Lech Lecha(Genesis 12-17)
Abraham Promotes Monotheism, and Fights in the First World War
The sign proclaimed "Terach's Idol Store." Martha approached the young man behind the counter with trepidation. ("How's business?" "Thank gods!") The salesman was not the shrewd Terach who would take your last dinar for blessing your favorite idol. This day was a temple holiday, so Terach left his son Abram minding the store.
"I have brought a sumptuous sacrifice to the god Baal!" Martha cried out.
Surprisingly, Abram was not anxious to receive her offering. "Tell me, Ma'am, how old are you?" he asked.
"I just turned 45," she replied.
Abram continued: "So let me inform you that yesterday this holy idol was only a tree. We chopped it down, used half for firewood and the other half became this god. Do you really have respect for a god that's younger than you?!"
His argument made sense to Martha, who didn't really understand the theology of idol worship anyway. "In that case, why don't you give my offering to any idol you consider worthy," she murmured, and hurriedly left the shop.
Abram, who had come to the belief in one God through intellectual reasoning, suddenly had a brainstorm. For many years, he had tried unsuccessfully to convince his family of the folly of idolatry. Now was his opportunity.
He grabbed an ax and chopped up every idol in Terach's store. Sparing the biggest one, he placed the ax into the idol's hand and set Martha's offering in front of it.
When Terach and family returned from the temple, they found the store in shambles. "Abram!" Terach cried out, "Why didn't you watch the store? Who destroyed all my gods?"
"Dad, can't you see what happened?" said Abram. "A woman brought in a sacrifice, and all the idols fought over who should receive it. The biggest idol beat up all the others!"
Terach was flabbergasted. In his rage, he screamed, "Abram! It's obvious that you did this! Idols are only made of wood and stone!"
"May your ears hear what your mouth utters," said Abram. "If they are only wood and stone, how can you possibly worship them? (adapted from the Midrash)
STANDING AGAINST IDOLATRY
Parshat Lech Lecha is the story of the first Jew: Abram. (His name was later changed to Abraham.) The Torah tells of his birth, and then skips to his first prophecy at the age of 75.
According to the Midrash (oral tradition), Abram was sentenced to death at birth by the despot king Nimrod, after Nimrod was warned by his stargazers that Abram was destined to make trouble for the king. Abram's father saved his life and hid him in a dungeon, where he remained his entire childhood.
Upon leaving the dungeon as a young adult, Abram was fascinated by the beauty of the world (something that most people tend to take for granted after having witnessed the world for an entire childhood). In his genius, Abram questioned, "Who made all this? And for what purpose?" The idols did not provide a satisfactory answer.
Maimonides explains that originally all mankind knew there was a God, especially the children of Noah who miraculously survived the Flood. Their mistake was that they felt it was impossible to relate to an "unseen God." Their strategy was to get in good with His servants whom they could perceive (such as the sun), and through these they would be able to relate to God. However, as the generations passed, people forgot the original intention and began to worship the servant. (The Japanese still believe their Emperor descended from the sun.)
The pagans had many deities because they attributed every diverse power to a different god - e.g., the god of rain, wind, sun, moon, etc. These all had to be appeased if you wanted peace and quiet.
When Abram first witnessed the sun, he thought this must be the master. Then the sun set, and he thought the moon must be the one. Eventually, he realized there must be an invisible Creator. ("A wheel cannot turn itself!") Abram was able to discern the unity that connected all the diverse powers. He observed the food chain, weather patterns, photosynthesis, and symbiotic relations between animals, and concluded that everything was interconnected. All of this pointed out to one "Master Planner." (At the time, this was heresy.)
Abram then asked the logical next question: "How does the Creator want us to live? There must be a purpose to the world!"
Abram reasoned that we must emulate the Creator. Just as God provides people with air, food and clothing, so too we should do kindness for fellow humans.
The Midrash continues: When Abram destroyed the idols, Terach felt it was his patriotic duty to bring his son to the king. "Your Highness, my poor son needs to be 'reeducated.' He believes in an invisible God that allegedly created the world."
Nimrod turned to Abram and said: "My dear boy, I am the one who created the world."
Abram: "In that case, demonstrate your great power by shutting down the sun!"
