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Parashat Lekh Lekha: The Character of Avraham

  • Rav Itamar Eldar

The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

by Rav Itamar Eldar

Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat Lekh Lekha:

The Character of Avraham



            The wondrous story of the father of our nation, Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace, begins when God addresses him in an obscure and surprising manner, the Torah providing us with no background for that address. Not only is the reason for God's turning to Avraham unclear; the content of that appeal is also vague. Why must Avraham leave all that is dear to him and the entire world to which he is connected? Where does God intend to bring him? What is that "land that I will show you," and why doesn't Avraham receive a more detailed explanation?


            The void left by Scripture is filled to the brink with the rich and exciting stories of the Midrash regarding Avraham's path toward God as the background and cause of God's turning toward him.


Avraham as Beginner and Innovator


            Avraham Avinu, the son of an idolater, is not driven by the power of tradition or the continuity of heritage. He does not have a genealogical tree from which to suspend himself, nor has a path been paved for him which all he has to do is follow. Avraham starts from the beginning, all by himself and on his own:


There is one who is righteous because of the merit of his fathers or because he is always found among the righteous. The truth, however, is that one must pay no attention to this. A righteous person who is the son of a righteous person must pay no attention to the merit of his fathers, saying that the merit of his fathers will be available to him, and so he need not exert himself in the service of the Creator. He must pay no attention to this, but rather he must greatly exert and reinforce himself in his service of the Blessed One. And a righteous person who is not the son of a righteous person must not despair of himself, saying that since he lacks the merit of his fathers to help him, he will be unable to reach the service of the blessed Creator. He must not say this, but rather he must serve God, may He be blessed, and one who comes to purify himself is assisted by heaven. He must only keep in mind that God, may He be blessed, does all this for him to help him. (No'am Elimelekh,[1] Lekh Lekha)


            R. Elimelekh speaks here of the danger of degeneration on the one hand, and the danger of despair on the other, both of which may result from the idea of "the merit of one's fathers." What he says here is true about every tradition and every familial or social dynasty that attaches importance to a person's origins.


            The idea of "the merit of one's fathers" is liable to bring a person who does not descend from noble ancestry to despair of trying to reach greatness. R. Elimelekh reminds all of us that Avraham Avinu was the son of an idolater,[2] but nevertheless, he merited to found a nation and reach perfect recognition of God all on his own.


            R. Elimelekh, however, mentions the other side as well. "The merit of one's father" cannot serve as an insurance policy for closeness to God. Even one who is fortunate to have such merit must labor and toil in order to draw near to Him. Inherited status acquired by virtue of being the son or grandson of a distinguished person is liable to lead to degeneration and self-renunciation.[3]


            It seems possible to expand this argument. All of Avraham's Torah came to him out of nothingness. Before God ever revealed Himself to him, Avraham had already established his belief in the Creator of the universe, based on his own intelligence and understanding, and without tradition. The question arises: Should we view this type of innovation and originality that is based on one's personal understanding as a model for imitation with respect to our faith, our study, and our way in life?


            The danger posed by innovation that has no direct and absolute connection to tradition is clear and manifest to all, and there are good reasons to distinguish between Avraham and us.  First of all, there exists an unfathomable gap between our spiritual level and that of Avraham.  Second, Avraham's innovation can be seen as a necessary consequence of the absence of any tradition.  We, however, who have been blessed with a tradition and heritage, have no need for or interest in innovation.


            R. Nachman of Breslov, in quite bold fashion, encourages innovation and newness:


I heard from someone that he had exhorted him to try and study his Torah and propose some new insight in its regard (as he had admonished a number of his followers on this matter). He said to him: "If you merit to understand my intention in my Torah, good. But even if you are unable to do so, nevertheless it is very good when one merits to propose a novel insight in Torah…. I myself also heard from his holy mouth on a number of occasions that he strongly admonished that one should produce new ideas in Torah, and he said that it was an exceedingly great repair of the past. He said that even if one merits to come up with [only] one novel idea, it is also very good, because it is an exceedingly great repair. (Likutei Moharan Batra,[4] 105)


            At the beginning of the passage, R. Nachman turns to his disciple in an after-the-fact tone, saying, "If you merit to understand my intention in my Torah, good. But even if not, it is still good if you produce something new on your own." At the end of the teaching, however, as his disciple R. Natan testifies, there is a general admonition that we should endeavor with all our might to be innovative in Torah.


