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Parashat Lech L’cha 5780 — 11/09/2019

Bereishit 12:1-17:27

The king of Sodom went out toward him after his return from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings that were with him, to the Valley of Shaveh [RAR: “evenness”], which is the king’s valley. But Malki-tzedek [RAR: “Righteous king”], king of Shaleim [RAR: “Wholeness” = Jerusalem] brought out bread and wine, and he was a Kohen of Gd the Most High (14:16-18).
Or haChaim: We can also explain what Torah means here based on the statement of [our Sages], of blessed memory (Bereshit Rabbah, 95:3): our forefather Avraham fulfilled the entire Torah, even Rabbinic enactments like eruv tavshilin, which were enacted by the Sages at later times.

Based on this principle, Or haChaim gives an extensive halachic analysis of the actions of all the participants, and arrives at a picture of the interaction that is very far from the storybook “Good Guys/Bad Guys” interpretation one usually finds in an analysis of this passage. He gives credence and respect to the arguments of the King of Sodom, as if he were a legitimate litigant against Avraham, rather than simply a one-dimensional, reprobate dictator. Apparently, Avraham wasn’t the only one who was following Torah – even the King of Sodom was!

We are told further that all the Patriarchs followed the entire Torah, despite the fact that the Torah text records some fairly flagrant violations (e.g. Ya’akov’s marrying two sisters, see Vayikra / Leviticus 18:18). There are many places where the commentators explain an abstruse passage somewhere in Tanach as being a discussion of halachic fine points, the result of which is the subsequent action. What does it mean to say that somebody followed Torah before it was given, and what practical teaching can we derive from it?

The Torah begins with 10 utterances of Gd’s, utterances that create and form all of creation. We saw, two weeks ago, that the Or haChaim takes the position that all of creation took place in the very first utterance, and was only elaborated and set in order by the other utterances. We asked then, “to whom was Gd speaking?” and we answered that the only possible answer is, “to Himself.” Thus, just as Gd begins to speak, a kind of virtual duality (Speaker-Listener) is established within Gd’s Unity. Now that there is this virtual duality, a relationship, a conversation can ensue. Torah, our Sages tell us, is a record of Moshe Rabbeinu’s eavesdropping on this conversation.

Since all creation, which means all of nature, comes out of Gd’s Self-referential conversation, all the laws of nature must be contained in that conversation. This is as we would expect – Torah contains Gd’s prescription for how we are to live our lives. If one could “listen in” on this ongoing conversation at all times and in all situations, one’s would know, intuitively, what is the right course of action – the course of action most in tune with nature’s law – at all times. In fact, in a comment on Or haChaim’s commentary to Gen 18:1 (in next week’s parashat Vayeira), Artscroll says (note 17): Although the concern mentioned here is obviously not applicable to Hashem, nevertheless we often find that Hashem conducts Himself in line with halachic norms. In other words, Gd acts in accord with His Will as spelled out in the halachah!

Now we believe that “there never was a prophet like Moshe,” who gave us the Torah, both Written and Oral. Nonetheless, there were other prophets, both before and after Moshe, who were able to “listen in” to the laws of nature, perhaps not as clearly as Moshe Rabbeinu, but to a significant extent. Among these prophets were Malki-Tzedek, the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, and perhaps others. Those prophets who lived before Moshe Rabbeinu were, of course, cognizing the exact same Torah as Moshe later brought down for us, because the Torah is unified, and, since it is the “blueprint of creation,” it is eternal, transcendental to time and space.

This, I think, is the mechanism by which Avraham was able to keep “all the Torah.” His level of cognition (or, Midrashically, his ability to listen in on Gd’s conversation with himself) was such that he was able to intuit, on the level of his own consciousness, what was right action. Thus, for example, Ya’akov was able to tell that it was OK for him to be married to both Leah and Rachel at the same time, something that we are not at liberty to do.

What has happened between the earlier generations and later ones? Clearly the level of consciousness, the level of intuition has dropped. This is called yeridat hadorot – the (spiritual) descent of the generations. Torah could be intuited, cognized, at any time, because it is the eternal blueprint of creation. It is also the blueprint of the human being – we infer this from the fact that the creation is comprehensible. If our consciousness were not structured, on some level, in a way that is parallel to creation (microcosm = macrocosm) then it is hard to see how we could get our heads around creation and describe it (e.g. mathematically).

Unfortunately, it appears that it is not so easy to pass on the ability to cognize Torah, and perhaps not to develop the ability either. Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov may have had perfectly clear vision, but Ya’akov’s 12 sons were destroying cities, selling their brother into slavery and disturbing their father’s marital arrangements. As great as the tribal ancestors were, they didn’t come up to the level of their fathers. Moshe had perfectly clear vision, but his Torah had to be written down (and least a significant part of it) as the 5 books we have today. Torah had become, to some extent, ossified. This process of loss of intuition and need for halachah to be codified has continued to this day, as the generations become weaker and weaker. Moshe could tell his contemporaries that “It is not in heaven … it is in your heart and your mouth to do it,” but that statement hardly describes the practical situation today. We dearly need a revival of knowledge!


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Lech Lecha

Genesis 12-17:27

Audio-recording of Lech Lecha:

Genesis 17,1:
And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and Gd appeared to Abram, and He said to him, “I am the Almighty Gd; walk before Me and be perfect.”