Nimrod: "I have a better method of proof. Its called 'trial by fire.' I will throw you into the furnace and see if you burn! If you don't burn, then I'm not god." (Similar to "trial by water" - i.e. "Let's see if you drown!")
Abram emerged from the furnace without a singe. Nimrod banished him from the kingdom.
The Sages tell us that Abram's brother Haran was also suspected of heresy. He decided to play it safe. "If Abram comes out alive, then I'm on his side. And if not, I'm on Nimrod's."
So when Abram came out alive, brother Haran said he was standing loyal to Abram. But when they threw Haran into the furnace, he disintegrated from the fire and heat. (The lesson is that miracles happen to those who have faith - and don't expect them!)
All of the above is hinted at in the verse, "And Haran died before Terach his father (i.e. as a result of his father's snitching) in Ur Casdim (literally in the 'Fire' of Chaldees)" (Genesis 11:28).
The Sages say that the "deeds of the ancestors are patterns for the children." The Book of Genesis records the planting of the seed of the Jewish people, based on the deeds of the patriarchs and matriarchs. In later books of the Torah, the seed grows into a unique nation. We will continue to see parallels between the lives of our ancestors and the history of their descendents.
GO FOR YOURSELF
God commands Abram: "Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace and your father's house" (Genesis 12:1). Yet the wording of this verse seems to be backward. In order of proximity, the first place one leaves when traveling afar, is his parents' house. He then leaves his hometown (birthplace), and finally his country.
Here the order is reversed, because it is not referring to a physical leaving, but rather to a philosophical break. God's command is for Abram to leave behind all influences of the past and start a new life, starting with the foundations. God tells him to distance himself from the influences of his country, and even those of his birthplace, and finally, hardest of all, the influence of his parents' home (heard from Rabbi Noah Weinberg).
"I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great" (Genesis 12:2). Generally, someone who is a nomad and constantly traveling will not amass a fortune, build a large family, or become famous. God promises Abram that, in spite of the fact that he is asked to travel afar (and in those days the "family clan" provided the only means of protection from attack), he will still be the founder of a great nation, attain much wealth, and be world famous (Rashi).
This blessing continues until today when Jews pray three times each day to the "God of Abraham."
"AND HE CALLED IN THE NAME OF GOD" (GENESIS 12:8)
Wherever Abram found himself, he would build an altar and invite the local populace to "call in the name of God" - i.e. he'd teach of the existence of one God. (The Discovery Seminar?!)
Abram brought along with him the "souls he made in Charan" (Genesis 12:5). Wherever Abram went, he felt compelled to "reach out" to souls and teach them about God and about serving Him. Abram was the first full-time Jewish outreach professional!
The second test of Abram was a famine that hit as soon as he settled in Canaan. Abram decided to go down to Egypt, and on the way down he realized that his wife Sarah presented a problem (at that time her name was Sarai). The Egyptians were known to have a peculiar code of "morality"; they would never think of taking a married woman, so they just eliminated her husband and she wasn't married anymore!
Abram's plan was to claim that Sarah was his unmarried sister, in which case the Egyptians would bid for her hand. Abram figured he could raise the price high enough that no one could afford her, and in the meantime they would "be good to me for your sake" (Genesis 12:13) - i.e. they'd give me presents (Rashi).
What Abram didn't count on was King Pharaoh, who immediately took Sarah on a "take first, pay later" basis. Pharaoh then proceeded to make Abram rich.
Question: Why did Abram go to Egypt after God commanded him to go to Canaan? It doesn't seem that everyone in Canaan went to Egypt. Was Abram really interested in the presents he would receive for his wife?
Answer: As we have learned, Abram's main goal was to teach the world about God. When he arrived in Canaan, he built altars and proclaimed God's oneness publicly. Many people came to hear his lectures, and as a result, changed their lifestyles. However, once the hunger began, although there was still some food available, the people had to spend their time finding the means to subsist, and had no time to attend lectures. Abram decided that in Egypt, where food was more plentiful, the public would flock to his lectures, especially if he had a beautiful sister available for marriage. In other words, the "presents" would enhance attendance at his lectures! (Rabbi Avigdor Miller)
IN THE PALACE OF PHARAOH
Sarai was taken into Pharaoh's palace, but every time he tried to come near her, an angel would physically assault him. The angel took his orders directly from Sarai. When Pharaoh found out what was happening, he summoned Abram and demanded to know why he didn't inform him that Sarai was his wife. "I certainly understand why you didn't tell the others, but you could have trusted me!" said Pharaoh.
