Parshat Lech Licha – The Double Role of Abraham
Living in the backyard of where this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lichah, takes place is such a precious gift that cannot be taken for granted. It is amazing how just this week it was announced that the prime minister of Israel, Benyamin Netanyahu authorized the city plan of Itamar. It is the first place where our Patriarch Abraham and Matriarch Sarah treaded upon when entering the land of Israel. I never get tired of driving up to the lookout point of the three seas on Itamar’s highest peak to meditate on the ancient pathway of Abraham and Sarah when they first entered the land of Israel. I always wondered why the first place that Abraham came to upon entering the land was Itamar’s backyard -the place of Shechem. Looking deeply into this matter unfolds and entire pattern that testifies to the centrality and importance of this holy site for the people of Israel. This topic is very broad and will, G-D willing, be discussed in a separate essay. Before getting to this topic we must first understand the dual mission of Abraham and his descendants- the house of Israel. On one hand, we are commanded to be a separate nation from the world as mentioned in Numbers 23:9 “it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.” On the other hand we are commanded to be a light to the nations. I am the Lord; I called you with righteousness and I will strengthen your hand; and I formed you, and I made you for a people’s covenant, for a light to nations. Isiah 42:6
Our sages teach us that, although growing up in Mesopotamia in a devout pagan home, Abraham at a very young age began to search for the truth and questioned the entire belief system he was raised with. This eventually led him to the realization that there could only be one single creator of the universe. With his discovery of monotheism, Abraham was not able to remain silent. He began an all-out war against idol worship. The Midrash Agadah describes the struggle led by Abraham. Abraham’s father, Terach, had a store where he manufactured and sold idols. One day he was asked to fill in for his father at the store. Every customer that entered the store was asked by Abraham –” how old are you”? The person would answer – “I am 50, 60…years old.” Abraham would then say to them -“how can you worship a manmade idol of stone or wood that is only one day old? Later a women customer came with an offering for the idols. After she left, Abraham took the offering and placed it in front of the largest idol in the store. He then took a hammer and destroyed all the idols, except for this largest one, and placed the hammer in its hand. When Terach returned he had a total meltdown and reprimanded Abraham for destroying all the idols. Abraham responded by claiming that the big idol is the culprit. He told him that when he received an offering for the idols an argument broke out amongst them and as a result the big idol destroyed all the others. Terach answered “these idols don’t know what is happening around them!” Abraham said “father, hear what your mouth is uttering”! Abraham was then brought by his father before the wicked Nimrod who demanded that He bow down to fire. Abraham responded by telling him water is a better choice since it puts out fire. Nimrod then commanded him to bow down to water. Abraham said that it would be even a better choice to bow down to the clouds that produce the water. He then told him to bow down to the clouds. Abraham responded that the wind is more powerful since it scatters the clouds. Eventually Nimrod, a fire worshiper, loses patience with Abraham and casts him into a furnace. A miracle takes place and Abraham is saved from the burning flames.
One may ask although this is an amazing story that sheds a lot of light on Abraham’s struggle against idol worship why is it not mentioned in the Bible. It is only hinted to as we will see soon. I hope to answer this question at the end of this essay.
One must take note that in Judaism the Midrashic literature is a central part of our oral traditions embedded deeply into our culture and heritage. It is one of the four parts of Torah hermeneutics. Pshat (simple meaning), Remez (hint), Drash (Midrash), and Sod (secret). The Midrash usually bases itself on verses, words, or even letters that hint in some way to the Midrashic conclusions. Drawing on these hints the Midrash is able to reveal to us what is hidden between the lines of the verses.
For example, in the above Midrash describing Abraham’s survival from the furnace of Nimrod, is alluded to in verse in Beraishit chapter 15:7 – “And He said to him, “I am the Lord, Who brought you forth from Ur of the Chaldees, to give you this land to inherit it.” In Hebrew the word “Ur” means furnace or fire. Here Hashem is reminding Abraham that He saved him from the furnace.
In the Joshuah 24:2 the prophet relates to us clearly that “Terach” was and idol worshiper. And Joshua said to the whole nation, “Thus said the Lord God of Israel, ‘your fathers dwelt on the other side of the river from earliest time, Terach, the father of Abraham, and the father of Nahor; and they served other gods.”