The limits of innovation, according to R. Nachman, as we shall see in the next passage, are very wide:


He said: Anyone who wishes to innovate in Torah may expound the Torah and innovate as much as he wants whatever new idea that he merits to conceive in his mind. The only condition is that he not issue a new ruling based on his expositions founded on expository construction (derush) and esoteric resolution (sod). It may be understood from his words that even with respect to the works of the Ari, of blessed memory, and other kabbalistic books, one may innovate in accordance was his intellectual attainment, provided that he not derive any law in this manner. (Sichot ha-Ran 267)


            It should be understood that from the perspective of R. Nachman – a chassid and kabbalist – opening the world of kabbala to our own innovations, with the sole proviso that one not issue practical halakhic rulings based on such innovations, requires extraordinary daring and courage. For the whole essence of kabbala is tradition and remaining linked to the master from whom one has learned the esoteric lore.


            Elsewhere, R. Nachman gives sharper expression to the added value of innovation:

He once spoke to me about innovating original concepts in the Torah. Speaking with wonder and awe, he said: From where does one get a new concept? When one is worthy of innovation, his original thoughts are really very wondrous and mysterious. From where do they come? What may be understood from his words is that an original concept is a revelation of God, who brings something from nothingness to existence. For at first he did not know this idea at all. Only now does he take and draw from the source of wisdom which is the aspect of nothingness, that is, the infinite. In [each new idea], then, we see with the mind's eye the revelation of the Creator, may He be blessed. (Sichot ha-Ran 245)


            When a person studies the words of Rashi and learns them by heart, he preserves that which already exists. At the very most, if he is particularly creative, he may succeed in fashioning something from something. But one who proposes a truly innovative idea, argues R. Nachman, creates something from nothing. If one merits producing new ideas out of nearness to God and awareness of His presence, the new ideas assume the nature of revelation. Our participation along with the Creator of the universe in the creation of the world finds expression not only in plowing, sowing, and fulfilling the Divine command to multiply and be fruitful. "He who renews every day constantly," asserts R. Nachman, applies also to Torah, and in this respect we are with Him.


            R. Nachman's astonishing assertion seems to be based on the understanding that God is present not only in the pages of the Gemara, nor even only in the souls of the leaders of the Jewish people. His presence is found in each and every individual.


"On Your behalf my heart has said, Seek My countenance" (Tehilim 27:8). Rashi explains: As your emissary. The essence of Godliness is in the heart, as it is written: "God is the rock of my heart" (ibid. 73:26), as we have explained elsewhere. Now, someone who is of "pure heart" (ibid. 24:4), as in "and my heart is hollow within me" (ibid. 109:22), can know future events through that which his heart tells him. For these are the words of God, literally. This is the meaning of "On you behalf my heart has said, Seek My countenance." "On your behalf" – as Your emissary, as above. For that which the heart says are the words of God, literally. Understand this. (Likutei Moharan Kama 138)


            We are accustomed to say that new Torah insights arise in the heart of their author. To this R. Nachman responds that indeed new Torah insights originate in the heart. But this heart is the mouthpiece of God, who reveals Himself through each and every person who studies Torah. Surely, the process of listening requires clarification and refinement, but one must not refrain therefore from the attempt. Failure to make the attempt under the pretext that we are incapable and unworthy, that we are not Avraham Avinu, constitutes a trespass of serving as God's "emissary" about which Rashi speaks in his commentary to the verse cited at the beginning of the aforementioned teaching. The heart implanted within us accepts upon itself the mission of serving as God's mouthpiece, and we must not ignore this mission.


            R. Nachman goes even further, alluding that sometimes tradition can hinder a person from arriving at a novel insight:


He said: There are tzadikim who are great Torah authorities, fully versed in many books and in the expositions of our Rabbis of blessed memory, and precisely because of this they are unable to innovate in Torah, because they are so well versed. For as soon as they begin to speak Torah, wishing to innovate, their great fluency confuses them. They immediately begin to recite many assumptions and many things that they know from books. Because of this, their words are confused, and they cannot bring to light any fine new idea. He then gave as an example a great Torah authority in his generation who could not speak Torah for this very reason. It was understood from his words that someone who wishes to innovate [in Torah] must restrict his mind, so that it not immediately run to confuse him with multiple assumptions that are unnecessary for his new ideas. He should pretend to be ignorant, and then he will be able to bring many new ideas to light, in an orderly manner, step by step. (Sichot ha-Ran 267)


R. Nachman refers here to tzadikim who are great Torah authorities, experts on many books and the midrashic expositions of the Sages, but whose expertise is at times a stumbling-block that prevents them from arriving at new insights. R. Natan explains that his teacher means to say that in order to innovate, a person must "pretend to be ignorant." R. Nachman, according to his disciple, is referring here to a methodic process of detachment. "Ignorance" is the aspect of Avraham Avinu who knew nothing, and was therefore capable of innovation. In order to create something from nothing, a person must first come to nothing, a state which demands that for a short moment he forget everything that he had ever learned, the entire tradition and all "assumptions."