We don't find any reply on the part of Abram (for obvious reasons), and Pharaoh has Abram and Sarai escorted out of town.
We find here a reoccurring pattern. The patriarch is living in Israel; he must then go down to Egypt due to a famine, and the Egyptians mistreat him. The Egyptians are hit with plagues, and the patriarch leaves with great wealth. As we said, "the deeds of the ancestors are patterns for the children." Years later, Jacob will go down to Egypt because of a famine. The Egyptians will enslave his children, God will bring upon the Egyptians plagues, and the Jews will depart with much wealth. (Nachmanides)
The Midrash tells us that during her stay in the palace, Sarai opened up a "women's branch" of Abram's outreach program and began lecturing to the women in Pharaoh's household. Her words had a profound effect on Pharaoh's daughter, Hagar, who decided that being a maid in Abram's house was better than being a princess in Pharaoh's palace! Hagar joined the party and became Sarah's prime disciple. Here we see the first example of the strength and power of the Jewish matriarchs.
LOST OPPORTUNITY #1 - LOT
A subtitle of this Parsha could well be "Lost Opportunities," as we find three examples of great people who had the potential to reach enormous heights - only to fall short in the end.
The first example is Lot, the nephew of Abram. The Sages teach that Abram was so careful about not taking from others, that his cattle and goats would travel muzzled, so as not to graze from others' fields.
The shepherds of Lot did not act likewise, and did nothing to prevent Lot's cattle from grazing in other fields. When the shepherds of Abram rebuked them, they simply replied, "God promised the land to Abram, and Lot is his only heir, so it belongs to him anyway!" (The land indeed, had been promised to Abram in the future, but was not his yet.)
Abram spoke to Lot and suggested they part ways. Instead of pleading to remain with his uncle and teacher, Lot readily agreed and chose the infamous Sodom for his hometown. This is the first example of great potential that was lost. Lot consciously intended to continue the work of Abram in Sodom, however unconsciously he was interested in the physical bounty of Sodom.
WORLD WAR ONE
The Torah describes the first documented world war, between the 4 and 5 kings. The kings were so decadent that they only wanted to enjoy life without bothering to govern their lands. So they paid the Emperor K'dorl'omar to run the country for them. When he started charging excessive taxes, it again diminished their fun and they rebelled. In the resulting war, the 4 kings overcame the 5. Sodom was conquered, and Lot along with it.
The "Survivor," Og the Giant (who according to tradition also survived the great Flood, by hanging on to the outside of the Ark), reported to Abram that Lot had been captured. Og intended that Abram should die in battle, so that he could marry Sarai. Abram ran into battle and successfully saved his nephew.
LOST OPPORTUNITY #2 - SHEM
The Torah introduces Malkitzedek, the king of Shalem, who according to tradition was none other then Shem, the son of Noah, and the king of Jerusalem. Rashi points out that the Land of Israel was originally allocated to the descendants of Shem, however the Canaanites (descendants of Noah's son Cham) took it by conquest.
Although most of mankind had sunk to idol worship, there were still a few pockets where monotheism remained. Shem was a priest to the "Lord on High" and Abram gave him a tithe (10 percent) of the war booty. Shem had received the blessing of Noah that the presence of God should abide in his tents, which means that he'll start a special nation that will be a light unto the world.
Yet Shem lost his opportunity, when he ran out to meet the victorious Abram with bread and wine and proclaimed, "Blessed is Abram to the Lord on High! And blessed is the Lord on High Who granted you victory over your enemies" (Genesis 14:19).
What did Shem do wrong? Try to imagine a victorious general who just won a world war (Pershing, Eisenhower, Shwartzkop), returning home to a tickertape parade. Now imagine a great chassidic rabbi with thousands of followers arriving in a city where many of his disciples lived. What a welcome he would receive! Now imagine a billionaire philanthropist arriving to the welcome of his beneficiaries. They certainly would extend the red carpet!
Now imagine all three in one. One individual who just won a world war of rescue single-handedly, and commands the respect of thousands of disciples, and is rich and dispenses funds to thousands! That was Abram, our forefather! Shem was so impressed by Abram's greatness that he proclaimed, "Blessed is Abram," before actually blessing God. He momentarily forgot God, although he immediately corrected himself and proclaimed, "Blessed is the Lord on High."
