Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Walk Article

WHO WAS AVRAHAM? 

Lech Licha-5779 

Rabi David Walk 

 

Most of you know the story of Avraham breaking the statues in his father's idol emporium. Can't you just imagine the sign out front of the shop: Terach & Son, Idols for all Occasions. There's so much about that story we don't know. How old was Avraham? What errand did Terach run that fateful day? And, of course, is this Midrash an historical account or a parable? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, and you'll get no further enlightenment on those topics here. But wouldn't you like to know; wouldn't you love to have been a fly on the wall of the store that day? I remember telling my kids that I was never a child, so that I wouldn't have to tell them embarrassing stories about my youth. They, ultimately, wouldn't let me get away with it. Kids want to know about their folks. Kids have a right to know. We're Avraham's kids. Let's try to unravel the inscrutable. 

This week's Torah reading begins with God's first known communication to Avraham: Go forth from your land, your birthplace and 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 through you (Breishit 12:1-3). We're missing context. Did God appear out of a clear blue sky with these instructions? We don't know. At the end of last week's Torah reading Rashi records the famous Midrash about the local leader, Nimrod, attempting to execute Avraham for anti-idol incitement (11:28). So, maybe, it was literally too hot for Avraham to remain there. But the text gives us another hint. 

God says leave 'your land', 'your birthplace' and 'your father's home', without any clue as to where our hero should go. To me, that means the issue was a new start. For this son of an idol monger to become Avraham Avinu, he had to set out to new horizons. But where? 

Normative theory is that God would show him a sign (I like imagining what the sign would be, like: an arrow-shaped cloud, maybe a speaking sheep saying 'Stop heeere!', or perhaps a sign reading 'last Godliness before Egypt'.) along the road, and being in the dark was part of the test. But I'm not sure. Rabbi Soloveitchik averred that the new location was neither predestined nor important. The Rav explained, 'The spiritual moving away is the gist of the command...Abraham must forsake his past and transplant himself into a new historical dimension (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p.151).'  The Slonimer Rebbe suggested that the critical idea was in the word AREKA (I will show). The point wasn't that God would show him the land. The idea was 'the place that I will show you HASHGACHA PRATIT (Divine supervision), that this is the special, treasured aspect of Eretz Yisroel, that within it one would be an eyewitness to God's work (Netivot Shalom, Breishit, p. 71).' 

I like both of those opinions, but they're not in agreement. The Rebbe says that it had to be Eretz Yisroel; the Rav said the critical point was becoming a lonely wanderer (ARAMI OVED AVI). Eretz Yisrael became a treasured, sacred place because Avraham picked it, 'A soil is sanctified by historical deeds performed by a sacred people, never by any primordial superiority (Ibid., p. 150).' I know that it's controversial, but, personally, I prefer the Rav's approach. He actually apologizes for disagreeing with the bulk of Jewish tradition, especially the Kuzari. But this year when reading of Avraham's migration, this position resonates with me. The Sanctity of Eretz Yisrael is a joint project of God and Avraham, et al. This position really makes the choice to make Aliyah a recreation of Avraham's jurney. 

It's fascinating that the Rav writing in the 1960's, noted that Babylonia and Egypt in the third millennium BCE both erected walls to keep out refugees. 'The house-dweller hated and despised the nomad, the rover, the tent-dweller. Apparently, God preferred the latter, and chose the shepherd as confidant (Ibid., p.151).' 

But the Rav wasn't done commenting on the sand-trek of Avraham. When Avraham reaches the area around Shechem, where I did my IDF basic training (and I do mean basic), God tells him that this land will belong to his progeny, and he builds an altar (Breishit 12:7). In the next verse, he travels to the area east of Beit El around Ai, where my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren live, and he builds another altar. The Rav comments that we don't know what he offered on these altars. In the books of Vayikra and Bamidbar, the emphasis is on what we offer, not the edifice. What happened at these modest structures? 

'The MIZBE'ACH (altar) of the Patriarchs symbolized submission, their own surrender. Because the highest sacrifice is not when you offer an animal...The highest sacrifice is when man offers himself. What do I mean by 'offers himself'?...Whom did he sacrifice? His own independence, his own pride, his own comfort, his own desires, his own reasons. He believed. If one believes, it is an act of surrender, sacrifice, VAYIVEN SHAM MIZBE'ACH L'HASHEM ('building there an altar to God', The Rav Thinking Aloud, Breishit, p. 118).'   

      Many readers assume that this week's parsha is about Eretz Yisrael. That's fine. I love Eretz Yisrael, my home. But a truer reading leads us to the conclusion that we're really being informed about our Alter Zeidie. Not how he looked or spent his spare time, but who he was. An unsophisticated observer might believe he was wandering and lost. Not true. He was looking for himself, and God was his co-pilot. He wasn't meandering aimlessly. It was a search, a quest. And we must follow his example, on our own journey of discovery. Bon Voyage!   


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