Lekh Lekha

  • Rav Avraham Walfish



This week's parasha opens the Torah's presentation of the mission of Avraham Avinu, which runs through parashat Chayei Sara. The two dominant themes of Avraham's career are encapsulated in the promise given to Avraham in the revelation which marks his arrival in the land of Canaan: "to your SEED I will give this LAND (12:6)." Parashat Lekh Lekha focuses primarily on the promise of the land, while parashat Vayera focuses on the promise - and fulfillment - of offspring. The last three sections of Lekh Lekha (chapters 15-17) serve as a transition between these two dominant themes. These three chapters contain the two covenants between Hashem and Avraham, which guarantee the inheritance of the land by Avraham's seed. The first covenant, the Berit Bein Ha-betarim (chapter 15), is concerned primarily with securing the gift of the land, but includes the first explicit divine promise of biological descendants. The second covenant, the berit mila (chapter 17), focuses on Avraham's promised descendants, but includes the promise that the land will be given as an eternal heritage (17:8; see Ramban to 15:18). In this shiur we will concentrate on the gift of the land, as this theme is developed in chapters 12-15. The opening and closing passages of this section utilize certain key words and phrases to mark off this part of the cycle of Avraham stories as a literary unit, as we will see.


In the opening passage (chapter 12), following the divine command of 'lekh lekha,' we are told t w i c e (pesukim 4 and 5) that Avram departed Charan. Why the repetition? Let us pay attention to the details and emphases of each pasuk. Pasuk 4 tells us that Avram went ("va-yelekh") "as Hashem had said to him," while pasuk 5 focuses on two aspects of the journey: who and what Avram took with him; and the destination. Lot's accompanying Avram on the journey is described in both pesukim, but in different terms: in pasuk 4, Lot "went (va-yelekh) with him," whereas in pasuk 5 Avram "took... Lot, his brother's son." Was this Lot's idea or Avram's? Avram's age is mentioned only in pasuk 4. The meaning of these differences will become clear if we place each pasuk in its appropriate context. Pasuk 4 is the immediate response to the divine command of pesukim 1-3. God commanded "lekh" and Avram's response was "va-yelekh... as Hashem had said to him." Even though Avram was no longer a youngster, making the move that much more difficult, he didn't hesitate to carry out the command. Lot's accompanying Avram, however, introduces a jarring note, or at least a question mark: Avram was commanded "lekh L E K H A," namely: go by yourself (Netziv and Cassuto, differing from Rashi's interpretation). He is explicitly told to leave his father's household. Is it proper for Lot to accompany him? Interestingly, pasuk 4 does not present Lot's journey as Avram's initiative, but Lot's (he also wants to fulfill "va-yelekh"). Nonetheless the question arises: should not Avram, out of obedience to the divine command, refuse to allow Lot to tag along? To sum up the message of pasuk 4: Avram's obedience is willing, unquestioning, and impressive. However, there is a detail of the journey which raises doubts about whether Avram's obedience is thoroughgoing. As we will see, the question of Lot's presence will remain a central issue in the entire unit under discussion.


Let us now examine pasuk 5, whose structure and language are strongly reminiscent of a pasuk at the end of last week's parasha, 11:31:


11:31 12:5


Terach took his son Avram Avram took his wife Sarai

his grandson Lot the son of Charan and his brother's son Lot

and his daughter-in-law Sarai and all the wealth they had amassed

the wife of his son Avram and the persons they had acquired in Charan

and they departed with them and they departed

from Ur of the Chaldeans

to go to the land of Canaan; to go to the land of Canaan;

when they had come until Charan they came to the land of Canaan.

they settled there.



Clearly 12:5 is the direct continuation of 11:31 - Avram in 12:5 completes the unfinished journey of 11:31 by finally arriving at the original destination of Canaan. Terach's family sets out for Canaan - interestingly, on their own initiative (according to most commentators, except Ibn Ezra; see Study Questions #1) - but gets stuck in Charan. Comparison of the two pesukim highlights the change in the nature of the journey. Terach has been replaced as family head by Avram, who now is the one who "took" Sarai and Lot along. Avram has amassed wealth and "persons" (followers? servants?), whom he takes along. That this voyage to Canaan is Avram's initiative is indicated both by the similar language used to describe the two legs of the journey and by the eloquent absence in 12:5 (as opposed to 12:4) of the phrase "as Hashem had said to him." In light of the command "lekh lekha," this seems highly unusual. How can this be and what is the Torah trying to convey to us?


If we pay close attention to what Hashem commanded Avram, we will note that every detail of 12:5 is rooted in an interpretation or decision on Avram's part, rather than in the divine command itself. This is most obviously true of the destination. Hashem said to go to "the land I will show you." How is Avram supposed to find his way to this mysterious land? Ramban explains that Avram "was wandering from people to people and from kingdom to other nation ... and when it says 'and they departed to go to the land of Canaan,' it was not in order to settle there, because he did not yet know that this was the land regarding which he was commanded. Rather this righteous man continued on his way to the land of Canaan, for this was his intention and his father's intention originally when they departed Ur Casdim." Avram doesn't know where Hashem wants him to go, so he sets off towards Canaan, hoping that his original intention will correspond to the divine plan.


