Welcome. Chasidut, the Chasidic outlook on life, says we should “live with the times” – not only study the Torah portion of the week but live it. Chasidim call this week “the truly joyful week”. Why? Because parshat Bereishit begins with joy, with the creation of the world, but the end is not so joyful; humanity begins to sin. Parshat Noach describes the flood, and that’s sad, but it ends in joy – Avraham is born. But this is the truly joyful week; from beginning to end, we walk with Avraham avinu, our father Abraham . And so it is written on the Hayom Yom (daily study) calendar of Chabad: “The truly joyful week is that of parshat Lech Lecha. We live every day of the week with Avraham, the first one to dedicate and be willing to sacrifice his life to spread G-dliness in the world. And Avraham passed down this spirit of self-sacrificeas an inheritance for every Jew.”
So let’s talk about our father, about Avraham. There is a question that many commentators ask and we, too, will try to answer it: Why was Avraham chosen? The Torah does not tell us, which means that we must discover the answer ourselves. The Torah does not say “this is the history of Avraham”… (אלה תולדות אברהם). All that we know about him are two details from the previous parasha:
The name of Avraham’s wife was Saraשם אשת אברהם שרי) ) and Avraham and Sara are childless since Sara was infertile (ותהי שרי עקרה אין לה ולד).
But other than these two details, we am not informed that he was a righteous, or even admirable, person. Parshat Noach ends with this passage:
וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי תֶרַח חָמֵשׁ שָׁנִים וּמָאתַיִם שָׁנָה וַיָּמָת תֶּרַח בְּחָרָן
And Terach lived 205 years and Terach died in Charan. (Genesis 11:32)
And then Parshat Lech Lecha begins immediately with the following passages:
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל אַבְרָם: לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה. וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.
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. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you.” (Genesis 12:1-3)
But the question remains: Why, in particular, Avraham? We will try to follow in the footsteps of the commentators who have shown us the way throughout the generations and provide 3 answers.
1. To Live as a Minority (Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch)
If Avraham Avinu were alive today – in an era in which we are evaluated by our number of social media “likes” – he would not be looking for “likes.” Just the opposite. It would disturb him greatly if he had thousands of likes. And don’t forget, he’s our father, we take our cues from him and so in a way we, too, all of us, must take the unpopular road. It’s difficult to internalize this. It’s a lot more fun to be accepted by everyone, to compromise, and not to say unpopular things. But we received as an inheritance from Avraham avinu a capacity to be different. It’s in our DNA.
Our sages say: “Avraham the Ivri/Hebrew (Ivri comes from the word “side”) – all of the world was on one side and he was on the other.” The sages provide another interpretation of this verse. What differentiates Avraham is “that he speaks the Hebrew language.” Until today, Hebrew, the holy tongue, is not the most widely spoken language – to put it mildly – in the world. But we converse in it and build our land and our nation with it, because this is the language for us.
Look what Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote to the Jews of Germany in in the 19th century, which is pertinent to us as well today: “The isolation of Avraham was the result of his total opposition to the culture of his day. His values stood in stark contrast to the accepted values of that era. Avraham’s values were a rejection of the attitude that: ‘I am an upright person of consequence since I live according to what fashion dictates.’ For Avraham Avinu, what mattered was a person’s relationship with G-d. In our own era, people advocate for ‘Judaism according to the spirit of the times.’ The sharpest protest against this idea is the first mitzvah that was spoken to Avraham: Lech lecha! Go forth! Be different! Did the appearance of Avraham in history fit the ‘spirit of the times’ in Babylonia, Assyria, Sidon, Egypt? From the time of Avraham, until today, great courage and complete faith in our inner truth is demanded of us. How could we have survived – and how will we survive – if we had not inherited from Avraham Avinu a permanent minority status that comes with the courage to be different?”.
Avraham has an agenda. He has something to tell the world, without embarrassment. I once heard a young man dressed in the latest style talking to a young man in traditional Chasidic dress. “Nu, really, do you think Avraham avinu dressed like you, in black and white? With a hat like that?”. The chasid answered: “I don’t know how Avraham avinu was dressed, but one thing is clear to me: he checked the fashion that everyone followed in his generation – and dressed as opposite from that fashion as he could.” The message of course is “don’t dress fashionably” but rather “follow the spirit of Avraham.”
I want to tell you what I learned here in America, from you, about the ability to be “Avraham avinu.”
This last Shabbat, we were here, on this campus, in Manhattan. I told a friend in Israel that we were in Manhattan for Shabbat and she said: “Wow, what a contrast.” She’s used to “Shabbat in Jerusalem,” “Shabbat in Netanya,” what is this “Shabbat in Manhattan?” And yes, it was strange. The kids asked: “Mommy, in honor of parshat Noach, are we having Shabbat with the Towers of Babel?”