The climate in which new ideas can grow is that of freedom and liberty. In an atmosphere that echoes the Chatam Sofer's declaration that "novelty is forbidden by Torah law," in the context he gave it, true insight cannot blossom, says R. Nachman. We must once again emphasize that R. Nachman set clear boundaries to innovative ideas – that one not decide the law for himself on the basis of those ideas.[5]


Avraham, Cut Off and Secluded


            We have noted that because Avraham Avinu had no traditions, he had to innovate everything by himself until the moment that God revealed Himself to him. It seems, however, that because Avraham was so deeply immersed in the mire of idolatry in which he had been raised, it fell upon him to take a meaningful advance step to sever himself from the world in which he lived:


"And the Lord said to Avram, Go you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's home, to the land that I will show you; and I will make of you a great nation, etc." And the uncertainties will be clarified later. For the Rambam writes in the sixth chapter of Hilkhot De'ot (halakha 1) as follows: "It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one's associates and fellow citizens. Hence, a person ought to associate with the righteous and shun the wicked. If the inhabitants of one's country are evil, he should leave for a place where the people are righteous. If all the countries, etc., or if he is unable to leave, etc., he should live by himself in seclusion. And if they do not allow him, etc., he should go to the wilderness, as it is written: 'O that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging place of wayfaring men.' (Yirmiya 9:1)." Now you will understand, "Go you out of your country" – from your country to live among your kindred. And when you see that they do not allow you to conduct yourself in a righteous manner, distance yourself further also from your kindred and seclude yourself in your father's home. And if you are unable to serve God while with them, distance yourself even further from your father's home to a land that I will show you. (Toledot Ya'akov Yosef[6], Lekh Lekha 1)  


            R. Ya'akov Yosef of Polonnoye speaks of a process of seclusion that is at times demanded of a person in order to allow him to draw near to God. There are no bounds to the detachment demanded of him. A person must seek out the climate and environment that will allow him to draw near to God, and when he finds it, he must establish his residence there. "Go you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house" – these are the "stations" where Avraham must try and see whether they allow him to make the desired change.


            R. Ya'akov Yosef describes appalling isolation, "O that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging place of wayfaring men." A person seeks a place where he can be himself, where he can live without war, where he can feel at home. He sometimes fails to find such a place, and then he is like someone lost on the road. "A lost Aramean was my father" (Devarim 26:5), says the Torah, which the Rashbam understands as referring to Avraham Avinu.[7] Avraham set out on his journey as a lost Aramean from the house of Terach. Avraham's detachment from all the culture and tradition of his youth left him isolated, lost in the world, without a place and without a home. Nonetheless, he never despaired of searching for his way and his belief.


            According to this, the call to Avraham of "Lekh lekha," is interpreted as a Divine imperative. A person must be ready to pay the price of seclusion that is at times demanded of him in the framework of his drawing near to God. He must sever himself from the norms, from the way of life, from the organic environment in which he grew up, and totally disregard his critics and those who refer to him as strange and anomalous. We seem to be dealing with a fundamental model that must be followed by anyone who wishes to enter into Divine service. As R. Nachman states:


"Avraham was one man" (Yechezkel 33:24). Avraham served God solely by way of being one. For he thought to himself that he was the only person in the world, not at all looking at the people of the world, who had turned from God and impede him, nor at his father and the rest of those who impede him; just as if he were the only person in the world. This is "Avraham was one." And similarly, anyone who wishes to enter into the service of God can only enter by way of this aspect that he should think that there is nobody in the world except for him alone. He should not look at any person who impedes him, like his father and mother, or his father-in-law, and wife and children, or the like. [Nor should he look at] the impediments coming from other people, those who mock and lead astray and prevent him from His service, may He be blessed. He must not consider or look at them at all. He should only be the aspect of "And Avraham was one" – as if he were the only person in the world, as explained above. (Introduction to Likutei Moharan Tanina)


            As we saw earlier, here too the message is expanded far beyond the specific situation of Avraham, for how many of those seeking to enter Divine service come from idol-worshiping homes? Rather, R. Nachman wishes to prepare the way and strengthen the hands of anyone who wishes to follow a new path that brings him closer to God, and in the context of this journey, must stand up to the opposition of those around him. This is true regarding converts who wish to join the Jewish people and are compelled to abandon their religion and sometimes even to slam the door behind them. It is true regarding those who wish to rejoin the community of the faithful, those who observe Torah and mitzvot, and are forced to leave their secular homes. It is true regarding those who wish to leave the world of the mitnagedim and adopt Chassidut – a situation faced by many Chassidic leaders, who were forced to help their new followers defend themselves against the many attacks that they suffered, at times at the hands of their families and communities. And in general, it is true regarding anyone who wishes to be innovative with respect to religious matters, and whose inventive and sometimes even irregular character raises eyebrows.