Torah tells us that Noah walked with Gd, was righteous and perfect but Torah doesn’t tell us how this came about; with Abram we can see what he did after Gd’s command and we can draw some tips about how we may also walk before Gd and be perfect. The deepest activity is the literal meaning of the name of the Parshah: “Lech Lecha” means “Go to yourself.” To most, perhaps all, of our Beth Shalom Congregation, this means “Go to your Self”, your universal, unbounded, Self. This is the first step in acting so that we walk before Gd.

What does it mean to “walk before Gd”? The primary commentator on Torah is Rashi, and Rashi says it means “serve Me, cleave to My service.”

Whenever Abram was commanded by Gd, he did what Gd commanded. To Abram, Gd appeared in visions: Abram must have been very close to walking with Gd in order to trust such commands as to leave his home and to “go to a place which I will show you,” I personally don’t feel that confident that I can trust visions or voices and so I am left with cleaving to Gd’s service by doing the ordinary things that good people everywhere do: do my best to be healthy, happy and to share my happiness with others through work with organizations I respect so I can attune myself to Gd through service to people I feel are wiser, more experienced than I and to at least one who I feel does walk with Gd.

What did Abram do to be perfect? Prior to this command of Gd to leave his homeland, Abram had already come to the conclusion that all creation was made by One Creator, Gd, and he and Sarai spread the word and brought many to share this belief – and perhaps a taste of the experience.

Parshat Lech Lecha tells us that, after leaving his homeland to go to an unknown place, Abram continued to spread the word of monotheism and to build altars to Gd. From this we learn the very important message that we should share what we know, especially what we know by experience, and that Gd, as it says in Kaddish, is “beyond any words to describe” so simple acts of reverence, such as offering prayers, building altars, and temples for them to be in are ways to grow in our ability to walk before Gd and with Gd.

When a famine caused him and Sarai to leave Canaan and go to Egypt, Abram told Sarai to say that she was his sister, not his wife. He did this because he thought otherwise he would be killed.

Few of us are likely to be in such an extreme situation but we may take it that a lie to save our life, if we are otherwise innocent of any crime, is a way of serving Gd and being perfect.

In Egypt, Abram and his nephew, Lot, acquired many possessions, including cattle, and their herdsmen quarreled. Abram and Lot decided to separate. From this we can learn, that if we have no other way to create harmony, separation is a valid way to create harmony, which is the essence of serving Gd.

Lot moved to Sodom, an evil kingdom, and was captured when the city was captured: Abram took his trained men, though they were only few, and pursued the army holding Lot, defeated them and restored Lot’s possessions to him and four kingdoms, including Sodom, to their kings.. From this we learn, that we should be concerned with following right action as a way of serving Gd, not be afraid that our resources are too small: Gd protects those who serve Him.

Abram refused to accept any recompense from the King of Sodom for restoring his possessions to him. His reason: he did not want the King of Sodom to be able to claim he had made Abram rich. A traditional explanation of Abram’s reasoning is that he wanted it to be clear to everyone that any accomplishment of his was through Gd: it was not Abram who defeated the armies, it was Gd; it could not be through evil hands such as those of the King of Sodom that he would acquire possessions but only through the Hand of Gd. Certainly we can be kind to even those who are evil and refuse to accept any compensation from them: and certainly we can recognize that any accomplishments of ours are Gd’s Gift to us.

Abram is blessed by Malchizedek, who was a king but also a priest of the Most High – this means Malchizedek is not only a monotheist In belief but also in experience and enough experience of Gd to serve as a priest, and to be referred to more as a priest than as a king. We, too, can put One first and material possessions second so that we are protected by our sense of proportion and serve Gd first.

And we can read Torah, listen to Torah, read from the Siddur, attend services at the Synagogue, as ways to raise ourselves up to direct experience and to priestly service, whatever our actual roles are in life.

Abram tells Gd, when Gd says his reward for this action will be great: Of what use is this to me since I have no son to inherit? And Gd responds: you will have a son and be a mighty nation, more than the stars. From this we learn that service to Gd can include asking Gd to redress a situation we feel is amiss: we can pray for help, we can ask simply and Gd responds. To Abram, He responded clearly; to us, perhaps not so clearly but we need to be alert to the response.

Abram’s son, Ishmael, is born with Hagar, Sarai’s maidservant, and Isaac is born, with Sarah.

From this we learn that when we serve Gd, we raise ourselves up, and what Gd promises, Gd delivers. Trusting Gd is very important and when we are not able to experience Gd directly, trusting our Traditions, especially Torah, is very important.

Gd tells Abram to circumcise his son and that all males of the community shall be circumcised as a Covenant with Gd. From the Babylonian Talmud we learn that through circumcision Abram became sanctified. He became not merely a physical person fathering physical children but a spiritual person protecting Gd’s Spiritual Wisdom and spreading it in its purity.

We can treat circumcision not merely as something physical for males, but something everyone, males and females, can do: cut off anything that binds us only to the physical and thus rise to be spiritual: to walk before Gd and become perfect as Abram did, become Abraham, father not only of Isaac and Ishmael but of nations, and as Sarai did and became Sarah: princess not only of Abram but of all souls.

Baruch HaShem!