Mayanot Parshat Lech Lecha: Torah Economics
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Lech Lecha(Genesis 12-17)

Torah Economics

The Torah is not a storybook. The Midrash tells us that the word Torah in Hebrew derives from the word "Hora'ah," meaning to point the way; the Torah was given to us by God to guide us through life. In general, it is downright stingy with words and avoids details with a passion. How then can we account for the lengthy stories concerning the lives of the Patriarchs recounted in such abundant detail throughout the Book of Genesis?

Nachmanides tackles the problem in his commentary. In his introduction to the Book of Exodus he explains that the Book of Genesis contains the record of all aspects of creation, spiritual as well as physical. Spiritual creation was only completed upon the formation of the Jewish character. Unlike physical creation, for which God alone was responsible, it was the Patriarchs who completed spiritual creation. It was the events of their lives and the teachings that they passed down to later generations that helped to form the Jewish national character. The record of the lives of the Patriarchs is thus the spiritual Genesis story.

In his commentary on Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:6), he presents a second thesis: "the events of the lives of the Patriarchs are the precursors of the events of Jewish history." We the Jewish people merely relive the experiences of the Patriarchs on a larger canvas; whatever did not happen to them cannot possibly happen to us.

The reason for devoting so much space to describing the lives of the Patriarchs is not connected to storytelling. It is important for us to be familiar with the details of their lives for two reasons: (a) to learn how we ourselves are expected to behave as Jews, and (b) to anticipate and prepare ourselves for the events that history will throw at us.

 

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SPIRITUAL FORCES GENERATED BY THE DEEDS OF THE PATRIARCHS

Nachmanides develops this theory that the events of the lives of the Patriarchs can be used to forecast the pattern of the history of their offspring in the following manner. All that happens in the universe is driven by Divine energy and therefore it follows that all aspects of being must necessarily manifest themselves spiritually prior to making their appearance in the physical world. He illustrates the way this works by highlighting an incident from 2 Kings, 13.

The king of Israel, Yoash, attends the deathbed of the prophet Elisha and pleads for his intercession against Israel's enemy, Aram. Elisha instructs him to open the window toward the east and placing his own hands on top of the king's, they jointly shoot an arrow in the direction of Aram through the open window. Then Elisha instructs the king to shoot some more arrows into the ground. The king shoots three of these; Elisha gets angry at him; he tells him, "Had you shot six or seven arrows you would have been totally victorious over Arom; as it is, you will defeat them in battle a few times but never manage to totally extinguish the threat."

Explains Nachmanides: to acquire the finality of completed events, spiritual forces need to be brought down to the physical world and expressed in physical terms; until this is done they are considered unfinished and can still be withdrawn. Elisha created the spiritual force needed to annihilate Aram, but this force had to descend to the physical world through the king of Israel. Yoash's unenthusiastic participation in the arrow shooting ceremony was not sufficient to serve as the agency of transformation of spiritual into physical; the spiritual force for the annihilation of Aram still lacked a corresponding physical dimension.

In the case of Jewish history, the events of the lives of the Patriarchs provided the agency of transformation of the spiritual forces that empower Israel into real events in the physical world. The history of the Jewish people is the broader expression of the symbolic potentials generated by the deeds of the Patriarchs. For example, Abraham's wanderings through the land of Canaan actualized the potential for the conquest of the land in the times of Joshua.

 

* * *

 

WHAT NEEDED FIXING

Following Adam's sin, his offspring no longer resembled the human being that God originally intended to create. That human being did not make his reappearance on the stage of human history until Abraham arrived on the scene. The climb back to the pinnacle of spirituality on which Adam had been placed before he fell had to be accomplished by human beings themselves through the exercise of their free will. It was incumbent on man himself to repair what he had broken. The first human being who dedicated his life to this restoration work was Abraham, and his descendants, Isaac and Jacob, followed in his footsteps.

Before his sin Adam was described as having been created in the image of God. The fall is to be understood in terms of the shattering of this image. It was Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who recast the human being in the image of God. In so doing they shaped the nation of Israel, about whom it is written:

"You are my flock, you are Adam, and I am your God..." (Ezekiel 34:31)

Each of the Patriarchs made his own unique contribution to the reconstruction of this Divine image. The incidents described in Parshat Lech Lecha portray one of Abraham's major contributions to this restoration process, the reattachment of the universe to the power of Bracha or blessedness. As such, they are as important to understand and to observe as the rest of the commandments of the Torah. They are to be viewed as a set of instructions, not as interesting folk tails.

 

* * *

 

ABRAHAM AS A BLESSING

At the very outset of the Parsha God tells Abraham:

"I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great; and you will be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2)

How can a person "be a blessing"? For that matter what is a blessing? How does it work? Jewish liturgy is full of blessings. We cannot even take a drink of water without reciting a blessing and yet blessings are far from self-explanatory. All the blessings of Jewish liturgy begin with the words: "Blessed are You Lord, Our God, King of the Universe..." It sounds like we are giving the Almighty a blessing. But does that make sense? Why would He require our blessings?