Afterwards, we were impressed by something you probably take for granted. We were here on campus as guests, along with hundreds of dormitory students. They invited us in and were so hospitable and it was wonderful to talk to everyone and give lectures. But our family felt that it was a real “Noah’s ark” experience in the middle of the “flood.” Everything outside was a chaotic mess – taxis, soot, and noise – and here inside we had beautiful meals, songs, prayers, and quiet conversations. This deep dedication and commitment to keeping Shabbat in the middle of Manhattan is also an example of the mesirut nefesh passed down to us by Avraham. Manhattan – which goes non-stop 24/7/365 – is a model for what the world would be like without Shabbat.
But your dedication to keeping Shabbat amidst Manhattan’s chaos is not all I learned from you this week. Suddenly, two weeks ago, pumpkins started to appear everywhere. I have nothing against pumpkins, but it seems strange. Pumpkins in every store and next to the front doors of houses with candles inside. Scary masks and costumes and “trick or treat,” a real happening, Halloween is everywhere. And suddenly I see a spark in the eyes of my kids: “Why does everyone have a pumpkin? Could we buy one? Look at all the decorations on every door. Wow, why is everyone in a costume? And what does ‘trick or treat’ mean?”. I never realized that our fellow Jews in America were faced with such a dilemma. I never appreciated the challenge they face. A Jewish state is really a start-up…
In this context, Einat Kapach, from Israel, sent me something that illustrates the cultural tension in which you live, tension that I have not encountered until today. In Israel, we dress up in costumes on Purim, we have a seder on Pesach, we light the candles on Chanukah. The country’s pulse is the pulse of Avraham Avinu. Pay attention to the follow quotation that Einat sent me from Steven Spielberg, the movie director. “I always wanted that we, too, would have Christmas lights in front of the house. . . In our neighborhood they gave prizes to the best Christmas light displays. I would beg my father, ‘Dad, could we please put up a few lights?” and he would say, ‘No, we’re Jews.’ So then I would say ‘Maybe we could exchange the white light in our porch for a red light?’ And he would say ‘No!’ so I would keep trying ‘well maybe just exchange it for a yellow light?’ but he adamantly refused with ‘not in any way, shape, or form.’”
I did not know that so many millions of Jews, in America and elsewhere, grew up with and were shaped by such a minority experience.
This week was the third anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s. When I visited Montreal a few days ago, I asked the Jewish community to show me where he was buried and to enlighten me as to the source of his identification as a Jew. The famous songwriter and singer attended the Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue as a child in Montreal. His father and grandfather, and great-grandfather were the leaders of the congregation.There, sitting in that synagogue, he absorbed the prayers and Hebrew melodies that went into his creative work (“Hallelujah,” “Who by Fire”). But Leonard Cohen went away, far away, from Judaism. He became a heavy drinker and took drugs, lived on a Greek island, and afterwards spent 5 years of solitude in a Buddhist monastery. But at the age of 82, he surprised everyone. He returned to his childhood synagogue and asked the choir to participate in a song, “You Want It Darker,” that he composed. The song was recorded on his last album and we can hear in it the sounds of the synagogue of his childhood, with kaddish and with the word “hineini.” And at the end of his earthly journey, Cohen requested to be buried in the cemetery of that synagogue. I went there and on his tombstone it is written: Eliezer ben Nissan and Masha. He returned at the end, for what we learn as children – the lech lecha, the going forth of Avraham, and the “hineini” of Jewish identity – never leaves us.
2. The Connection to the Land of Israel (Or Hachaim Hakadosh)
Lech Lecha is the start of everything: The nation of Israel, the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel. Look at the timing and necessity of the message of Lech Lecha: In the first chapters of the Torah, it is as though the song “Imagine” is playing in the background, with the dream of universalism. There are no religions, no nations, no borders. It sounds magical. The only problem is that it doesn’t work. The world needs borders, nations, countries, religions, and identities. After the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Cain’s murder of Abel, after the flood and the Tower of Babel, we have a third beginning, and this time there is a land and there is a Torah. The nation of Israel, the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel. it’s clear that people, in order to survive, need to find another way to live.
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ
And the Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
וַיַּעֲבֹר אַבְרָם בָּאָרֶץ עַד מְקוֹם שְׁכֶם עַד אֵלוֹן מוֹרֶה וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי אָז בָּאָרֶץ: וַיֵּרָא ה’ אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת
And Avram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the land. And the Lord appeared to Avram, and He said, “To your seed I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:6-7).
We have two promises here: you will have a child, there will be a generation that comes after you, but it will not continue to wander like you. It’s not that there is now a new nation of nomads who will take upon themselves to “go forth” (lech lecha) and wander all over the world. Your descendants of your descendants will already feel at home in this land. This will be their place.