"Avraham was one in his world," but this did not deter him from proceeding along his own path, even though this journey made him appear strange and peculiar in the eyes of the entire world. Any person wishing to set out on a spiritual quest must cast off the looks and the many obstacles that society and the environment put in his way because of their lack of readiness to accept change and innovation.[8]


Avraham Avinu is the model and symbol of the ability to stand up to society, remain undeterred, and fear no man. This is the way Avraham, according to the Sages, stood up to his father, to society, and even to its leader – King Nimrod.


Sometimes this ability can lead to a situation of isolation. A person frees himself from the chains of society, but he remains alone. This solitude impacts upon a person's ability to develop the capacity to listen to himself and remain faithful to his roots.


This is what God, may He be blessed, said to Avraham, hinting to every man in the world, Lekh lekha. He exhorts a person to go to himself, for a person's essence, that which is called "the I," is but the soul…. Similarly when people talk to a person in the second person and say "you" (ata) or "to you" (lekha), the primary intention is the soul which is a person's essence, as is known. This is what the Torah admonishes a person, Lekh lekha, go to yourself, that is, to the source of your soul. In all of your going and traveling and all the roads you take in this world, have in mind to go to yourself, that is, to the source of your soul, this being the essence of the person being talked to, as explained above. (Likutei Halakhot[9], Shabbat 7) 


            R. Natan, like many Chassidic thinkers, wishes to deepen the meaning of the expression "Lekh lekha." "Lekha," according to these thinkers, means "to yourself." Avraham is asked to abandon everything in order to go and search out his roots, his essence. Avraham is forced to sever himself from his environment in order to find his unique, inner essence. From the moment that a person is ready to cut himself off from the surrounding community and waive his sense of belonging, he turns inward and is ready to listen to himself and expose his inner being.


            According to Chassidut, every individual is asked to be himself, to return to himself, to listen to himself.  Sometimes this listening necessitates isolation, or at least seclusion. When the noise of society is removed even for a short moment, a person can turn his ears to his own desires, wishes and aspirations.


Listening to the Voice of God


            We have noted that God's turning to Avraham lacks an introduction explaining why He chose Avraham. The Ramban raises the following objection:


Now this portion of Scripture is not completely elucidated. What reason was there that the Holy One, blessed be He, should say to Avraham, "Leave your country, and I will do you good in a completely unprecedented measure," without first stating that Avraham worshipped God or that he was a righteous man, [and] perfect? Or it should state as a reason for his leaving the country that the very journey to another land constituted an act of seeking the nearness of God. The custom of Scripture is to state: "Walk before Me, and hearken to My voice, and I will do good unto you," as is the case with David and Solomon, as well as throughout the Torah: "If you walk in My statutes" (Vayikra 26:3); "And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord your God" (Devarim 28:1). And in the case of Yitzchak, it says: "For My servant Avraham's sake" (Bereishit 26:24). But there is no reason for God to promise [Avraham a reward merely] for his leaving the country. (Ramban, Commentary to Bereishit 12:2)


            The Ramban asks what are Avraham's praises that justify God's appeal to and selection of him, for the Torah does not say about him, as it says about Noach, that he was a righteous man, or the like.


            The Sefat Emet offers the following answer:


The Ramban raised the objection that it says, "Go you," without previously mentioning [the reason for God's] affection. According to the holy Zohar, this itself is [Avraham's] praise that he heard the statement "Go you," uttered by God to all people at all times. As it is written: "Woe to those who sleep in their caves." Yet Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace, heard and obeyed. And because of this [God's] utterance is called after him alone, for nobody else but him heard it. This itself is certainly [his] praise, that he was ready to hear [God's] utterance. (Sefat Emet[10], Lekh Lekha, 5632)


            According to the Sefat Emet, God's call to man echoes throughout the world. The greatness of those who draw near to God lies not in His turning to them, but in their ability to hear, to listen and thus to reveal that Godliness.


