Friday, November 03, 2006

Parashta Lech Lecha - The Land That I Will Show You


Bereshit 12:3 “… and all families of the Earth shall be blessed in you.”
Rashi: “A man says to his son: ‘Be like Abraham.’”

In many ways, Shabbat Lech Lecha is really the first Shabbos of the year. Jewish children traditionally start learning Torah from Parashat Lech Lecha, because this is really the beginning of our story. Bereshit is the cosmic background; Noach is the moral precursor. But it is at Lech Lecha that G-d introduces the concept that provides the link from the human to the Divine, which is also the pinnacle of human philosophy: the Halacha.

There is no Halacha in Bereshit. HKB”H relies on the G-dliness embedded in Creation to lead all things to right behavior. They should just know. Adam and Chava have rules, but rules are not Halacha. One rule they keep – Peru u-Revu. One rule, they don’t. Don’t eat the fruit. – Oops…

There is no Halachah in Noach. Noach is designed from birth to perform a task. G-d gives Noach orders, but orders are not Halacha. Noach is an exquisite computer, programmed with a Tzaddik chip, and compulsion is not Halacha. But the Human lurks within. And when, after six hundred years of waiting, and after finally exiting the Ark, Noach at last breaks his silence, it is to give full and ugly vent to the most animal of human emotions. He gets drunk, he behaves lewdly, he curses his own children.

In Parashat Lech Lecha, G-d takes a huge risk. Where Adam and Chava were left alone, Abram is cast out into the world before his adventure even begins – stranded by his father’s crackpot dream of some vague Destiny that awaited them in a land none of them has ever seen, Abram can not go back to Ur Kasdim, but neither does he know of any reason to go forward. Where Noach is Designed, Abram is Destined. G-d takes note of the particular human feature of Free Choice, and G-d takes a chance. “Lech lecha,” G-d exhorts Abram. “You there! Get up and go!” This is the voice of a parent tossing the young out of the nest. The Rebbe turning away from his Chassid, telling him it is time to go out into the world. This is Tough Love. Tough on Abram – but also tough on HKB”H. Ha-kol be-yedei shamayim hutz mi-yirat shamayim – Everything is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of heaven.

Will Abram choose to come to G-d on his own? Or will Abram merely follow his appetites? The odds do not appear favorable, considering all of human history up to this point. The Hassidic masters tell us that the greatness of Abraham is not that Abraham had this quality or that quality, not that Abraham was wise, or powerful, or faithful, or steadfast. The greatness of Abraham, I heard in the name of the Lubavicher Rebbe, is that G-d chose him. All else pales beside that fact. Once cast out into the world, Abraham’s task is to spread the teachings of his Rebbe, to pass them on to his family, to his descendants, and to the world.

Abraham Avinu and HKB”H – what a Chassid! What a Rebbe!

And what is Halacha, and how does it interact in human existence? Lech Lecha. “Go your own way.” Later, G-d will instruct Abraham to “stand on his own two feet”: Hithalech lefanai... Halacha is Comportment. Behavior. How we make our way through the world. And, as every traveler needs a map, we have Halacha as a guide. But, just as every map shows multiple routes to the same destination, the Halacha interacts with our Free Choice, leading us all along infinite branching paths. All of them are G-d’s paths, yet each of us goes our own way.

Lech Lecha. Le-Halacha.

In communities where unmarried men do not own a tallit, they must borrow one when they are called to the Torah. If they take a tallit that belongs to the shul – which is under communal ownership – they make a Beracha before putting on the tallit. However, on a borrowed tallit, no Beracha is made. The Pasuk states:

Ve-haya lachem le-tzitzit

Lachem - Yours. The proper performance of the Mitzvah requires that one own one's Tallit.

The mitzvah of Tzitzit is in the same category as Lulav – ve-lakachtem lachem ba-yom ha-rishon… One can only perform the mitzvah of lulav with a lulav that one owns, not with a borrowed lulav.

Lech Lecha – Go. You – You go. This is an act that only you can perform, and that you must perform for your own self. No one else can fulfill your destiny, Abraham, which is to teach the world that each of us is uniquely responsible for our own spiritual life. We can not bring others to Torah except by example. We can not create a Just Society, except by our own effort, within our own Daled Amot. One just person at a time.

Go forth, Abraham, for no one else can take on your destiny.

But, as Rashi points out – and as the text shows over and over again in a major motif that runs throughout Chumash – people try to.
Bereshit 12:3 “… and all families of the Earth shall be blessed in you.”
Rashi: “A man says to his son: ‘Be like Abraham.’”
Rashi makes it clear that our assignment and Berachah is to emulate Abraham.