The Midrash adds that Terach’s son Haran while witnessing the struggle of his brother Abraham with Nimrod proclaimed the following: “If Abraham will be victorious over Nimrod then I shall declare my loyalty to Abraham, if not then I shall follow Nimrod” When Abraham was saved from the furnace Haran was asked, “who are you a follower of?” When he mentioned Abraham he was thrown into the fire and killed.
The Midrash is teaching us the meaning of true commitment. If Haran’s heart was truly with Hashem then he would have been saved just as Abraham was. Miracles don’t happen to just anybody – only to the very pious and devoted servants of G-D. This is hinted in the verse: Genesis 11:28 And Haran died during the lifetime of Terach his father in the land of his birth, in Ur of the Chaldees. The fact that the Torah stresses that Haran died before his father did, which is a rear occurrence in the Bible, supports the Medrashic interpretation of an unnatural death. In addition, the Torah mentions the place Ur Chaldees again which is seemingly redundant – showing that there is a connection between the furnace and Haran’s demise.
In other words, it is the Midrashic way to fill in the missing details by presenting very deep concepts that are reflected to in the verses using stories and allegories. This is an extraordinary powerful educational method that draws children at a young age to Torah study and serves as a perfect environment for the presentation of moral, ethical, and philosophical teachings. It is undebatable that The Midrashic style makes a topic interesting and easy to remember. Many of our esoteric teachings, as well, are presented through a Midrashic style concealing within their stories some of the deepest secrets of Torah. Only those who have received the proper keys of such Midrashic interpretation can understand and decipher the deep messages behind these Midrashim. A perfect example would be the famous Ari Hakadosh whose teachings unravel the secrets of the Zohar Hakadosh!
With this in mind, we can now return to the Midrash regarding Abraham. This Midrash Agadah is, obviously, describing the spiritual battle that Abraham waged against the idol worshipers of his time. In Genesis 14:13 Abraham is called Haivri or “the Hebrew” in English. And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew, and he was living in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, the brother of Eshkol and the brother of Aner, who were Abram’s confederates. In Hebrew “Haiviri” means the other side. The Midrash teaches us that Abraham was on one side and the entire world on the other side. The greatness of Abraham is that he was a non-conformist. He didn’t follow along with the norms of society but instead he was willing to take on the entire world for the sake of heaven.
The Rambam brings down in Mishnah Torah, laws of Idol worship, chapter one, the process that led to idol worship. The Rambam explains that it all began in the life of the grandson of Adam – Enosh. This is based on the verse in Genesis 4:26 And to Seth also to him a son was born, and he named him Enosh; then people began to call by the name of the Lord. Our Rabbis explain that the “then people began to call by the name of the Lord” to refer to the beginning of rebellion against Hashem. In Hebrew the word for began is “Hechel”, it can also mean to profane. In other words, Enosh and his generation profaned the name of Hashem. Instead of calling on the name of Hashem, like they thought they were doing, they profaned His name. The Rambam explains that they chose to offer sacrifices, built sanctuaries, and bowed down to the heavenly bodies in order to honor G-D. Although, they still believed in G-D they made a mistake by paying tribute to the heavenly bodies. They felt that this was the will of G-D to honor His glorious creations. Later, as time went on, the situation got even worse. False prophets arose that claimed that G-D commanded them to worship a particular star or stars. People began to create images of the stars described by the false prophets of stone and wood. Temples were built where these images were set up and worshiped by bowing down and sacrificing to them. In addition, images were erected under trees, on mountain tops and hills. The false prophets declared that these idols have the power of bringing blessing and curse to mankind. Therefore, one must fear them. The priests would guide them in a particular kind of worship claiming that if followed would bring them success. This eventually spread all over the inhabited world and G-D’s name was forgotten. Nobody, knew Hashem except individuals like Hanoch, Mitushelach, Noah, Shem, and Ever. This decline of humanity, says the Rambam, continued until the pillar of the world was born Abraham! Abraham, after finding Hashem, doesn’t keep the truth to himself but actively brings as many people as he can into the belief in one G-D. What made Abraham different from Noach and the other individuals mentioned above was that he was proactive. He could not sit around and allow the world to remain a place where G-D’s name is not known. We learn a great lesson from Abraham – it is not enough to know the truth it is what you do with it that counts.