Later in the parasha, we hear a more detailed and all-encompassing promise:
וַה’ אָמַר אֶל אַבְרָם אַחֲרֵי הִפָּרֶד לוֹט מֵעִמּוֹ: שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה מִן הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שָׁם צָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וָקֵדְמָה וָיָמָּה, כִּי אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ עַד עוֹלָם. וְשַׂמְתִּי אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אִם יוּכַל אִישׁ לִמְנוֹת אֶת עֲפַר הָאָרֶץ גַּם זַרְעֲךָ יִמָּנֶה: קוּם הִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּאָרֶץ לְאָרְכָּהּ וּלְרָחְבָּהּ כִּי לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה
And the Lord said to Avram after Lot had parted from him, “Please raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward. For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity. And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man will be able to count the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted. Rise, walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth, for I will give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14-17)
Avraham is the first “oleh chadash” (new immigrant) and this is a directive to possess and appreciate the land on which he stands, which belongs to him as far as his eyes can see. From this moment on, we have a place to go. From this moment on, wherever we go, we are going in the direction of the Land of Israel. Wherever we may be, even in a spaceship in outer space, our hearts are always turned towards the Land of Israel. Avraham opens the gates of the Land of Israel to Aliyah for all generations to come. And in his footsteps, everyone will come, chasidim and students of the Vilna Gaon, along with the poems of yearning for the Holy Land from the Medieval Sefardic poets, and of course the aliyot (immigrations) of our own generation. Our compass is now set according to where we are – and how we direct our lives – in relation to the Land of Israel.
Recently, I visited a number of Jewish communities – Montreal, Maryland, London, New Jersey – and what is their common denominator? All of their synagogues face the Land of Israel, the gift Avraham avinu received from G-d, the landmark of our nation.
By the way, immediately after the command of “Lech lecha” (go forth), Avraham’s answer, which is non-verbal, is given:
וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו ה’
And Avram went, as the Lord had spoken to him. (Genesis 12:4)
He does not even say “Hineini” – I am here (for you). He simply gets up and goes. Hashem had already issued commands that were ignored (not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, for example). The command is not the main thing but rather the willingness to obey it, and Avraham obeys immediately. He sets out on the road. The Or Hachaim Hakadosh, an 18th century Moroccan commentator who spent his last years in Eretz Yisrael, writes about parshat Lech lecha as follows:
“The Land of Israel is meant for you – and you are meant for it.
I will show it to you – and I will show you to it.
Because without each other, the divine presence cannot rest on either one.”
It’s like a shidduch. You are meant for her and she is meant for you. You will see her, and she will see you, but only when you are together will the divine presence enter your lives, dwelling between you. The land needs us and we need her.
I want to say something to the American community: sometimes you remind us of our emotional connection to the holiness of our land. Sometimes we are too preoccupied with elections (the second? the third?) and with small and trivial matters and we forget the specialness of Eretz Yisrael. During my recent short visits to Israel, I suddenly felt different, not how I felt when living there with my daily routine. We need to preserve our emotional connection to the land, like that of Avraham avinu, the first Jew to enter it.
I heard from Professor Shechter, the psychologist, this astute remark: “What Israelis lack is a gap year,” that year after high school when American kids come to Israel – the wonder, the curiosity, and the excitement that come with their long visit.
3. “Because he commands his household after him” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
Avraham is the most influential person in the world, until today. If there was a true “chart of the influencers,” he would be at the top. Christianity, Islam and, of course, Judaism, and the rest of humanity, too, have been influenced by him. But in practice he did not command any great army, did not perform any miracle, and did not make any prophecy. We have no stirring speech from Avraham to remember by heart. He is the outstanding historical example of influence without physical force. Here is the only sentence that the Torah provides for us, in an attempt to demonstrate why he was chosen:
כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה’ לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט
For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice. (Genesis 18:19)
This is astonishing: Avraham was chosen because he was a good father to his children, because he cared about his family, because of the instructions he gave to them and to other members of his household – and to us as well. We, too, call him Avraham avinu, our father Abraham. It’s not written that he fights for social justice in the world but he is doing it, first of all, inside the home. He doesn’t just speak in public. He begins by educating at home, in the living room and in the kitchen. And our national hero fights, first of all, for values meant for the members of his family in order that they would pass these values down to their families, and on and on, until they reached us, too.
This is a revolutionary approach. We know that many great leaders led miserable personal lives. Their influence was felt throughout the world and they were widely admired, yet they behaved badly toward their wives and children. Here we find a different focus. The task of parenting, of raising a family, is G-dly. It is the primary mission of a Jew.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “The great scenes in Abraham’s life – waiting for a child, the birth of Ishmael, the tension between Sarah and Hagar, the birth of Isaac, and the binding – are all about his role as a father. Judaism sees parenthood as the highest challenge of all. To know the mind of G-d, we do not need theoretical physics. We simply need to know what it means to be a parent.” This is not something natural, but it is a holy mission. Avraham is, first of all, our father and Sarah is, first of all, our mother and this week’s Torah portion reminds us that being a parent is an all-important calling in our lives.
To summarize: This is a seminal Torah portion. Before it, there was no nation or land or Torah. And now there is. Let all of us hope to walk in the path of Avraham, with three important characteristics he bequeathed to our people: to live as a minority without apology or embarrassment, to maintain a close and passionate connection to the Land of Israel, and to emphasize education within the family.
May you be successful in all you do and, b’ezrat Hashem, we will meet here again next week.
Translation: Yehoshua Siskin