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Parashat 11/02/11

Parashat Lech L’cha

Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

And he [Avraham] went on his journeys from the Negev to Bet-El, to the place where his tent had been at first, between Bet-El and Ai. (13:3)

Rashi: When he returned from Egypt to the land of Canaan he stayed at the same lodgings he had stayed in when he went down to Egypt.  This teaches proper behavior, that one should not change his lodgings (Arachin 16b).  Another interpretation: On his return he paid off the credit the innkeepers had extended to him (Bereishit Rabbah 41:3)

Rashi is apparently troubled by the locution “his journeys,” and following the Sages of the Talmud and Midrash interprets it to mean “the journeys he had already undertaken previously.”  The Midrash elsewhere indicates that his whole sojourn in Egypt and Sarah’s captivity there in the house of Pharaoh took place over the course of 3 months, so the journeys (and the outstanding bills) were quite recent.  What was different was that Abraham had acquired a substantial amount of material goods: flocks and herds, donkeys and menservants and maidservants, and female donkeys and camels (12:16) as well as gold and silver.  Nonetheless, even though he had presumably stayed in modest lodgings (befitting his modest resources) on the way down to Egypt, he stayed at the same modest inns on the way back.


All this begs the question, why does the Torah bother to hint at a rather ordinary point of etiquette, leaving it to the great Rabbis to figure out the hint?!  In fact, I think it is the Midrash itself that requires explanation; it is a given that the Rabbis cloaked profound truths in a rough outer garb, so as to transmit their teachings to those who can understand them, while the rest of us can enjoy the stories.


There is a famous principle at work in all the Parshiot dealing with the lives of the Patriarchs (all of the Book of Bereishit beginning with our Parashah) – ma’aseh avot siman labanim / The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants.  Thus, for example, Abraham’s descent from Egypt, Sarah’s capture there by Pharaoh, her eventual release and their being told to leave Egypt, is the story in microcosm of the nation of Israel’s sojourn, enslavement and redemption from Egypt, and its return to the Land of Israel, a process that takes up the rest of the Torah after the Book of Bereishit.


We have discussed on a number of occasions that the entire saga of Israel’s descent to Egypt and its redemption and return to the Holy Land is paradigmatic of the process of creation and evolution, and of the human condition within that story.  If that is the case, we should be able to see the same process in the story of Abraham’s journey.  In fact, I believe that we can.


Here is the outline of the story.  Gd tells Avraham to leave his life in Charan behind and set off for an as-yet undisclosed location.  Avraham heads to the Land of Canaan with Sarah, his wife, and Lot, his nephew.  This turns out to be the correct choice, but shortly after arriving, there is a famine in the land, and they are forced to head down to Egypt.  Avraham, rightly fearing for their safety if Sarah is identified as his wife, asks her to say she is his sister (which is the truth, just not the whole truth).  She does and is forcibly taken into Pharaoh’s harem.  Gd strikes Pharaoh with a skin affliction that prevents him from being intimate with Sarah.  He releases Sarah, loads them down with goods and sends them on their way.  On the way back to the Land of Canaan they stay at the same caravansarai as they had stayed at on the way down.  What does this story tell us?


The Land of Israel is called the Holy Land for good reason; according to our tradition the earth was created beginning there, and it is so to speak the connection point between earth and heaven.  Anyone who has ever visited Israel can testify that the “air of the Holy Land makes a person wise.”  Thus Avraham, starting out from the Land of Israel, is, as it were, starting from the transcendent source of creation; he is re-enacting the moment of bereishit, the beginning.  Now, however, there is a famine in the Land.  Famine means lack – lack of food, lack of pasture, lack of rain.  Although the transcendent is full, in the sense that it is infinite and unbounded, it is, as it were, lacking in anything specific – there are no boundaries in the infinite, and therefore there is no structure and no relationship between parts.


Avraham’s response to this lack is to go down to Egypt.  In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, related to the word for narrowness, boundaries.  While this descent is necessary, it is not pleasant – in fact it is dangerous.  The danger is that the soul, which in its essential nature is infinite, and therefore infinitely subtle, will get overshadowed by the gross materiality of the surface levels of creation.  This is what happens in Egypt; Sarah, who as the woman of the household represents and embodies the inner value of life, is taken into Pharaoh’s harem for licentious purposes.  Pharaoh and his country were, according to the Sages, the most immoral people in the ancient world – that is, they most embodied the negative values of manifest creation.  So we can perhaps read Sarah’s abduction in these terms: As the unmanifest, infinite basis of life manifests into the diversified creation, the surface values, being perceptible on the gross level, tend to overshadow and imprison the infinite, deep value, threatening to defile it.


At this point the danger is averted – Gd strikes Pharaoh with a plague, identified in the Midrash as a skin disease that prevented him from being intimate with Sarah.  One’s skin is the outermost layer of one’s personality; perhaps our Sages are telling us that it is impossible to relate to the infinite using only the surface value of life – in order to know and experience our infinite basis we must turn inward to where it resides.  The entire incident of Sarah’s abduction then is a parable for the outermost movement of the infinite into the finite, its being overshadowed by the finite almost to the point of total eclipse, and the retreat of the finite from total annihilation of the infinite.


Now, with the relationship between infinite and finite put back on a healthier footing (Pharaoh releases Sarah and is healed), Pharaoh loads Avraham and Sarah down with gifts and sends them back to the Land of Israel.  The gifts are animals, including animals to ride on, and servants.  Now, instead of finitude being on top, the infinite, as represented by Avraham and Sarah are on top.  They now are giving the marching orders – the finite is there to serve the infinite, to provide a vehicle for the infinite to express itself.  Now they are heading back to their proper home, taking along material, surface values which will be uplifted and infused with the inner spiritual value of Eretz Yisrael.


 Now we are told that on the way back home, Avraham stayed at the same places he stayed on the way to Egypt.  Apparently it is important for our spiritual growth that the expansion of our personality from finitude to infinity should follow the same pathways that infinity took when it contracted to give rise to our finite individuality.  Why is this the case?  Perhaps the answer is in Rashi’s second interpretation – we have “debts” to pay at each level.  In some way the process of contraction leaves impressions, scars as it were, that need to be resolved.  The process of expansion gives us a more holistic perspective with which to view these impressions, allowing us to resolve them in some way.  With our debts cleared – old stresses cleared out, we can return to our transcendent source; Avraham and Sarah can return to the Land, to the place where they had originally encamped.  Avraham builds an altar and calls on the Name of H” – he celebrates his successful return to his own unbounded nature.


Ma’aseh Avot siman labanim.  We must always bear in mind that the glorious lives of the Patriarchs are not only archetypes of universal themes, echoes of the deepest layers of creation.  They are also living examples of what heights an individual human being can reach.  That means that each and every one of us can, and must, strive to emulate their behavior and their thought to the best of our abilities.  We are all “children of the Almighty.”  We all have infinity within us.  We only need to begin actualizing it.