This becomes major theme throughout Torah – and throughout human history! Because just as we want to strive to become like Abraham, others want to share in the blessings of Abraham – to become partners, or even to supplant him. And in so doing, they mistake the outer Abraham for the inner struggle of the Tzaddik, the Halachic philosopher who strives at all moments to approach HKB”H. What Rav Soloveitchik calls Halachic Man. They mistakenly grab at the Destination, when it is really only the Journey that matters.

Terach takes his family from Ur Kasdim, heading towards Canaan. Inexplicably, they stop along the way, and – like Moshe who also does not make it to Canaan – Terach dies at Charan. Yet at the Brit bein Ha-Betarim – 15:7 – G-d says “I am H’ who took you [singular] out of Ur Kasdim.” But Terah took him out! No – G-d tells Abram: look for My hand underlying all the workings of the Cosmos. Perhaps Terach believed that it was on his own initiative and inspiration that they came to Haran, but Abraham must look to G-d’s unifying and guiding hand in all that he encounters.

Terach had an inkling of the Beracha. He tried to reap the destiny of Abraham. Terah foresaw that destiny and tried to jump start it – to make it his own.

Now, in this week’s Parasha, Lot tries to copy his uncle – at Bereshit 12:5 we read “And Abram took… and Lot… and all the souls that they made in Haran…” Rashi: Abraham converted the men, Sarai converted the women. And Lot? Whom did he convert? Implicit is that Lot emulated Abraham – a kind of Bizzarro Abraham, like the cracked world of the old Superman comic books. A theme that arises continually throughout Humash. The exodus from Haran towards Canaan is the first “Erev Rav” – Like Abram, Lot too brought out his own supporters, people fashioned in the image of his own gods.

To underscore the parallels, other striking images of Mizraim appear. At the Brit bein ha-Betarim, Abram is led by Smoke and Fire. Indeed, the relationship of Sara and Hagar establishes the intertwined destinies of their two peoples – Sarah the Hebrew; Hagar the Egyptian.

More people try to emulate story of Abraham. In spiritual terms, these people exist on very high plane. On a level of prophecy, or of near-prophecy, full of resonances of the great destiny that awaits.

Nahor – has 12 sons; 8 with his wife, 4 with his handmaid.
Ishmael – has 12 sons.
Hagar and Ishmael – leave Sarah’s encampment and go off to the wilderness where they try to willingly sacrifice Abraham’s son – Ishmael – who is already a grown man.

And while all this is unfolding, Abraham is also trying to figure out what his Destiny is. He has human wishes and longings and desires, but his Halachic relationship with G-d continues to grow stronger, crying out for fulfillment. How is Abraham to know which is his true Destiny? Unlike all those who mimic him, Abraham keeps returning to G-d and seeking, asking for answers, asking to be guided and corrected.

13:7 - “there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle…”
Rashi: Lot’s shepherds said: Abram is old and Lot is his heir, so we are not stealing, as this land will very soon belong to our master…” This is a double whammy: it is not only a cracked mirroring of the destiny of Abraham, but also compare it to the very first Rashi, which comments on G-d’s act of Creation of the cosmos and its implications for Klal Israel taking possession of the Land of Israel. These are people who have hold of a powerful and eternal truth. Yet, like Babel at the end of Parashat Noach, what they build around it is false. In general, this exercise is undertaken with passionate intensity, no less so today than in Biblical times.

Abraham continually, patiently seeks clarity, all the while doing what is needed, all the while seeking G-d’s inner message. Is Lot , in fact, supposed to inherit from him? Where did Lot’s herdsmen get that idea from?

Why, when Haran dies, does Terach take Abram and Lot – why not Nahor? Abram has become Lot’s surrogate father. Is there, perhaps, more to this?

After War of the Four Kings against the Five, at 14:21-22, Abraham rejects the notion of taking possession of the property of those he has defeated. “… whether [not] a thread nor a shoe-latch…” such odd language. It echoes the Halachic practice of Halitza. Can it be that Abraham is renouncing the notion of Levirate marriage, of raising up his deceased brother’s son? Perhaps, under the practice of the clan of Terach, Abraham was Lot’s biological father? Under such circumstances, it is understandable that Abram might believe Lot is destined to inherit from him.

But Abram sees by his surrogate son’s behavior that it is not meant to be. The shepherds fight – surely they take after their master, just as Rashi tells us the shepherds of Abram take after theirs – and when Abram tells Lot “Go ahead, you take what you want, and I’ll be content with what’s left over, (another message of Lech Lecha – use your power of Free Choice) what is Lot’s reaction? He chooses and goes, with neither argument nor thanks.

Now Abraham complains to G-d that the steward of his household will inherit from him – this was actually common in the ancient Near East, as people legally made household servants into family members, sometimes marrying them – or marrying them to their children – and explicitly settling inheritances on favored slaves.

But G-d tells him “No, Abraham, you will have your own descendants to inherit.”

And then Ishmael is born. But G-d says “not this one.”

