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 was commanded to leave the life he had 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 the 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).
The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Lowe, 1525-1609) explains that if Avraham had changed his lodgings people would have assumed that he was unhappy with the accommodations or with the character of the proprietor. This could have led others to speak negatively about the inn-keeper and adversely impact his livelihood.
While this is certainly a beautiful idea, I would have made the argument that Avraham should not be bound by these types of considerations. After all, he is on a mission from God. He needs to spread monotheism and reintroduce Hashem to humanity. He needs to get back to Canaan and get to work. Let him stay wherever he wants, wherever is most convenient – why the need to retrace his steps?
The Torah is teaching us an incredible lesson. In our quest for personal spirituality, we must be ever-vigilant of the feelings of those around us. Even if one is on a mission from God, even if one is engaged in the most holy and spiritually pure endeavors, one is never exempt from maintaining the highest levels of interpersonal conduct. Building one’s relationship with God is never a license to trample on my relationship with the other.
Rav Soloveitchik zt’l told a beautiful story involving his great-grandfather, the Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Baer Soloveitchik). The Beis HaLevi was in Warsaw and decided to visit Rabbi Yaakov Gesundheit (1815-1878), the Rav of the city. As the two great rabbis were seated in the living room, they heard the Jewish maid begin to sing. Rabbi Gesundheit got up and was going to ask her to please lower her voice. (There is a concept in Jewish law of Kol Isha. Under certain circumstance a man is not permitted to hear a woman sing.) Rav Yosef Baer took hold of his host’s arm and pulled him aside. The Rav of Warsaw asked the Beis HaLevi why he had stopped him. “I will explain my actions,” said Rav Yosef Baer. “Your maid works hard. The only enjoyment and pleasure she has is singing. It is true that we are enjoined from listening to her singing, but we can step outside or go into a different room. However, you want her to stop singing. That is not fair. It is her only enjoyment!” (The Rav Vol. II, page 178).
The Bais HaLevi understood that we must be unwavering and unyielding in the fulfillment of our halachik obligations. But we must honor our spiritual responsibilities with a concurrent sensitivity to the needs of the other.
This was the lesson of Avraham Avinu. We must strive to grow spiritually but never at the expense of the feelings of another. You can be the man of God, father of monotheism, patriarch of a nation – but you must still be vigilant with how you treat your fellow man.
“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).”
It is in this week’s Parsha that we are introduced to our first patriarch, Avraham. The life of a patriarch is filled with much challenge and sacrifice. The life of a patriarch is far from idyllic and serene. The life a patriarch is filled with upheaval and turbulence and yet, it is meaningful, fulfilling, and impactful. Avraham’s journey began with two words, “Lech Lecha (go forth)”, you must leave what you know and venture into the great unknown. Avraham’s journey is our journey; the journey of the Jew throughout the ages; the journey of the Jew into the vast unknown. But this great test was but one of ten. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:3) states: Avraham was given ten tests and he passed them all …” We often assume that Lech Lecha was the first. However, the Bartenura (Rabbi Ovadiah Bartenura, 1445-1515) explains that the first test was “Ur Kasdim.” What happened in Ur Kasdim? Rashi (11:28) quotes the Midrash that tells the story of Avraham being handed over to Nimrod for judgement. Avraham had smashed idols and repudiated idolatry and was given an ultimatum – give up your monotheistic beliefs or be thrown into a fiery furnace. Avraham chose death over renouncing his faith and as a result was thrown into the fiery furnace. Miraculously, Avraham was saved. This, explains the Bartenura, was Avraham’s first test. But this begs an obvious question: Why isn’t this test mentioned in the text? The episode of Ur Kasdim is only mentioned in the Midrash. It is never once mentioned in the Genesis narrative. The test of Lech Lecha is told to us in great detail, yet there is no scriptural coverage of the test of Ur Kasdim. How are we to understand this glaring omission?
Rav Yisrael Meir Lau (current Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, former Chief Rabbi of Israel) suggests a beautiful explanation. Throughout the ages, we have given our lives “Al Kiddush Hashem, (to sanctify the name of God).” Brave Jewish men, women, and children have given their lives rather than renounce their faith or give up their Torah. This ability to make the ultimate sacrifice for God is part of our religious and spiritual DNA. But there is something greater than dying Al Kiddush Hashem, and that is – living Al Kiddush Hashem. The greatest accomplishment for the Jew is to live each and every day in a way that is a credit to my Creator, my Torah, and my people. Dying for God is an incredible act of heroism, but you only have to summon the courage once. A greater accomplishment is Living for God as it requires me to summon the courage, optimism, and strength each and every day.
Avraham’s willingness to give his life at Ur Kasdim was an incredible display of spiritual heroism, but this is not the lesson God wants us to take from the life of Avraham or how we are meant to emulate him. Instead, our first exposure to Avraham is Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha was the test of living Al Kiddush Hashem. Lech Lecha was not a one-time command. Lech Lecha was God telling Avraham, “If you want to be great, you have to be willing to separate yourself from those things that hold you back. If you want to self-actualize, you need to be willing to stand alone. If you want to be holy, you must be ready to venture into the unknown.” Lech Lecha was the greatest test – the challenge of living Al Kiddush Hashem.
We find ourselves in the midst of challenging times. If a global pandemic weren’t enough, we are in the midst of a contentious election season. One of the greatest privileges we have as citizens of this great country is the right to vote. We each have a say in who the next leader of this great nation will be. This is a privilege we must exercise and take seriously. We also have the right to express our personal views and affiliations, but we must be careful to do so in a manner befitting a Jew. Our mandate is that everything we do and say must be a Kiddush Hashem. It is important for us to be involved in the political process, but we must articulate our views and positions without demeaning or belittling the other. We have seen people literally beating each other up over their differing political views. We have seen a profound erosion of basic human decency and behavior. We must be better. We must model the correct behavior as we are charged with being a light unto the nations. We must pray, learn, work, and vote Al Kiddush Hashem.
We stand in awe of those who have died Al Kiddush Hashem. We pay homage to those who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve our faith, ideals, and way of life. But we are called upon to do something of even greater significance. We must fight the good fight each and every day. We must make sure that what we do, how we behave, the interactions we have, the aspirations we possess, the goals we set, and the dreams we dream are a source of nachas for God and for ourselves. We must strive to live Al Kiddush Hashem.
May we each be privileged to find the strength to embark on our Lech Lecha journey, and may we find the resolve to make it to our promised land.
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.