his neighborhood, and lastly his city.  But emotionally and spiritually it is hardest to sever oneself from one’s parents’ home, and next from the neighborhood of one’s childhood or the neighborhood where one spent most of one’s life prior to departure, and lastly from the land to which the person is tied emotionally and culturally. [9]   Therefore, to return to his original Hebrew identity, [10] he must go from the outer to the inner, leaving his cultural exile first (the way of life among the other nations) and thus freeing his soul; then parting from his emotional and spiritual exile, thus freeing his spirit; and lastly leaving the exile of his will, thus freeing his being.  Then the location of “the land that I will show you” became completely clear to him – namely, Mount Moriah, where holiness becomes revealed. [11]




[1] For example, see Rashi on Genesis 19:3:  … and baked unleavened bread – for it was Passover.   Likewise, Genesis 27:9:   … two choice kids – was Isaac actually served two choice kids?  Rather, it was Passover.  One he sacrificed as his Passover offering and the other he made into a savory dish.   Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer:   “From this we conclude that the essence of that day was to be ready for Redemption.”  Therefore, as long as the Israelites were in the capacity of individuals belonging to Abraham’s clan, they would recount the miracle of the exodus from Ur of the Chaldeans, but for the people of Israel it is the exodus from Egypt that counts.  Also see Berakhot 12b:  “Will the exodus from Egypt be mentioned in the days of the Messiah?  Rather, the main point will be [redemption from] subservience to other kingdoms,” (from an oral report of the teachings of my mentor, Rabbi Judah L. Ashkenazi [îðéèå ], of blessed memory).

[2] This is well-known as the meaning of Ur (=fire) of the Chaldeans:  the furnace into which Abraham and his brothers were thrown.   See Rashi on Genesis 14:1.

[3] According to Exodus 2:12.  This demands further investigation in its own right, but in brief it is said that Moses was undecided as to who deserved to be redeemed in Egypt, whether the Hebrews or the Egyptians with whom he had grown up, therefore it says that he “went out to his kinsfolk,” without specifying who these were.   Then, when he “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew,” he decided that the Hebrews were his kinsfolk; i.e., that he felt more brotherhood with the Hebrews.  However, after seeing two Hebrews fighting among themselves, he said to himself, “Then the matter is known,” meaning the reason for the bondage and the failure of brotherhood among the Israelites had become apparent, and therefore he fled to Midian, for he thought that there he might find a sense of brotherhood among Rachel’s family. However, what he had thought at first turned out to be correct and received confirmation from Heaven, and he had to return in order to redeem the Israelites from bondage to Egypt.

[4] See Tanhuma Ekev, ch. 6, also cited in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim par.585, halakhah 8, and in many sources of biblical commentary.

[5] Avot 5.16.

[6] This is learned from the first question discussed in Tractate Shabbat.   See Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah, loc. sit.

[7] In his commentary on Gen. 11:32, also see Genesis Rabbah 39.6.

[8] Chapter 39, par. 9.

[9] See Rashi on this, where he says that this is called one’s father’s house.

[10] The meaning of this name should be investigated.  See Genesis Rabbah 42.8:  He told Abram the Hebrew (=Ivri) – Rabbi Judah says, all the world is from one side (=ever), and he is from another side.”

[11] Note the parallel between the first occurrence of the words, “Go forth” (=lekh lekha), and “Go (=lekh lekha) to the land of Moriah,” in the story of the binding of Isaac, for if we say that Abraham knew when he left Ur of the Chaldeans that he had to go to the land of the Hebrews (as Joseph calls it, when he was in Pharaoh’s house), what are we to conclude from the command given Abraham, “Go forth to the land that I will show you”?   If the point of that command was that he go to the land of Canaan, and nothing more, then when Abraham arrived there he would have fulfilled the command.   Rather, the Torah said, “to the land that I will show you,” meaning that within the land of Canaan, to which you are returning from your first exile in Babylonian, you will have to go to a certain place that I will show you.  Only then can we know whether Abraham passed the test. And what is that place?  It is indicated in the verse:  “Take your son, … and go to the land of Moriah,…”   It is not for naught that the Torah used the precise expression lekh lekha for the command, “go,” for here we come full circle.  This is the land I will show you.  Hence the object of the return to the land of Israel, the land of the Patriarchs, is to lay the foundation for building the Temple.