In Hebrew, the word "bracha" meaning blessing is a derivative of the word "breicha" meaning a well or a spring. Spring water is referred to as "living waters" [see for example Genesis 2:9] in the Torah; a spring is perceived to be supplying energy in the form of water that is generated by its own life force. When we begin our blessings with the word "Baruch," we acknowledge God as the source of all our blessings, and we establish a connection to Him in this capacity as the inexhaustible life source of all being. This connection then functions as a pipeline that can transport and deliver a fresh flow of creative energy from the Divine source of all being.

A "bracha" is a reminder of the fact that God not only created the world, but that He also takes an active interest in its management; in effect, it says: "God, You have demonstrated that it is Your desire to be involved in Your creation by instructing us to follow Your wishes as expressed in Your Torah; may it be Your will to strengthen Your connection to our world and increase the flow of life and energy to us from Your Infinite reserves." (see Nefesh Hachaim Gate 2, early chapters)

Every blessing acknowledges God as an inexhaustible living source on which we can draw. When God tells Abraham that he too "will be a blessing," God establishes Abraham, the human being fashioned in the image of God as himself constituting a channel for the provision of new life. Let us attempt to get a grip on what this means.

 

* * *

 

ECONOMIC REALITY VERSUS BRACHA

Secular Western society is a world devoid of bracha consciousness. The secular worldview regarding the proper management of resources is economic. Economics is defined as the study of the distribution of scarce resources. Prosperity is always relative, and it is a consequence of successfully optimizing the distribution of these scarce resources.

We all know that nature has limits; the upper limits of natural capacity are determined by, (1) the basic resources available in various parts of the world, (2) the amount of knowledge concerning methods of exploitation of such resources, and (3) the effectiveness with which such knowledge is implemented. Limitless plenitude is impossible by definition under natural law. Mankind must learn to distribute the limited resources available among competing claimants without destroying itself in the process.

Economics does not recognize the power of bracha. This does not mean that the economist rejects the idea that God created the world, but it does mean that as an economist, he does not subscribe to the notion that God remains a continuing source of bounty. As far as scientific thinking is concerned, God invested all the energy He was willing to put into the universe at creation, and man is forced to make do with what nature can now provide. There is no new energy being continuously channeled into the world. There will never be more than what there is now.

 

* * *

 

BREAKING OUT OF ECONOMIC LIMITATIONS

When he was ordained by God to be a new source of blessing, Abraham was specifically given the ability to break free of this economic world of limitation.

The world of economics limits every person to the possibilities that are provided by (to borrow the words of Genesis 12:1) his homeland or culture, his birthplace, and his father's house, (a concept that embraces all his family connections); these are the basic natural resources at the disposal of the human individual. But, in the first commandment addressed to the first Jew, God orders Abraham to leave these resources behind and step into the world of "bracha," or blessing, where nothing is limited. Abraham's connection to God becomes a limitless source of energy on which he is always free to draw.

Jewish existence becomes emancipated from the economic order that prevails in the rest of the universe through God's connection to Abraham. God wanted the creature He created in His image to have constant access to the wellsprings of bracha. The actualization of this Divine desire required the establishment of channels that could transport the fresh flow of blessing from the Source. The Patriarchs opened these channels for us, and enabled us, their descendants to also connect to the source of bracha. Not that we have some exclusive right to such access. All human beings were created in the image of God. They all had the capacity to establish this sort of connection. The factor that sets the Jewish people apart from the rest is the work put in by the Patriarchs to establish this direct channel to the source of all blessings.

 

* * *

 

THE CONNECTION IS IN THE DETAILS

This is why the Torah describes the lives of the Patriarchs in such great detail - every incident represents the creation of a channel of bracha that is essential for the effectiveness of future Jewish prayers. Their lives are the channel that we still employ down to the present to tap into the source of blessing.

The King of the Kuzars asked a provocative question of the Jewish sage. (Kuzari, Sec.1) We begin our prayers by addressing God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to begin by addressing Him as the creator of the Universe? After all, there is much more to the universe than the Jewish people. Surely God is non-sectarian!

The answer is obvious in light of the ideas we have developed. The universe of creation is the economic world with which we are familiar, subject to the limitations of nature. Every prayer is a request to tap into the reserves of bracha so that these limitations can be surmounted. The way to bracha is through the people who opened the channel, the Patriarchs. We can only pray by going through them.

 

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THE OPPOSITION

But surely the matter cannot be this simple. Why wouldn't everyone desire this connection to the ultimate source of blessing? How is it possible that only the Patriarchs stumbled upon it? Isn't it extremely presumptuous of the Jewish people to claim this connection as their unique legacy?

The answer: this world of bracha has many opponents. There are those who prefer the economic world; they would rather battle for a greater share in a world of scarce resources and emerge victorious through their own courage and ingenuity, than humble themselves by turning to God. There is little glory to be found in becoming God's dependent, and linking one's level of well-being to the intensity of one's Divine service.

