Avraham Avinu grew up in a land- and in an era- that was steeped in idol worship. His father Terah not only worshiped idols, but even sold them to the public. Within this morass of warped ideology, young Avram, as he was then called, independently discovered the Creator. Not satisfied with his own knowledge or even with his own service of God, Avram began to fight against the idol worship of his society- and of his father’s house. Teaching the public about one all-powerful God Who cares about the world He created, Avram was forced into hiding as the authorities tried to stop him at any cost.
When Nimrod, the evil idolater king, had him thrown into a furnace for rejecting idol worship, Hashem made a miracle and Avraham emerged unscathed. We can only imagine the great influence that Avraham had on the masses in the wake of this tremendous Kiddush Hashem. Avram’s incredible efforts made him an iconoclastic, towering, spiritual figure- yet there was apparently more still to be done.
This week’s Torah portion opens when Avram is seventy-five years old. Hashem now speaks to Avram, directing him to a journey that would see him influencing the masses on a much larger scale, spurring him to greater heights- and planting the seeds of what would eventually grow into God’s Chosen Nation…
Vayomer Hashem el Avram lech lecha me’artzecha umimoladetecha umibeit avicha el ha’aretz asher ar’ekah.
Hashem said to Avram, “Go from your land, and from your birthplace, and from the house of your father, to the land that I will show you.”
-Lech Lecha, 12:1
Commentators make note of several key phrases within this command. For starters, the imperative “Lech lecha” seems to be more than a command to “go;”; the word “Lech” (“Go”) would have sufficed for that. Instead, it is qualified by “lecha-” literally meaning “for you.” In other words, Avraham was not just being told to set out, but that it was for himself. What does this mean?
Rashi famously explains that this extra word was actually a promise to Avraham that the trek would be beneficial for him; “It is for you,” Hashem is assuring Avram. This phrase, then, lays the groundwork for the subsequent verses, in which Avram is told that he would be made into a great nation, be blessed, and grow in fame (allowing him more success in bringing people closer to God).
Another focal point is the specific mention Hashem makes that Avram must leave his country, his birthplace, and his father’s house. Not only is Avraham being told to go somewhere- namely, to follow God’s lead to a different place- but he is specifically commanded to leave everything behind him. At first glance, this part of the message seems superfluous; if Avram is traveling to a different land, then by definition he is also exiting his current village and country of residence! The answer to this question seems to be that this too must somehow be essential to the command in its own right. There was something specific that Hashem was demanding by spelling out not just the voyage, but the departure. Avram- and we today- need to understand the significance of this clause.
Another issue, raised by many commentators, is the order within this directive. We would have expected these details to be presented in chronological sequence: first, leave your father’s house. Then, go even further by leaving your birthplace, and finally, leave your country altogether. Why, then, did Hashem use the reverse order?
Several commentators explain that Avram was being instructed here on more than one level. Perhaps even more important than the actual trip on which he was to embark, Avram was being guided on an inner expedition as well. Certainly, he was being told to physically journey to the land which Hashem would show him, but he was also being directed to head towards his ultimate destiny. Yes, he was being told to leave the confines of his residence, but he was also now commanded to rid himself of the negative influences of his surroundings. Of course, we can now appreciate that this was in fact the deeper message of “Lech lecha-” which alludes, as we said earlier, to a ‘personal angle’ for Avram. As the Chasam Sofer puts is so beautifully, Hashem was saying, “Go to yourself, to the innermost part of you.” In other words, Avram was not simply advised that the journey would be for him, but also that it must be to him. Even more deeply, Chasam Sofer explains, the “land” which Avram was to leave referred to his material constraints- his “earthly” limitations. Lofty and powerful as a person’s soul is, it is always stifled to a great degree by its physical host, the human body. Our good actions, speech and thoughts help us push through restrictive desires and urges, earning us great reward while helping us improve. The truly righteous among us, meanwhile, succeed consistently in rising above materialistic pulls, allowing the soul, “the Godly portion from above,” to shine through. Avram, already almost incomparably great at this stage, was now guided toward another level:
“Shake off your earthly restrictions…to the land that I will show you.”*
In this vein, we understand the manner in which Hashem instructed Avram to leave everything behind; although in the physical dimension of Avram’s trek this represents the inverse order of his exit, it was completely accurate within his personal, inner journey. First, Avram would need to rid himself of the more general influence of his country, then progress toward the more difficult task of leaving behind that of his hometown, Finally, he could hope to deal with the pernicious, most difficult of influence from which to extricate oneself: that of his immediate and personal inner circle- his “father’s house.”**
Rabbeinu Bechaye (cited in a related piece by the Chasam Sofer) also dealt with the precise intent of “Lech lecha-” and his answer ties things together perfectly.