Maimonides writes that the greatness of the patriarchs and matriarchs was that they never took their minds off God, not even for a moment, even when performing the most mundane acts. Since Shem forgot God, he missed the opportunity and could not be the founder of the family. Instead, Abram, himself a descendant of Shem, would become the patriarch. (Rabbi Avigdor Miller)
COVENANT BETWEEN THE PARTS
God made a covenant with Abram, promising him great reward. He would have children like the stars in heaven, and would inherit the Land of Israel. Abram believed that he would have children, even though Sarai was physically incapable of giving birth.
However, when it came to the Land of Israel, Abram questioned, "How will I know that I will inherit it?" Because Abram expressed doubt, God decreed, "Your children will be strangers (foreigners who are discriminated against), will become slaves (even under humane conditions), and will be caused to suffer (inhumane conditions) for 400 years." (Genesis 11:13)
Abram was told to take three calves, goats and rams (plus birds), and to cut the animals in half and walk between the parts as a symbol of an agreement. The fire of God came between the parts as well. The concept of God signing a contract with man is mind-boggling.
Question: But the Jews were only in Egypt for 210 years?!
Answer: The Sages explain that the countdown starts from the birth of Isaac, when we were aliens in the land of Canaan, and continues with the Egyptian bondage. Altogether there are 400 years.
SIN OF THE EMORITES
God explained why the Jews cannot inherit the land right away. The sins of the Emorites (a sub-group of Canaanites) had not yet been completed (Genesis 15:16). This tells us that God does not punish right away, but gives people a chance to repent. Every nation has a little box (so to speak) where all their sins are recorded. When they fill up the box, they are removed from the face of history! (Rashi)
The Jews have never filled up the box, because every year on Yom Kippur, they clean the slate and start over again. This is one secret of Jewish survival, despite the most overwhelming odds.
LOST OPPORTUNITY #3 - HAGAR
Hagar was a great woman. She left Pharaoh's palace to become Sarai's maid. Sarah appreciated Hagar's greatness, and after 10 years of childlessness since their move to Canaan, she suggested that Abram marry Hagar. The idea was that since Hagar was subordinate to Sarai, the child would be brought up by her mistress (a form of surrogate motherhood) as if it was Sarai's child.
When Hagar became pregnant, she started to look down on Sarai, saying: "Sarai was married to Abram for so long and couldn't get pregnant. It seems she is not as great as she appears to be!"
Sarai blamed Abram for this change in attitude, which now spoiled all her plans, because Hagar was no longer acting subordinate to Sarai. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch explains that it really was Abram's fault, although not intentional. After uniting with the man who made the ultimate freewill choice to relate to God, Hagar could no longer look at herself as a servant.
Sarai "punished" her maidservant (she didn't allow Hagar to attend her lectures, explains Rabbi S. Wolbe), so Hagar ran into the wilderness. Three different angels appeared to her (a common occurrence in Abram's home), and told her to return to Sarah. They then promised her a son who would be a "wild donkey" of a man. This represented to Hagar freedom, so she returned to Sarah.
The Torah describes Hagar's son Ishmael as "His hand against all, and all against him" (Genesis 16:12). The Aramaic translation of Onkelos explains that "he will come on to all mankind, and all mankind will come on to him" (cf. OPEC). The well at which the angels appeared to Hagar became a holy place and Isaac would often pray there (see Genesis 24:62).
God changed Abram's name to Abraham, meaning "Father of all nations" (including all future converts), and commanded him to circumcise himself, his sons, male servants, and all future sons at the age of 8 days. This is the first commandment given to Abraham for all generations, and God's second covenant with Abraham.
Question: Why is God's covenantal symbol specifically on the reproductive organ?
(A) Since the sexual urge is the strongest drive that man has, he must purify it and make use of it only in accordance with God's covenant.
(B) Since that is the source of all children, it symbolizes the fact that this covenant is made with all future generations as well. One would have thought that this "barbaric" practice of elective surgery on an infant would have been the first Mitzvah to be abandoned by modern secularists - and yet the majority of Jews in the world continue this practice. It is our eternal connection to God, the Jewish people, and to the father of our nation, Abraham the first Jew.