The war between the kings described in this Torah portion (Genesis 14) is a manifestation of this opposition. The four kings are precursors of the four kingdoms that later ended Israel's self-rule, and drove the Jewish people into exile. According to Nachmanides, Abraham's victory over the kings represents the ultimate triumph of the world of bracha over the world of economics, the superiority of the oved Hashem, the servant of God, over the superman of Nietzche. But this ultimate victory will come with the Messiah, at the very end of human history.

 

* * *

 

GENEROSITY IS THE CHANNEL THAT LEADS TO BRACHA

The world of bracha is necessarily a world of limitless generosity. The ability to draw on the inexhaustible source of blessing must be expressed in the form of benevolence toward others. For someone who has access to limitless blessings there is no such thing as not enough to go around for everyone. Whatever I give away can be immediately replaced by a fresh flow from the source.

Indeed, the way to open the tap that releases the flow of Divine Blessing is to engage in acts of benevolence and generosity. To establish a connection to God involves behaving like God. We connect to God by adopting His character traits and practices as our own. After all, God Himself declared that we are cast in His image. If we are endlessly benevolent so must He be; otherwise the image would be more perfect than the source that it reflects, a proposition that is absurd on its face. [see the introduction to Tomer Devorah]

It is not by coincidence that it was Abraham who first tapped into the source of bracha. Abraham's chief character trait was chesed, benevolence and generosity. He perfected himself to such an extent in this aspect of his character, that God identifies Himself as the God of Abraham when He chooses to reveal Himself in His aspect of benevolence.

 

* * *

 

SODOM AND GOMORRA

Ironically, when he defeated the four kings, Abraham rescued the vanquished kings of Sodom and Gomorra. These ancient Twin Cities, which God eventually destroyed, have always symbolized the diametric opposite of chesed. Their citizens clung to the economic world with fanatic zeal. Their philosophy was: There is only so much and whatever I give you is irreplaceable, so I will not give you anything.

The Sages teach:

There are four character types among people. One says, "My property is mine and yours is yours." This is an average character type, but some say this was characteristic of Sodom... (Pirkei Avos, 5:13)

Every act of generosity is a decision to defy the relentless logic of economics. In a purely economic world, where resources are scarce, the average character type will inevitably adopt the lifestyle based on the saying, "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours." There is no evil in this, such practice simply follows the dictates of cold logic-either I can enjoy the asset or I can deprive myself of it by giving it to you; if one of us gains, the other loses; we cannot both profit through acts of generosity.

The Sages teach that this average character can easily transform itself into the extreme cruelty represented by Sodom and Gomorra. All that is required to affect the transformation is an utter lack of belief in the power of bracha.

The Talmud tells us [Yevomoth, 79a] that Jews possess three outstanding character traits; their inheritance from the Patriarchs. These three attributes are the prominent traits of the Jewish national character and it is through them that Jews can always be identified:

 

  • They are merciful.
  • They are easily embarrassed.
  • Above all, they are generous.

 

 

* * *

 

ALL JEWS ARE BLESSINGS

Every Jew is a blessing; he is a descendant of Abraham, who was promised by God that he would be a blessing. Whatever their level of observance, all Jews somehow know that they were born into a non-economic world of limitless blessing. Even the average character type is logically compelled to behave generously in a world where all resources are always immediately replenish able.

In another passage in the Ethics of the Fathers, the Sages teach:

The world stands in the merit of three things: the learning of Torah, the performance of the avoda, that is, the sacrifices that were brought in the Temple, and the practice of acts of generosity. (Pirkei Avot 1:2)

There is precious little Torah learning going on today, we have no Temple and no sacrifices; we need Jewish generosity to keep the blessing flowing in the world. The children of Abraham must continue the fresh flow of blessings into the world by continuing to practice chesed.

Published: October 12, 2002

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Visitor Comments: 3

(2) Anonymous, March 31, 2011 8:29 AM

Nice ideas, but lacking a connection to reality

You say many nice things, and many clever things, but where is the connection to reality? Torah outlines a specific economic system. When this system is followed, prosperity and knowledge flourish. When it isn't followed, chaos reigns. Put your focus on the details of the Torah economic system. All the competing systems we know of - Capitalism, Communism, Anarcho-Syndicalism - all the goals of these systems are realized by the Torah system. There's nothing wrong with bringing Torah into the real world. Keeping people focused on mysticism, abstractions, and what amounts to sophistry is counterproductive. We need to get our minds and heart out of galuth.

tom, September 24, 2012 8:47 PM

but...

how much more "real world" can you get than challenging the underpinnings of all of western society, namely economics? "generosity" or "hesed" is the very antithesis of western (and sodom's) values, of "mine, mine, mine", and totally connected to reality - if you follow it. what doesn't seem to be connected to reality, or at least not the reality being discussed here, is your comment about galuth. i don't see the connection.

(1) s.lapatine, October 14, 2007 1:20 PM

enlightening

a reminder that we are not alone, and that we have obligations

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