            We may learn about Avraham's capacity to hear and thus to reveal the Divinity echoing in the world from the midrashim that come to fill the void in the biblical account that was difficult for the Ramban:


"The Lord said to Avram, Go you out of your country, etc." Rav Yitzchak commenced his discourse with: "Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear; forget also your own people, and your father's house" (Tehilim 45:11). Said Rav Yitzchak: This may be compared to a man who was travelling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. "Is it possible that the palace lacks a person to look after it?" he wondered. The owner of the building looked out and said: "I am the owner of the building." Similarly, because Avraham Avinu said: "Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?" the Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him: "I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe." (Bereishit Rabba 39)


            To this midrash we may add what the Sages say about Avraham, that when he was three years old, he looked up to the sky and saw the sun shining upon the world and providing sustenance for all. This led him to the conclusion that the sun is the master of the world, and he bowed down to it. Towards evening, Avraham saw the sun setting, and in its place shone the moon and the stars. From this Avraham concluded that if the sun relinquishes its place because of the moon and the stars, then surely they must be the masters of the world, and he bowed down to them. When the morning dawned, he was once again surprised to discover that his new masters – the moon and the stars – gave up their place for the sun that had already been pushed aside from rule. Avraham inferred from this that neither the sun nor the moon and the stars are the masters of the world; they are merely servants, over whom stands the true Master who causes the sun to rise in the morning and to set in the evening.


            Avraham Avinu reflected upon the nature of creation and felt that a guiding hand stands behind it. Nature hides the voice of God that renews the work of creation every day, constantly. The regularity of the laws of nature and the ability to foresee how nature will operate are liable to cast a heavy shadow upon God's ten utterances and His word that stand eternally in Heaven. As the holy Zohar states, this regularity puts man to sleep, and so God's call does not find a receptive ear.


            The burning palace constitutes recognition that "someone is home" and that we are not dealing with a world that is dark and dead. Avraham's greatness, according to these midrashim, lay in his ability to reflect upon nature and its laws and sense that something is missing. The capacity to understand that behind the natural order of the universe there must be a guiding and directing hand, one that operates in the framework of the natural order as well as outside of it.


Also in the Midrash: "He saw a building in flames, [and] began to ask: 'Is it possible that the palace lacks a person to look after it?' The owner of the building looked out, etc." This means that when Avraham began to reflect upon the changes that occurred in the world in the generation of the flood and in the generation of the dispersion, he stirred his heart to understand who created them. The Holy One, blessed be He, answered: The portion of Ya'akov is not like them. For it is the way of the nations of the world that when they see a change in the running [of the world], then they begin to repent from their ways, and want to understand. But when the world runs according to the natural order, then nobody pays any attention to understand. For they do not believe about God, may He be blessed, that the natural order is in His hand at every moment, and that without Him there would be nothing. But the portion of Ya'akov is not like them, for He is the creator of everything. That is to say, Israel believes that were it not for the fact that God, may He be blessed, bears the world, it would not exist for a moment. Thus, when Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace, wished to apprehend his Creator by way of changes in nature, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Go you, that is, [go] to the portion of Ya'akov; recognize the greatness of God, may He be blessed, even through the natural order. (Mei ha-Shilo'ach,[11] Lekh Lekha)



            The Ishbitzer, author of the Mei Shilo'ach, offers a different interpretation of the "burning palace." According to him, the burning palace symbolizes the miraculous manner in which God governs the world as reflected in the generations of the flood and the dispersion that preceded Avraham. Avraham heard the voice of God reverberating not in the world's order, but in the miraculous way in which He governs it, and this brought him to recognize God in the manner of a non-Jew.


            God's answer to Avraham was "Go you… to the land that I will show you." There you will learn that God governs the world not only by way of miracles, but also through nature.[12] The virtue that we attributed to Avraham as a precondition for God's command, was given to him, according to the Ishbitzer, only after he responded to that command.


The Sefat Emet talks about listening to the inner voice that reverberates at all times throughout the world. In contrast to the Ishbitzer, the Sefat Emet seems to sharpen Avraham's contemplation of the natural world in which the constant call of Lekh lekha is concealed. So too in the following passage:


And in the Midrash: "He saw a building in flames, etc." I heard from my grandfather, my revered teacher, of blessed memory: The word doleket, "in flames," is like dalakta (Bereishit 31:36), "you have hotly pursued." He saw the entire world drawn to one point, etc. And thus in the holy Zohar, as stated above, that his entire existence, renunciation, and conjunction to what is above so that everything comes to the true point comes from God, may He be blessed, who gives life to all. (Sefat Emet, Lekh Lekha 5632)


Everything is drawn to and strives for that inner point. Avraham Avinu looks out upon the natural world and sees how it constantly moves upwards, how it pursues its source without interruption, how it is driven by its inner call of Lekh lekha. And this call, argues the Sefat Emet, was heard loudly by Avraham Avinu. The very moment that he heard the call, it turned into a call that had been directed at him.