Reflection will reveal that this is not the only decision Avram needs to make. He was told "lekh L E K H A" - perhaps he should set off altogether on his own? He was commanded to cut himself off from all earlier ties: "from your land and your family (or: homeland) and your father's household" (12:1). On the other hand, he is to found a nation (12:2). Perhaps his journey demands the building blocks of a nation: followers, wealth (the material basis), and most importantly - a successor. Avram decides that he is to travel with the human and material nucleus of the nation. The question of a successor, however, is complicated: should he take along his wife, who is unable to bear children (11:30)? Should he take along his nephew Lot, who would appear to have become Avram's heir-apparent, in light of Avram's lack of children combined with Lot's lack of father (11:28)? Avram in each case selects the flexible, human and humane decision, rather than the decision which would fit the strictest literal interpretation of "lekh lekha." His decision across the board to include all the "question marks" in his journey reflects two factors, which will continue to characterize Avram's outlook and behavior in subsequent developments: (a) loyalty to those who are close to him; (b) Avram's belief that Hashem's promises, such as nationhood, demand of man that he actively pursue their fulfillment, rather than mandating unthinking obedience and blind faith that Hashem will find His own means for fulfilling the promises.


The juxtaposition of pesukim 12:4-5 underscores a theological question which will arise in different forms throughout Avraham's career: what is the relationship between the divine plan and human understanding and initiative? 12:4 presents Avram as obeying the command immediately and unquestioningly, albeit with one question mark: should he have allowed Lot to tag along? 12:5 affords us a closer, more reportorial, look at the same journey, showing us the preparatory steps and the human planning behind the journey: who should go, what do we take, and where are we headed? Are all of the decisions of 12:5 also "as Hashem had said to him," the phrase conspicuously missing from this pasuk?


One of the decisions of 12:5 receives immediate divine approval, in 12:7: "to your seed I will give this land." The promise of the land indicates that Avram's original decision to set out for Canaan, while humanly motivated, reflected Hashem's plan regarding Avram's destiny. Avram was correct in assuming that "the land which I will show you" allowed him room to interpret. The divine command and the human understanding are seen here to correspond. The other decisions, on the other hand, are not blessed with immediate divine approval, and indeed are called into serious question as the story unfolds. Is the "seed" to whom the land is promised a hint that Avram will yet father children? Will Sarai be the mother? If so - was it a mistake to bring Lot along with him? The lack of clarity regarding the meaning of "your seed" is apparent from the continuation of the story: only in 15:4 is Avram told in so many words that "he who will come out of your bowels will inherit you." Only afterwards, in 17:15, is it made explicit that Sara will bear him a son. And even after Yitzchak is born, Avraham still isn't certain that he is the promised heir until Hashem tells him so unequivocally in 21:12. After 12:7, Avram is still left pondering whether or not Sarai and/or Lot are included in the promised destiny of great nationhood in the land of Canaan. These issues, as well as the question of the wealth Avram brings along with him, will be addressed in the ensuing narrative.


Avram's wealth is substantially augmented during his sojourn in Egypt (12:10-20), but in a questionable manner and in highly problematic circumstances. The increase in wealth proves to be a divisive factor in Avram's family. The word order of 13:1 is most eloquent: "Avram went up from Egypt, he and his wife AND ALL HIS PROPERTY AND LOT WITH HIM to the Negev." As though to say: Lot went, not with Avram, but with Avram's property. The property, which separates Lot from Avram literally in this pasuk, will soon drive a wedge between the two kinsmen. In order to prevent quarrels over property, Avram will propose a separation. In agreeing to this separation, Lot makes a clear value judgment: his commitment to property takes precedence over his commitment to his foster father and his divine mission. This is further underscored by his choice of a new place of residence: Sodom may be populated by people who are exceedingly wicked (13:13), but it is exceedingly fertile, indeed reminiscent of Egypt (13:10), whose great wealth has never ceased to dazzle Lot.


This story seems to provide us with an answer regarding Avram's decisions in 12:5. Lot has proven himself unworthy of Avram's mission and Avram's wealth has served as the source of Lot's problematic behavior. These judgments are soon confirmed by the Torah. Hashem reveals Himself to Avram, "after Lot's separation from him" (13:14). Rashi acutely observes: "as long as the wicked one was with him, the divine word departed from him." It is noteworthy that both the promise of land as far as the eye can see in all four directions (13:14-15), as well as the invitation to traverse the land lengthwise and widthwise (13:17), are given to Avram only after Lot's departure. As long as Lot is the heir apparent, Hashem restricts Himself to a terse and unspecified promise. Avram's attempt to designate Lot as his heir has failed. Hashem repeats and amplifies his promise of seed, who will be numerous as the dust of the earth (13:16).


