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Parashat Lech L’cha 5774 — 10/09/2013

Parashat Lech L’cha 5774 — 10/09/2013

Avraham took [his household] … and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. (Bereishis 12:5)

Because Avraham Avinu. was determined to go to the land of Canaan, he reached the land of Canaan. In contrast, we find that Terach set out, but never made it there: [He] set out with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to Charan and dwelt there (Bereishis 11:31). These verses teach us to follow the example of Avraham Avinu. If we resolve to go to the land of Canaan [or to reach some other important goal], we must not change direction or stop and remain someplace midway there!  (Chafetz Chaim)

I was surprised to find that, despite the fact that our Parashah is chock-full of important incidents, including the commandment of brit milah (circumcision), very few of the Chafetz Chaim’s comments are recorded.  Whether this is because he mostly explained the classical commentaries, or his comments were on too high a level for mass dissemination, I have no idea.

Our Sages tell us that we should learn from even the mundane conversation of great people (Avodah Zarah 19b).  The above comment of the Chafetz Chaim’s seems innocuous enough; if one wants to succeed at accomplishing a task, one must take care not to get deflected from one’s goal.  I think we can find a very profound message hiding behind this idea.

As we have discussed in the past, the stories of the Patriarchs are descriptions of archetypal dynamics of creation.  If Gd tells Avraham to leave his birthplace and go to an unspecified destination, the story of that trip will be an archetype of at least some aspect of our journey through life.  In our case, Avraham is told by Gd to “Go for yourself” (lech l’cha) to the Land that Gd will show him.  Rashi comments that this means that Avraham is to go for his own benefit, including, inter alia, that he and Sarah would finally be able to have children.  Furthermore, Gd promises to make of Avraham a great nation, and that all the peoples of the world will be blessed through him.  In other words, by leaving the environment in which he was taken by his father (Terach) and finishing his father’s journey, Avraham will reach a state of expansion and fulfillment.  The implication of the Chafetz Chaim’s comment is that this is the same goal that Avraham’s father was aiming for, but, by allowing himself to become distracted along the way, he failed to reach that goal.  Avraham, by contrast, passed the test (this is identified by the Sages as one of the 10 tests that Avraham had to undergo) and received the reward.

Now it is a curious fact that while everyone is naturally drawn towards more happiness, more expansion, more knowledge, there are plenty of unhappy, cramped, ignorant people in the world.  Apparently something distracts us from our natural tendency to grow.  What is this distraction?

Our Sages tell us that human beings are a composite creature, pulled in two directions like the Pushme-Pullyou in the Dr. Doolittle books.  Our soul pulls us upwards towards the Divine, while our bodies crave physical pleasures, and try to keep us bound to the material plane.  Just as hot air naturally rises, the soul naturally rises to approach Gd.  Unfortunately, if the soul has gotten too bound up with it’s material shell (the body), it gets deflected from its natural direction of motion; the body pulls the soul down instead of allowing the soul to pull it up.  This can become a vicious cycle – the more the body pulls the soul down, the more strongly the soul becomes attached to the body and the greater the force against which it must contend to rise above the body’s influence.

Gd creates the cure even before He creates the disease.  The way to get off the vicious cycle of material dominance, according to our tradition, is through living a Jewish life, devoted to prayer, Torah study and mitzvot.  In prayer we focus our attention on Gd and our relationship with Him, which is a matter of the soul.  In Torah study we try to attune our mind with Gd’s Mind, which of course is not affected by any bodily considerations at all (see Rambam’s 3rd principle of the faith).  And t he mitzvot themselves are training us to live the way a soul lives; by disciplining ourselves to do as we are commanded, rather than according to the body’s whims, we subject the body to the soul, a little more each day.

Needless to say, there is the possibility of deflections in each of these practices.  How many times are we trying to focus in our prayers, and extraneous thoughts keep popping up?  How many times are we studying Torah and we just have to get up and fix ourselves a sandwich?  How many times do we set out to do a mitzvah and somehow there’s something else we just have to buy, or something else to do, and soon there’s no money or time for the mitzvah?  In other words, how much do we truly prioritize our souls over our bodies?

Perhaps what the Chafetz Chaim is telling us is that we just need to decide to be steadfast in our upward climb, and we will reach our goal.  Yes, there are distractions.  Yes, they’ll pull us off the path from time to time – maybe more often than not, at least at first.  When that happens, we just have to pick up our direction again and continue moving forward.  Terach did not do this, and he is largely forgotten.  Avraham kept on and became the father of a great nation, which will lead the world to its Messianic fulfillment.

Shemoneh Esrei

Blessed are You, Gd of our forefathers, Gd of Avraham, Gd of Yitzchak and Gd of Ya’akov.

The Gd, great, mighty and awesome, the Supreme Gd

Grantor of good kindnesses, the Possessor of all, Who remembers the kindnesses of the forefathers, and Who brings the Redeemer to their descendents for the sake of His Name, in love.

According to Sefer Yetzirah (The Book of Formation), a very early Kabbalistic work, Gd manifests himself in Creation through a series of ten stages, called sefirot (possibly related to the word sphere).  These 10 are divided into a group of 3 (“upper sephirot“) and a group of 7 (“lower sephirot“).  The “upper” sephirot are called Keter (crown), Chochmah (wisdom) and Binah (understanding or intellect).  Interestingly, there is a sort of “virtual” sephirah, Da’at (knowledge), that is sometimes appended to this group, although it is clearly extra.  Chabad chassidism takes its name from the acronym of the upper sephirot: Chochmah-Binah-Da’at.  Of course Gd is transcendental to the entire structure.

The explanation of the nature of these “upper” sephirot that I think I understand is this:  Chochmah is like a stroke of lightning – a brilliant flash of light that makes everything crystal clear for a brief moment.  Binah takes this flash of insight and carefully works out all its ramifications.  I think of Einstein, seeing the curvature of space-time due to mass-energy, and then disccovering Reimann’s work on curved geometry and working out the mathematics to describe his vision (this is the General Theory of Relativity).  The result of Chochmah and Binah together is Da’at.

I think we can see this three level structure throughout the first b’rachah of the amidah.  But in addition, I think this b’rachah also brings our attention to the transcendental level which underlies all three.  At times the transcendental level comes first, as the other three emerge from it.  At other times it appears to become last, as an “emergent property” as it were from the harmonious relationship of the three.  So for example we have:

  • Blessed are You Gd of our forefathers – transcendental level, encompasses Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov
  • Gd of Avraham – Avraham’s quintessential quality was his unbounded giving, but he also had the flash of insight to realize that there was One Gd.  Nobody taught this to him; he coggnized it on his own.
  • Gd of Yitzchak – Yitzchak was the consolidator, who took his father’s wisdom and worked out all the details, as it were.
  • Gd of Ya’akov – Ya’akov is seen as the synthesis and perfection of his grandfather’s and his father’s qualities.


  • Great – always flowing and expanding, forging new paths
  • Mighty – taking the flow into appropriate boundaries/channels so that it becomes practical
  • Awesome – the result of raw greatness channeled to create maximum effect
  • The Supreme Gd – this is the transcendental level, the highest level, as far above the finite as the heavens are from the earth.

I’ll leave the rest of the b’rachah as an “exercise for the reader.”  This blessing is said in every amidah, both daily and special ones, so you’ll have many opportunities to ponder this structure!