Both the Ishbitzer and the Sefat Emet aim for the place where a person hears the call of Lekh lekha in the natural world. Whereas for the Sefat Emet the capacity to hear the call causes God to turn to that person – it was through that capacity to hear that Avraham merited God's calling out to him: Lekh lekha – for the Ishbetzer it is a consequence of that appeal. From the moment that Avraham heard the call and followed it, he merited the capacity that is characteristic of "the portion of Ya'akov" to hear and see how God reveals Himself in the natural world.


Once again we seem to be dealing with something that is meant to serve us as a model and archetype. Sometimes we are inclined to see God's deeds and be impressed by them only when we see "changes," as the Ishbitzer puts it, when the world veers from its natural order, when something happens that cannot be attributed to the natural and orderly framework operating in the world. Both the Ishbitzer and the Sefat Emet, each in his own way, direct a person to deeper attentiveness, one that allows him to wake up in the morning and see the sun shining, to go to sleep when it sets, and to feel God's revelation and actions. To see each and every movement in the world, every situation, every change, and feel that they are all part of the harmonic song of God's turning to man with the Divine command of Lekh lekha.


The world is not neutral, nor is it alien to man. It turns to him each and every moment, inviting him to go on, to advance and to search. Avraham Avinu was attentive to this call, whether in the presence of changing circumstances, or in the presence of routine reality. In the end it is this attentiveness that brought Avraham to go.


"To the land that I will show you" – Surrender


            The biblical commentaries deal with the question why didn't God reveal to Avraham the destination of his journey?[13]


            When we reflect upon the plain meaning of the biblical passage, it seems that even after Avraham entered the land of Canaan, he was still unaware that he had reached his destination. Let us consider the verses:


And Avram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had acquired in Charan: and they went forth to go to the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came. And Avram passed through the land to the place of Shekhem unto the terebinth of More. And the Canaanite was then in the land. (Bereishit 12:5-6)


Avraham arrives in the land and heads southward along "the patriarchal highway."  The term used by Scripture is vaya'avor, "and he passed." This is the only time that Scripture uses this term to describe Avraham's journeys. From now on we find "And he journeyed" (vayasa), "and he went down" (vayered), "and he went up" (vaya'al), "and he camped" (vaye'ehal), "and he went" (vayelekh), and the like.


The term vaya'avor seems to be instructive regarding Avraham's intentions – to pass through the land. Avraham had entered the land of Cana'an, having no idea that this was the land about which God had spoken. Thus, he plans to continue his journey and pass through the land until God tells him to stop. And indeed when he reaches Shekhem, God stops him, and reveals to him as follows:


And the Lord appeared to Avram, and said: To your seed will I give this land; and there he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. (verse 7)


Avraham was headed towards an undetermined destination. It was a journey into the unknown. He goes and goes, hoping for the moment that God would tell him to stop.


Why this way? Why didn't God reveal the destination? Why did Avraham have to proceed with such uncertainty?


Rashi and the Midrash [ask]: "Why did He not immediately reveal, etc." It is obvious that this itself is the aspect of Eretz Israel – to renounce all feelings and desires, [to devote oneself] entirely to the will of God, may He be blessed, as it is written: "Go you out of your country, etc." That is, to cast off all external adhesions in order to see the will [of God], may He be blessed, and then His will is revealed to the person. The rule is that a person's desire should always be only to hear and receive… This is "Hearken, O daughter, and consider" (Tehilim 45:11), that a person should always be in the state of seeing, looking and listening, to receive what is beyond his comprehension by way of renouncing his mind and knowledge. (Sefat Emet, Lekh Lekha 5632)


The Sefat Emet describes the psychological state that is necessary for a journey of this sort: "to renounce all feelings and desires… to cast off all external adhesions in order to see the will of God, may He be blessed."


This is the basic state that must accompany a person who sets out for days without knowing where he is headed and how long he will on the road, hoping that he will hear the word of God. Avraham, answering the challenge that God had set before him, succeeds in total self-effacement and being totally in the position of "only to hear and receive."


