Rabbi Levi said, when Avraham was travelling in Aram Naharaim, he saw people eating, drinking and engaging in a hedonistic lifestyle. Avraham said, “I do not want a portion in this land.” When he came to the mountains of Tzur (and peered into the Land of Israel) he saw people pruning and plowing. He said, “I truly hope I receive a portion in this land.” God then said to Avraham, “I have given this land to your offspring.” (Midrash Rabbah 39:8)
Rav Kalonymos Kalman haLevi Epstein (1751-1823), in his work titled Maor V’Shemesh, provides an incredible insight into this midrash. Avraham was wandering the world looking for meaning. He was looking for answers to the questions which filled his soul. How do I find greatness? What is my purpose? He looked around and saw people focused on momentary, fleeting pleasures. Eating good food and drinking fine wine is wonderful as long as it doesn’t become the centerpiece of existence. And so, he traveled on, looking for meaning. Avraham came to the Land of Israel. When he gazed upon the land from the surrounding mountains, he saw farmers pruning and planting. In this moment, Avraham had the life epiphany he had been waiting for. Man is like the field. A field needs to be plowed for beautiful vegetation to grow. So too, man must plow his personalistic field with Torah, mitzvos, chesed and dynamic spiritual activity in order to create the beautiful fruit of holy identity. Meaningful living requires us to engage in constant and consistent plowing. But you can only plant if the weeds are first removed from the field.
There are two dimensions to the weeds of life. The weeds represent the negative traits, behaviors and aspects of our life-style. We can ignore the weeds, but they won’t go away. We can try to look away, but they will just grow taller. To really engage in meaningful and dynamic spiritual plowing we must first remove the weeds that stand in our way. It is difficult and often unpleasant to remove the weeds of life but failure to do so renders the field of potential accomplishment un-useable.
There is another dynamic as well. Sometimes, the things we plant don’t “grow” as we had expected. Although, I used the right seed, provided water, sunlight and nutrients, the plant just didn’t take. It is in those moments that I must prune and uproot the non-viable plant in order to clear the field for something better. There are times in life when we “plant” an initiative, idea or course of action and it just doesn’t take root. Don’t be afraid to start again. Don’t be afraid to pull out the plant despite having spent so much time and energy in planting it. Pruning is an indispensable part of personal growth. There are some things we will do that will work and others that will fail. Don’t let the failed attempts sit and wither in your field. Bend down, prune, pull out the failed plant and start again. Starting again can be frightening and fraught with anxiety but if we want to maximize the productivity of our fieldw, it is a necessity.
We must remove the weeds that hold us back and remove the growths which have failed to mature and materialize. It is only when we clear the field of the failed growth and weeds that we can plant something beautiful.
Avraham wandered looking for meaning and answers. The answers he found are the ones which guide us to this very day. Life is all about pruning and planting. God has given each of us beautiful fields of potential and it is our privilege to farm them properly.
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur.
And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereishis 13:1)
Avraham is commanded to leave the life he has known, venture forth into the great unknown and embrace his personal destiny. Upon arriving in the land of Canaan he is faced with the stark reality of regional famine that forces him to relocate (together with his family) to Egypt. It is in Egypt that Avraham faces a society hostile to his spiritual and moral views. Yet, Avraham and Sarah persevere and make their way back to Canaan. It is during this return journey to Canaan that the Torah shares an interesting piece of information.
And he went on his journeys, from the south and until Beth El, until the place where his tent had been previously, between Beth El and between Ai. (Bereishis 13:3)
And he went on his journeys: When he returned from Egypt to the land of Canaan, he went and lodged in the inns where he had lodged on his way to Egypt. This teaches you etiquette, that a person should not change his lodgings (Arachin 16b).
What is the deeper message and lesson being conveyed? The Baal Shem Tov explains: “We learn from here the need to be content and find happiness in what you have. When Avraham travelled to Egypt during the famine, he was poor and stayed at very modest accommodations. Upon his return from Egypt he was laden with gold and silver and yet, still went back to the same inns.”
The Baal Shem Tov refers to the attribute of histapkus, the ability to find happiness and contentment in what you have and not link your happiness to what you hope one day to possess. Avraham could have stayed at a 5-star resort on his way back to Canaan but chose not to. Avraham didn’t need the extra material comfort to feel happy, content or important. Avraham’s life-happiness stemmed from a deep sense of meaning and destiny.