In Genesis 12:5 it says – And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. Who are the souls that came with Abraham and Sarah to the land of Israel? The Midrash teaches us that these are the gentiles that were cleansed of idol worship and were brought to the belief of one G-D by Abraham and Sarah. We see how successful Abraham and Sarah were in fighting idol worship in Mesopotamia why then it is so important that they move to Israel? Why can’t they run their Torah academy from Mesopotamia? Answering this question brings us back to the beginning of my essay when I asked -why doesn’t Torah does not mention outwardly the great trials and tribulations of Abraham that were outlined here in such detail by the Midrash. The answer is that in order to do the proper job in educating the world in knowing Hashem can only happen by first building the nation of Israel in the land of Israel. The Torah purposely ignores outwardly, the entire spiritual struggle of Abraham with idol worship. Instead it prefers to talk about Abraham’s journey to the land of Israel – first coming to Itamar Shechem and then moving southward to Beit El and Ber Sheva, Hebron. It discusses his struggle with famine, and his separation from his nephew lot and the war of the four and five kings. It mentions the covenant of the animal parts promising him that his descendants will inherit the land. It mentions the struggle of Sarah and Hagar and finally the covenant of circumcision. Looking into these events, one can see that they are centered on life in the land of Israel. The backbone of the relationship of Abraham and his descendants to the land of Israel is being set into place. Not wanting to overshadow the importance of this vital stage, the Torah chooses, at this time, to conceal the other purpose concerning Abraham’s spiritual message to the nations as great as it may be. This important message must first be clarified to the people of Israel before they can be a true light to the nations. The dangers of not knowing this lesson are great. One can be Jewish anywhere in the world by following the commandments of the Torah. Nevertheless, he must not forget that he is part of the house of Israel. The Torah is teaching us that we are not scattered individuals worshiping G-D independently. We are one united nation that must serve G-D by building a kingdom in the land. The results of looking at Judaism as independent of the land of Israel have led to the entrenchment of the Jews in exile. This in turn led to the darkest periods in Israel’s history which peaked in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, many are continuing in the same path and have forgotten their homeland.
The opening message of our Torah portion is clearly directed to them. 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 aggrandize your name, 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.” We see clearly from these verses that Abraham will be a blessing only in the land of Israel.
In addition, in order to bless all families on earth we must first become a great nation in the land. At first glance, this may seem a little illogical. One may argue that it would make more sense to be a light to the nations by living amongst them. It surely is easier to influence someone if he is your neighbor. Nevertheless, G-D says to Abraham go to the land I will show you – there I will make you a great nation and there you will be a blessing to all of mankind. The greatest influence of Abraham will be felt only when the people of Israel become a great nation – living a spiritual life in the land of Israel. The nation of Israel must grow, develop, receive Torah, and live a life in the land. This eventually will culminate with the building of the kingdom of Hashem with His precious temple standing in Jerusalem. Only through this process will the nations of the world will be drawn to Israel like a magnet and the redemption of all mankind be reached. This dual role of Abraham – on one hand settling and building the land of Israel and the other being a light to the nations will be continued by his decedents until the end of time.
Today we are blessed to witness the fruition of this prophecy. Millions of non-Jews are being drawn to Torah because of the Jewish presence in the land of Israel. It goes together. I remember being on a speaking tour in the USA a few years ago and was invited for a meeting with the Jewish federation in a particular city. The head of the Federation asked me why is it that the non-Jewish world are so interested in what is going on in your community? They are so enamored by your message. On the other hand, they seem to ignore us here in America.
The answer to this question is this essay! The positive energy and blessing of Israel can be felt only through deep connection through the land of Israel. This is what the prophet Isiah teaches us in verse 2:3 And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, “Come, let us go up to the Hashem’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways, and we will go in His paths,” for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
This perhaps is hinted in the expression of – Lech Licha in Hebrew they are spelled the same way לך לך – this double refers to the two roles of Abraham and Israel – in one hand go for the sake of the land on the other hand go for the sake of the nations!
Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Moshe Goldsmith