Why the interesting language of “Lech lecha?” he asks. The answer, he teaches, is that the two words are alluding to something. If you combine these words, as one word, it reads : “lichluch,” meaning “filth.” Rabbeinu Bechaye explains with the well-known, ancient allegory of a customer who enters a store. If he enters the foul-smelling tannery, he may well stink when he emerges; even if he did not end up purchasing anything, the offensive odor in the air still cling to him and his clothing. Conversely, one who enters a perfume store, although exiting empty-handed, can still carry the amazing scents with him. Similarly, we are impacted by our surroundings on a spiritual level even when we do not engage with them; one who enjoys the company of righteous people will gain even if he failed to learn from them- and one who keeps bad company will suffer spiritually for it, even though he may have abstained from emulating their ways. This, then, is, what Hashem alluded to with the “dirt” of “lech lecha;” Avram would need to shake off the spiritual filth of his environment, somehow, in order to take the next step within himself. Put differently, “lech lecha” would be achieved… with the elimination of the “lichluch” that would stand in the way of his real self.
What a powerful idea are we learning from our Sages! Even Avraham Avinu, who spent decades battling idol worship and its adherents, known as Avraham Ha’Ivri because he stood “on one side (eiver)” of the world against the worldview and deafening depravity of everyone else, was still required to actively work on himself if he wanted to reach his true potential. Avram taught many countrymen to believe in Hashem- and yet he later needed to untangle himself from them! He actually destroyed all of his father’s idols- and yet we learn that the lasting impression of his father’s home would still be extremely difficult to wipe away!
If someone as great as our holy forefather was subject to these challenges, and devoted his energy to overcoming them, how much more must we be careful to surround ourselves with good people and influences. At the same time, we must always remember that Hashem is always there with us, believing in us and pointing us in the right direction. If we only follow His lead, we can grow tremendously, and we will eventually get to the promised land- and to our real selves.
*What exactly, in this context, is “the land that I will show you?”
Before we begin, here’s a summary of last week’s material:
Hashem told Avram to go “for himself,” and to leave his land, birthplace, and father’s house, to the land Hashem would show him. This trip would be for Avram’s benefit, allowing him even more success in spreading faith in God. More than a physical trek, Avram was also being told to make a spiritual, inner journey. On one level, he needed to leave behind the negative influences surrounding him. On a deeper level, he was being instructed to rid himself of his material and “earthly” constraints. Thus, the journey was not just for himself, but to himself- to the innermost part of himself. The words “lech lecha” also allude to lichluch, dirt- again, showing that Avram would need to shake off whatever may be clinging to him.
The above ideas help us understand: the significance of “lech lecha;” the need to mention what Avram would be leaving; and the order used in describing what he’d be leaving behind.
Looking back, why didn’t Hashem actually share the identity of the destination with Avram? Why did He only say it would be “the land that I will show you?”
Rashi answers that this was in order to give Avram more reward. The well-known, sharp explanation of this is that had he known the destination, Avram’s travels would have been one (long) Mitzvah: to go to the Holy Land. Now that he didn’t know where he was heading, each step Avram would take would be considered a full Mitzvah in its own right, in that he was “following Hashem,” and each step was like its own new journey.
There’s another, equally incisive interpretation given of this concept, which will prove helpful for our subject matter:
Hashem wanted Avraham’s trip to be “lesheim Shamayim,” for Hashem’s sake, to the greatest possible degree. Due to the momentous nature of this deed, Hashem wanted Avram to not even feel a sense of fulfillment for completing his mission– and so He expressed the command in such a way that Avram would never know when his journey was over! This ensured that Avram’s thoughts were directed completely towards fulfilling God’s will, at every moment.*
This week’s Parasha tells the story of Avraham and Sarah, 100 and 90 years old respectively, miraculously having a baby boy. The holy couple’s joy was much more profound than their personal feelings as parents. Yitzchak would be the child through whom Avraham could continue the tradition of following Hashem and spreading faith in Him, and this would bring the family one step closer to building a nation, to become known as B’nei Israel.
When Yitzchak was 37-years-old, however, Hashem gave Avraham a stunning command: he was to take his beloved son, and “bring him up” as an Olah- sacrifice. Apparently, Hashem was telling Avraham to slaughter the son about whom He had said “For through Yitzchak it will be called for you offspring.”
Avraham did not question God, and joyfully hurried to carry out His command. He traveled with Yitzchak, Yishmael and Eliezer by donkey to Moriah, until arriving at a mountain that Hashem indicated would be the location of the offering.
Avraham and Yitzchak went up Har Hamoriah, where Avraham made a wood pile, tied up Yitzchak on top of it, and drew his knife with which he would slaughter his son. At the very last moment, an angel called from Heaven, telling Avraham not to touch Yitzchak. Avraham had passed his biggest test:
“Now I see that you fear God; you did not withhold your only son from me.”
Commentators explain that the Akeidah was even more than a test of whether Avraham would sacrifice his son. It was also a test of whether he would sacrifice his life’s work. He had taught the public of a kind and fair God, Who wanted the world to recognize and emulate Him. Now, to slaughter his son at Hashem’s behest would fly in the face of his teachings- and would turn Avraham into a hypocrite in the eyes of the public. The world- even those whom he had already drawn close to God- would reject him, and he would lose his ability to influence the public. Avraham’s whole being was invested in bringing people closer to Hashem, and he had been wildly successful in his efforts in his new country. This aspect of the test, then, was: would he give up his entire spiritual purpose by slaughtering his son? Would he be willing to destroy his decades of work with one incomprehensible act, as the entire world would shun him?