There is an emptiness and longing within each of us. God created us that way. We are each an unfinished work in progress, requiring further refinement. God gives us a soul and a body. He provides us with strength and weaknesses, abilities and desires. It is our job to take the shell that is our body and fill it with holiness, accomplishments, spirituality, dreams and aspirations. But it is easy to fall into the trap of materialism. At times we try to fill the void with purchases and luxuries thinking that they will provide happiness and fulfillment, but they don’t. Often, we assume the problem is that we don’t have enough. “If only I had more, I would be happy.” To be clear, God encourages us to enjoy the material world. You can have the beautiful home, nice car and fine clothing if you realize these things will never make you happy. They can provide comfort and enjoyment but not happiness and contentment. Herein lies the greatness of Avraham Avinu. He was given the gift of destiny. He knew he was on a mission from God and that every step he took was meaningful. He didn’t need the luxurious accommodations to make him happy, content and feel important. For Avraham was already experiencing all these feelings from within.
May God bless each of us with material success and comfort and may we find true life meaning, contentment and happiness in the people we become, the holiness we acquire, and the accomplishments we accrue.
“And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth (Lech Lecha) from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1).”
In this week’s Parsha, we read of the first of Avraham’s ten tests. Each test enabled Avraham to actualize his potential and groomed him to be the father of our great nation. We would all agree that moving can be a hassle and, in certain situations, a bit traumatic. But what was so difficult about this Lech Lecha command? As challenging as it may have been to leave his home and travel to a distant unknown land, God promised Avraham that he would be successful in every way. How is it a test if God assures success?
Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik zt’l provides a fascinating insight. The Rav points out that later in the Parsha, Avraham is told, “But you will come to your forefathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age (Genesis 15:15).” The commentaries are puzzled – Avraham’s father, Terach, was a known idolater. Why would God tell Avraham that he would be joining his father in the afterlife?
Avraham and Terach, father and son, were locked in fierce religious debate. Avraham was a monotheist and his father a staunch idolater. Avraham tried to teach his father about God; he tried to show Terach the folly and emptiness of his idolatrous ways. Terach felt so betrayed by his son that he handed Avraham over to the authorities to be executed for “heresy.” Through miraculous intervention, Avraham survived (Midrash Rabba Noach 38:13). Could it be that Terach had a place in the World to Come? Could it be that Avraham was to spend eternity alongside the man who had ordered his execution? Rashi explains, “This teaches us that Terach repented.”
The Rav explains: “Terach so hated Abraham that he denounced him and colluded to have him executed. Later – I don’t know how long it took – the same Terach saw the light and realized Avraham was right and society wrong, that his past was wrong, that a life dedicated to paganism and idolatry, to a cruel philosophy, to ideals in conflict with the basic principles of decency, was a waste. There was a tremendous change in Terach … When the command of Lech Lecha came and Abraham began to pack his bags, he realized to his great surprise that his father’s bags had already been packed long before. Father and son, hitherto locked in mortal combat, joined hands and together started out on the great march to Canaan …. (Abraham’s Journey, 54).”
After years of conflict, disagreement, and animosity, father and son finally had a chance to build a meaningful and enduring relationship. For so many years, Avraham was an orphan even though his father was alive. Finally, father and son experience theological and spiritual reconciliation and have a chance to build a relationship. Herein lies the true test of Lech Lecha. At the very moment when Avraham and Terach established this common ground with one another, God called out to Avraham, Lech Lecha, go forth, you must leave. For Avraham to self-actualize and become the man he was destined to become, he had to leave his father and leave behind any and every vestige of his past. Lech Lecha, you must go to yourself, by yourself. You must venture out on your own, separate and distinct from all you have known until now. To remain connected to the circumstances of your birth and childhood will handicap and prevent you, Avram, from becoming Avraham. The test of Lech Lecha was not one of relocation; it was a test of estrangement after finally achieving reconciliation. Avraham needed to separate himself from his past life in order to embrace his destiny.
The theme of the Book of Bereishis is maaseh avos siman la’banim, that which occurred to the fathers is a symbolic foreshadow for the children. The experiences of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs pave the way and set the stage for our life challenges and in reality represent the challenges inherent in the human condition. Avraham’s first test was to muster the strength to let go and detach from the things that would hold him back. This came with great personal pain as it meant not just leaving behind a parent, but leaving behind a father whom he was just getting to know.
We each have things that hold us back and keep us tethered to our present reality. Sometimes it is an unhealthy relationship, a negative habit, a destructive behavior, hurt feelings or a grudge so old we’ve forgotten what it’s about. If we want a chance to make it to our personal promised land, if we want to become the people we know deep down we are capable of becoming, we too must engage in the process of Lech Lecha and learn to detach, move on and let go.