The story of the war between the four kings and the five kings shows that, despite his failure to designate Lot as his successor - and despite Lot's personal betrayal of his uncle and benefactor - Avram does not abandon his loyalty to his kinsmen. No sooner does he hear that "his brother has been taken captive" than he sets out to wage battle against the four mighty Mesopotamian kings, conquerors of the region. Avram's initiative is crowned with success and Avram finds himself standing in the "valley of the king" opposite two kings, representing two different spiritual postures. Malkitzedek, king of Shalem (Yerushalayim), a priest to the exalted God, recognizes that Avram's victory is a divine gift and offers blessings to Avram and to his God. The king of Sodom is defeated but not bowed. He proposes a deal to Avram: keep the WEALTH but give me the PERSONS. We hear the echo of Avram's decision to bring to Canaan wealth and persons. Avraham has since retained and even increased his wealth, but has lost the person whom he regarded as perhaps his most significant companion: his designated successor. Avram has justly - and with divine aid - obtained title to the considerable wealth of Sodom and could readily accede to the request of Sodom's king, significantly enhancing the material base of his budding nation, as well as his royal standing vis-a-vis the kings of the region. Why does Avram refuse? Within the framework of the exchange with Malkitzedek, it would appear that Avram recognizes that the true conqueror is Hashem. Rather than taking the spoils for himself, he sanctifies them to Hashem (Ramban, Chizkuni). However, Rashi's interpretation gives Avram's renunciation a broader focus: "Because the Holy One Blessed be He promised to enrich me, as it says, 'I will bless you....'" Rashi's explanation makes clear that Avram's refusal of "rekhush" here harks back to his initial decision to attempt to help along the divine program by bringing along "rekhush." Avram renounces the tainted property of Sodom because he has realized that the material base of the divinely-ordained nation will be provided by Hashem. Moreover, it is important that the nations of the world acknowledge that Avram's wealth is a divine gift. As long as only the Malkitzedeks of the world acknowledge this and the kings of Sodom can claim "I enriched Avram," Avram's mission has not been accomplished.


The Berit bein Ha-betarim confirms Avram's new understanding of "rekhush" - Hashem promises him "and afterwards you will go out with great wealth." Whatever wealth Avram manages to amass is irrelevant to his destiny as a great nation because the divine plan includes a period of bondage and oppression. Avram's calculations regarding how he might advance the divine plan prove to be mistaken, for he has no way of fathoming the depth and complexity of Hashem's historical program. Successors as well as property will be miraculously provided by Hashem in His own due time and in his own way.


What is the Torah's answer to the profound theological question raised by this story? Is human interpretation and initiative valid within the framework of carrying out a divine command and seeking to realize a divinely-ordained destiny? The answer seems to be ambivalent. On the one hand, Avram's choice of land is approved by Hashem. Similarly, his loyalty to Sarai, his wife, proves to be in accordance with the divine plan. On the other hand, his decisions regarding Lot and property prove to be wrongly-conceived. Perhaps the Torah is describing and sanctioning the human condition. The divine command is always open-ended, never defined down to the last detail. The divine plan is never understood plainly and unequivocally by those destined to carry it out. Man has no choice but to interpret and act in accordance with his best understanding of the divine will, even as he acknowledges the imperfection of his understanding and the ubiquitousness of human error. God, in selecting man to be the agent of His will, has accepted upon Himself the imperfections which will forever bedevil the realization of the divine program. Man, in turn, must accept upon himself the responsibility for his errors animperfections.



Study Questions:


1. The Ibn Ezra argues - against most commentators - that the command of "lekh lekha" was issued to Avram when he was still in Ur Casdim.

a. Ibn Ezra's argument is rooted in a difficulty with the word 'moladetkha' (your birthplace) in 12:1. What is the difficulty? What other ways are there of resolving this difficulty? (Look closely at 11:28 and see Rashi and Ramban to 12:1.

b. The Ibn Ezra brings a further proof from 15:7. What is the proof? How might other commentators respond to this argument?

c. The Ramban argues that 11:31 disproves the Ibn Ezra's contention. Why? How would Ibn Ezra respond? (Hint: note a discrepancy in the wording of the pasuk. See Radak and Chizkuni.)


2. What geographical and/or social-cultural considerations might have led Avram and Terach to decide to emigrate to Canaan? (Hint: what was Canaan's relationship to the major civilizations of the Middle East?)

a. Why did Terach's family get stuck in Charan? (See Cassuto to chapter 11.)


3. Did Avram intend to get rich in Egypt or did it happen accidentally? Support your answer from the Torah's language.


4. Does the story in 12:10-20 establish whether Avram was correct in deciding to bring Sarai along as his wife? Support your answer.


5. "And he gave him a tenth from all (14:20)" - Who gave whom? How does this fit in with the rest of the story? (See Chizkuni and Ramban.)

a. How can Avram justify allowing his partners in battle to take their share of the spoils of Sodom?


6. Although Avram went to battle in order to rescue Lot, the Torah is silent about what happens with Lot during and after the rescue. How might we understand this eloquent silence?

a. There is a subsequent occasion on which Avraham "rescues" Lot. What are the similarities and differences between these two stories?


7. In the Berit bein Ha-betarim, in chapter 15, we find Avram attempting to understand the divine plan and Hashem responding to this attempt. What key word in chapter 15 relates Hashem's response to Avram's quest?

a. What is the meaning of the divine response, in your view?

b. Where else in Avraham's career does this key word reappear? What is its significance?