When Avraham did want to sacrifice Yitzchak, then, he showed that he only cared about listening to Hashem. If Hashem didn’t want Yitzchak to live as the next link in the chain- even if He didn’t want Avraham to bring people closer to Him!– that wouldn’t shake Avraham. This is why, after Avraham passed the test, the angel declared specifically that he feared God. Even more important than his love of Hashem, which propelled him to teach the world about Him without stopping, his fear of Hashem dictated that no matter what, he would listen to every word of Hashem as it was uttered.
As amazing and important as the Akeidah certainly is, what does it have to do with our topic? Well, let’s look at Hashem’s opening words in commanding Avraham:
“Please take… Yitzchak, and go for yourself (lech lecha) to the land of Moriah…”
-Vayera, 22:2 (abridged)
Amazing. The very same expression by which Avram had been directed to begin his inner journey is repeated here, in the lead-up to Avraham’s biggest test. It seems that the Akeidah was, in a sense, the intended, final destination of his original journey. Avraham’s deep and holy mission of “self-discovery” would reach its zenith when he showed his willingness to sacrifice his son. (See Chasam Sofer, Lech Lecha.)
On a basic level, one could explain this simply: knowing that the Akeidah was his final and most difficult test, Avraham would now fulfill his potential to the highest degree- and so he would thereby reached his “innermost self.” While this is definitely correct, it would seem that there is more to explore here. Remember that Avram was told that to become truly great he would need to shed the influences of his entire culture and society. So the Akeidah, the final destination, should logically epitomize this directive; it should pose the biggest test for Avraham in dealing with the influences of his homeland…
We’ll explain this by first introducing a disconcerting thought: Avraham was not even the first in his family to want to sacrifice his own son! Of course, we refer here to Avram’s father Terach, who, after his son rejected idol worship, gave him over to the authorities- knowing that Nimrod may well kill him.
As wrong and wicked as Terach’s ideology was, can we at least say that, in his own mind, he made a great, courageous sacrifice in giving up his son for what he thought was the greater good? Not really. Because the entire society believed in idols, Terach was not at all going against the grain. Handing his son over was essentially an act of going with the flow, of allowing his son to fall to the status quo of the culture.
Terach did not act bravely, but, rather, weakly followed his surroundings. He was motivated by his environment, and likewise used the environment, to have his son killed.
This stands in stark contrast with the greatness that Avraham exhibited at the Akeidah. By attempting to sacrifice Yitzchak for the sake of Hashem, Avraham was not at all conforming to his surroundings- because he, the world’s authority on God’s will, had always taught that Hashem does not want us to offer human sacrifices. This therefore added yet another layer to the tremendous test of the Akeidah: Avraham would have to do this despite the opposition of society. Yes, had he been a pagan who believed in human sacrifice there would not have been an issue. But precisely because of his life’s work and teachings until this point, Avraham was in an untenable position. If you think about it, he was actually as isolated and alone as one can be; once his own actions weren’t internally consistent, no one could rationally support him.
And now we circle back to the explanation that Avram had not been informed of his destination so that a sense of fulfillment should not take away from the purity of his motives. Keeping in mind that the Akeidah represented the apex of Avraham’s inner journey, it’s no coincidence that Hashem did not immediately identify the specific mountain as the site of the sacrifice. And, according to what we just learned, it’s even more than that: the act of the Akeidah itself would be the most humbling of deeds, being that it went counter to everything Avraham stood for. And so here was the same test of acting for Heaven’s sake- but on an even higher level. While at the start of his travels he had been asked to follow God’s command without any self-interest, at the Akeidah Avraham was expected to heed God’s word by actively squashing his entire existence!
We now appreciate that the Akeidah was indeed the epitome of Avraham’s “lech lecha.” Whereas for decades Avraham had steadfastly taught about Hashem- thus ignoring the outside world- now it was much more challenging. At least in his teachings, he had experienced the fulfillment of bringing people into the fold- and of having a defined life mission. At the Akeidah, on the other hand, Avraham would reach further inside of himself than he had ever before- by foregoing his sense of self and the satisfaction of his life’s work. Avraham truly defeated the very concept of the outside influence symbolized by his father’s terrible act. Avraham’s was a real act of sacrifice.
Ironically, by ignoring his self-interest, Avraham truly reached… his innermost self. And his incredible self-sacrifice remains a merit for us, his descendants, B’nei Israel.
*Our Sages teach that we must always use “lo lishma” to motivate us to study Torah and fulfill Mitzvot. Additionally, a sense of satisfaction for completing a Mitzvah is not normally viewed as detracting from the “lishma” element. Avram’s circumstances were highly unusual, and were treated in a unique way.
Have a great Shabbat!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.