The Sefat Emet understands that in our daily lives we seek control. We have a need to feel that we are holding the reins. The older we get the less we are prepared to go as sheep after the shepherd. We wish to plan, to organize ourselves accordingly, to set goals and strive to achieve them. "To the land that I will show you" demands of Avraham that he overcome this instinct. A person is generally prepared to make concessions in life, but he wants to know for what he is making those concessions and where he is headed. Not so Avraham! Avraham is asked to give up, to abandon everything, to destroy his life's project, without being presented with anything in exchange – only to obey God's command. This is total renunciation that fashions in Avraham a position of Divine service that involves constant expectation to hear the voice of God and unceasing preparedness to waive everything for the sake of His will.


The matter is presented differently in the following passage:


"To the land that I will show you." The rule is that when a person is in doubt whether or not to do something, he should think whether he has clarity of mind, in which case he should do it. This is [the meaning of] "that I will show you," in the sense of clarity of mind. (Kedushat ha-Levi,[14] Lekh Lekha)


            R. Levi Yitzchak wishes to examine the aforementioned situation from Avraham's human perspective. For this purpose he tries to ignore, or perhaps more correctly put, "to convert" the explicit revelation in the form of vision and speech into an inner experience of clarity and brightness.


Avraham goes on his way, looking all around and asking himself: Is this the land? Is this my place? Is it here that I must stake my tent? And he receives no answer!


How will Avraham decide? What tools should he use? How will he know whether or not he was right in his decision?


R. Levi Yitzchak proposes an amazing yardstick: Clarity of mind. According to him, this is the meaning of "that I will show you." There exists an inner sense, an intuition, a voice coming from the innermost parts of the soul that directs a person and provides him with clearness of mind.


R. Levi Yitzchak teaches us that when a person must come to a decision, he should examine which of the alternatives offers him clarity, when does the fog clear and the person sense that the picture is clearing up. It seems that R. Levi Yitzchak's novel contribution is not his offering of a tool, for clarity of mind is a gift that we all merit and value. His great novelty is his identification of that clarity with "that I will show you." The conversion, about which we spoke above, of an external revelation by way of speech and vision, as described in the verses, into an inner voice and psychological state, may on the one hand weaken God's word to Avraham in Shekhem that this is the land that He had promised to show him, but on the other hand it immeasurably intensifies the psychological state and inner experience about which R. Levi Yitzchak spoke, granting it Divine authority.


Clarity of mind and inner awareness, to use the wording of Rav Kook, are not merely psychological phenomena. We are talking about a moment during which the voice of God reverberates in a person, drawing him near and providing him with direction – "that I will show you." Who shows us by way of that clarity and by way of that recognition the land towards which we are asked to go? It is God. The "that I will show you" may perhaps have come to Avraham by way of revelation and the spoken word that provided him with clarity and awareness. But the voice of God comes to each one of us in a different manner, the end of which is also clarity and inner awareness.


Both the Sefat Emet and the Kedushat ha-Levi demand of us and propose before us a psychological state of attentiveness. In the case of the Sefat Emet we are dealing with total self-effacement, that allows a person to turn outwards and wait for the various ways by which God's will becomes revealed and guides man. This can be the Torah, Halakha, a rabbi, or any other guidance that directs man to the Divine will.


The Kedushat ha-Levi turns us inwards to ourselves, this too in the framework of seeking out the voice of God. We are dealing with the attempt to reach the clarity, purity of thought and inner awareness that beats within us.


In the end, Avraham teaches us the path to the promised land.


It begins with the readiness to renounce, to leave, and stand alone before the entire world – in your solitude, with yourself.


It continues with listening to the call echoing through the world to go, to move, and to search, a call that appears in miracles and in nature.


And it ends with a person's readiness to surrender himself to God's direction which promises him that if he loosens the reins for a moment and is prepared for "Draw me, we will run after You" (Shir ha-Shirim 1:4) - he will merit personal salvation: "To your seed will I give this land"!




[1] Each time we encounter a new thinker, we will provide basic biographical information about him. When no such information is provided, it means that we already encountered him in an earlier lecture.

            R. Elimelekh of Lyzhansk (1717-1787), disciple of Dov Baer the maggid of Mezhirech (distinguished disciple of the Ba'al Shem Tov), and main disseminator of Chassidut in Galicia and Poland. He is famous for kvitlach and for prayer before prayer. His books include: Tzetel Katan, No'am Elimelekh, and Or Elimelekh.


[2] R. Yehuda ha-Levi had tried to integrate Avraham Avinu into the long chain of bearers of the "Divine essence" that began with Adam. He reconciled the inclusion of Terach, Nachor and others in this chain with the help of the idea of kernel and shell and the idea of potential "Divine essence" that does not come to expression. Thus, even an evil person can be a "carrier" of that kernel. R. Elimelekh, however, and, as we shall see below, others as well, emphasizes the novelty and originality in Avraham's drawing near to God on his own, and without the help of tradition. This becomes especially clear in light of the command received by Avraham to leave his country, his kindred, and the house of his father, as we shall see below.