All of this was within Abraham’s aspect of Greatness merely at being chosen by G-d to be called out, to be sent forth with “Lech Lecha”.

All this was Lo Le-Shemah

Rashi at 12:7
Bereshit 12:7 “… le-zaracha eten et ha-aretz ha-zot…” Abram builds a Mizbeach. Says Rashi: “Because of the news of Children, and because of the news of the Land.” G-d has promised Abram children and real estate. Abram reciprocates by building a sacrificial altar. He is his father’s son after all, for this looks awfully close to Idol Worship and Avoda Zara.

But alongside this very human aspect of Abraham, he also embraces the Halachic process as the key to life, embraces Yirat Shamayim as the fundamental attitude to life as he comes to realize that his Destiny is, in every sense of the word, his own responsibility. That he can embrace it. Even change it.

The Apotheosis of Abraham is the Akeidah, which is 100% lishmah – which is why G-d no longer speaks to him after. Abraham has Gotten It – he gets the message. However many trials Abraham may still face, he has internalized the Halacha as the way to interact with G-d, who runs the world. G-d now recognizes that Abraham is doing everything lishmah – so no more need to communicate.

All along the way, Abraham has asked for guidance. Why will You destroy the cities? Who is supposed to inherit from me? You promised me children, where are they? You promised me the Land, which part of it is to be my dwelling? By the time of the Akeidah, Abraham may not have resolved his human issues, but he has embraced the behavioral and moral imperative of the Mitzvot.

To some, the attitude of Abraham towards the life of his own son looks like that of the proud father of a suicide bomber. But remember the Rebbe’s Vort: that the greatness of Abraham resides in the mere fact that G-d chose him. All the rest, as the Rambam tells us, any human being can aspire to and accomplish. The Torah is teaching us – Abraham Avinu is teaching us – that even the most important things in our lives are only ours because G-d has chosen to give them to us. That we must value our most precious things – our children, our wives and husbands, our life itself – not because they are intrinsically precious, though they are, but because G-d has chosen to entrust them to our care. Now, how much more precious – how infinitely precious do these mere human things become! And when G-d decides to take them away, we do not suffer any less human pain, but we relate to our pain from a profound depth of meaning and with the knowledge that, for all the pain that resides in this sad and beautiful world, HKB”H is the Ba’al ha-Rachamim, weeping for us. Weeping with us.

The difference between a Tzaddik – a righteous person – and a Rasha – a wicked person – is that the Rasha knows that he or she is doing exactly what G-d wants. That G-d approves of the Rasha. “I don’t need religion to be a good person.” How often do we hear it? “All religion has ever done is create hatred and bloodshed. G-d just wants us to be moral people.” The Rasha’s relationship with G-d is all right, all of the time. G-d approves of the Rasha.

The Tzaddik is a different story. The Tzaddik – his house is a wreck, his relationship with G-d is a mess and will always be a mess. His efforts at helping people are weak and pathetic and ineffectual and even the smallest bit of progress requires infinite patience. There is nothing for the Tzaddik to do but try to serve G-d and be constantly aware that really all we can achieve is the effort. The Tzaddik stumbles through life, always trying to alleviate human suffering – it’s a fundamental Halacha – always trying to bring joy into the world – it’s a fundamental Mitzvah – always trying in every moment and in every way, big and small, to make the world a better place – it’s a basic Halacha. The Mishna says: Bishvili nivra ha-olam – The world was created for me. It’s Mashma that each one of us is personally responsible for taking care of the world.

The Gemara in Berachot (33B) says Makom she-baalei teshuvah omdim, tzaddikim gemurim einam omdim sham – IN the place where Baalei Teshuva stand, Perfect Tzddikim do not stand there. We all know Pshat on this – and it’s wrong. The Apter Rov says: the Baal Teshuva has attained a goal, which is why he or she rests there, on the spot. They have reached their destination. But the Tzaddik - ? A Tzaddik, says the Apter, never stands still. It is in the nature of the Tzaddik to constantly be on the move. Searching. Yearning. Striving. Most of us set goals and strive to achieve them. For the Tzaddik, there is no such thing as Accomplishment – only a burning desire to reach higher. To find Ha-Aretz asher er’eka – The Land that I will show you.

It is told by a talmid of the Chofetz Chayim that he once heard his Rav sitting up late at night in his private study, deep in Hitbodedut with HKB”H. The Chofetz Chayim had said Tehilim, had said Tikkun Hatzot. Now, his Talmid overheard him pleading: G-d, you have given me so much. You have sent me Talmidim, you have sent Jews from all over the world with whom I have spoken words of your Torah. You made me Zocheh to write the Mishna Berurah! Now, G-d, please, I keep asking you – when will You ever answer me? I keep begging you to tell me: G-d, you have given me so much, so very much. What can I do for you?

Yours for a better world