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Parashat Lech L’cha 5775 — 10/21/2015

Parashat Lech L’cha 5775 — 10/21/2015

Bereishit 12:1 – 17:27

According to our tradition, Avraham Avinu underwent 10 trials “and withstood them all” (Pirke Avot 5:3). Our parashah begins with the first of these trials, and the next parashah ends with the 10th. What is the nature of these trials? What is Gd trying to accomplish with Avraham by subjecting him to these trials. R. Steinsaltz explains:

A comprehensive view of all of the ten trials shows that Abraham is required to sever – albeit gradually and progressively – all of the ties bettween him and other people, between him and things that he is connected and close to. And he indeed does so, with all the difficulty this entails. (p 21)

R. Steinsaltz goes on to mention that there was actually a trial before Lech L’cha, and that was that Avraham was thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to renounce his belief in one Gd – of course he was miraculously saved from death. Now the trials are in order of increasing difficulty – yet it seems that the order to leave house and home and family, while difficult, is not comparable in difficulty to sacrificing one’s life! R. Steinsaltz answers that in the first case, Avraham was simply making a stand on who he was – he defined himself as a believer in Gd, and a non-believer in idols. To not withstand the test would have been to be false to himself.

The command of Lech L’cha, on the other hand, while it promises numerous rewards, nevertheless seems inherently unreasonable, and indeed, Gd doesn’t give Avraham any reason for His command. Just “Go!” Avraham is commanded to abandon what he was, or at least what he thought he was, and to go to another place, by which I think we can understand, another state of being. R. Steinsaltz calls this kind of trial “Nullifying the ‘Why’.”

Thus the trial here pertains not to the physical strain, but to the lack of inner justification, of a sense of meaning and purpose. In the trial of the fiery furnace, Abraham does not have to c hange what is in his heart. He has a clear purpose and absolute inner conviction. Here in parashat Lech L’cha, however, Abraham has no inner reason, and the question is to what extent he is willing to change himself, to renounce his personal beliefs, in order to accept upon himself Gd’s kingship. … Nullifying the “why” is the challenge here, the true test of the trial of lech l’cha.

I might add that in Avraham’s 10th trial – the Akeidah (Binding of Yitzchak) the situation is even more severe. Here, in Lech L’cha, Avraham is ordered to do something emotionally difficult, but which is not intrinsically distasteful. People move all the time (admittedly it was done less back then than it is now) In fact, this is not even the first time Avraham has moved – his father, Terach, had moved the family from Ur Kasdim to Haran, and they were actually headed for the Land of Canaan/Israel, Avraham’s ultimate destination. In the Akeidah, however, Avraham is ordered to slaughter his son, an act that is intrinsically evil (under any other circumstances) and would destroy all of Avraham’s life work. But more about that next week!

Now I think “Nullification of the ‘Why'” means that we have to understand the limitations of the human intellect, even the most highly evolved and developed human intellect. The Hebrew word for intellect is binah which is related to the word bein, “between.” The intellect is that which distinguishes between different things. Therefore, it is limited by its very nature to dealing with the world of differences. What the intellect cannot comprehend is the transcendental level of life which underlies all differences, which harmonizes all differences within itself, but which, in itself, is pure Unity. I might point out that our Western, scientific society is based on the intellect – science explicitly deals with finite values via the process of measurement – and therefore tends to ignore or even denigrate the inner, transcendental level of life. But the unfortunate result of this is that the integrative value of the transcendent is missing. We are condemned to deal constantly with parts, never with the whole, and therefore it becomes very difficult to solve the problems of life – we experience that very often solving one problem leads to several more.

Now it is clear that Judaism does not devalue the intellect. Our highest value, our path to Gd, is through Torah study, which, at the very least, has a strong intellectual component. “Talmudic hairsplitting” means using the intellect to make finer and finer distinctions; I think what this means is that we should take the intellect to its finest limit, at the very doorway of the transcendent, and then go beyond it, beyond the boundaries in which the intellect works, and allow the mind to experience the infinite basis of existence directly. I think this is one way we “Nullify the ‘Why'” – we go beyond the realm of reason, of the why’s and wherefore’s of life.

Perhaps we can say that Avraham was given a greater test. He was told to uproot himself and his family from his comfort zone and to travel to an unknown destination (travel was very dangerous back then), for no good reason at all, at least that he could figure out. He was promised a great reward of course – the expression Lech L’cha means literally “Go for yourself.” Nonetheless, the entire thing was incomprehensible. Avraham went anyway. What could have been going through his mind? Perhaps it was like a Zen Koan – “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” – that you turn over and over in your mind until you realize there is no rational answer at all. This is, perhaps, a greater “Nullification of the ‘Why'” – a state in which we don’t analyze the Why at all, even on the level of the intellect. Perhaps this level of nullification of the intellect brings about a greater connection with Gd, as the Mishnah in Pirke Avot (5:4) – With 10 trials was Avraham Avinu tested and he withstood them all – to tell you how beloved of Gd was Avraham Avinu. Avraham’s love of Gd was such that he put Himself in Gd’s hands fully, putting aside all of his own agendas, all of his own ways of thinking, in order to do Gd’s will with a pure heart and mind. And Gd reciprocated: Your reward is very great. (Bereishit 15:1)

Haftarah, Yeshayah 40:27 – 41:16

But those whose hope is in Hashem will have renewed strength, they will grow a wing like eagles; they will run and not grow tired, the will walk and not grow weary. (40:31)

How do we understand the phrase “hope in Hashem”? It can’t simply be some vague wishful thinking that things will turn out better than they are now; our intellect can’t take into account all the myriad details and factors that go into Gd’s decision-making. Maybe things will seem to get worse! Real trust in Hashem is trust that He knows what He’s doing, and that everything we experience, even the pain and grief and loss, is for our own growth and evolution. Once we have that perspective, we don’t waste energy trying to swim against the flow of nature, or try to thwart Gd’s plan for the universe, which is just tilting at windmills anyway. How do we develop real trust in Hashem? Perhaps this is a connection with the parashah – if we nullify our intellect before Gd’s infinite wisdom, and don’t feel a constant need to try to justify ourselves, then we can start to intuit the right path. And once we’re on the right path, things start to fall our way. As we experience this more and more, we trust Hashem more and more. And the Psalmist describes the end result (32:10): Haboteach b’Hashem, chesed y’sovevenhu – He who trusts in Hashem, lovingkindness surrounds him.