[3] R. Elimelekh belongs to the third generation to the Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of Chassidut. It was during his time that Chassidut divided into many branches. This statement of R. Elimelekh may be understood as a warning regarding the degeneration of Chassidut as a result of its turning into a tradition void of novelty and innovation. (At a later date, R. Nachman of Breslov openly criticized this phenomenon.)


[4] R. Nachman of Breslov (1772-1811), great-grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov (through his daughter Edel and his granddaughter Feige), founder of Chassidut Breslov.


[5] It would be a mistake to view R. Nachman, in light of what is stated here, as a pluralist regarding beliefs and opinions. Anyone familiar with R. Nachman's attitude to all sorts of views and beliefs, even those coming from within the Torah world, knows that R. Nachman is one of the last people who can be called a "pluralist." R. Nachman encourages novelty and creativity, but this does not diminish the value of criticism, of oneself and of others. Criticism, however, must always relate to the substance of the matter, and not to the fact that a certain idea is novel and untraditional, for according to R. Nachman, novelty is not only not a fault, but even a virtue. In any event, we are dealing with an exceedingly daring position, which in and of itself can explain the controversy that erupted around R. Nachman.  


[6] R. Ya'akov Yosef of Polonneye (d. 1784), one of the most important disciples of the Ba'al Shem Tov, who had great regard for his student. His books include: Toledot Ya'akov Yosef, Ben Porat Yosef, Tzofnat Pa'ane'ach, Ketonet Pasim.


[7] Chazal, in the midrashim that we read in the Pesach Haggada, understood that the passage refers to Ya'akov, primarily on account of the words, "and he went down to Egypt," from which it follows that the Aramean is Lavan who sought to destroy (oved) my father (avi), i.e., Ya'akov. This interpretation is very problematic, for the term "oved" appears to describe the state of the Aramean, rather than the action performed by him. Moreover, why should Lavan be mentioned in the historical overview that a person recites when he brings his first-fruits? Therefore, the Rashbam proposed that the Aramean is Avraham, who was "lost" (oved) at the outset of his spiritual journey. "And he went down to Egypt" can be understood as a description of the later history of the seed of "my father," Avraham. It is fitting that the historical overview should open with Avraham, founder of the Jewish nation.


[8] R. Nachman himself personally experienced society's opposition to innovation. He writes as follows: "How would it be possible for them not to disagree with me, since I follow a new path, that no man has ever taken…. Even though it is a very old path, nevertheless it is entirely new" (Chayyei Moharan 392).


[9] R. Natan Sternharz of Neirov (1780-1845), distinguished disciple and scribe of R. Natan. Author of Likutei Halakhot, Kitzur Likutei Moharan, Likutei Tefilot, Likutei Etzot, Shemot ha-Tzadikim, Yemei Moharanach, Alim li-Terufa.


[10] R. Yehuda Arye Leib of Gur (1847-1905), grandson of R. Yitzchak Meir Alter, author of Chiddushei ha-Rim (took over the leadership from R. Chanokh Henikh of Alexander, because R. Yehuda Arye Leib's father, son of R. Yitzchak Meir Alter, had died during the latter's lifetime. His work: Sefat Emet.


[11] R. Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica (1801-1854), disciple of R. Simcha Bunim of Przysucha, regarded as the brightest member of R. Simcha Bunim's circle. He became a follower of R. Simcha, together with the Kotzker Rebbi. His descendants founded Chassidut Radzyn. His work: Mei ha-Shilo'ach.


[12] It is interesting to note that in later history as well, going to Eretz Israel marked the transition from miraculous governance to natural governance. This was true in the transition from the generation of the wilderness, who ate of the heavenly manna, to the generation of the conquest, who were required to plow, sow, and reap, in order to eat of their own produce, given to them in a natural framework. They had to recognize, however, that it was not their power and the might of their hands that got them that wealth, "for by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord does man live" "and you shall eat, and be satiated, and bless."


[13] Avraham Avinu knew that the land of Cana'an had been the destination of his father, Terach, as is stated at the end of Parashat Noach.


[14] R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchov (1740-1810), disciple of the maggid of Mezhirech (distinguished disciple of the Ba'al Shem Tov), and also disciple of R. Shmuel Shmelke of Nicholsburg, who was himself a disciple of the maggid. R. Levi Yitzchak is known for his love for the Jewish people and his pleading of their cause. His book: Kedushat Levi.


(Translated by David Strauss)