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Parashat Lech L’cha 5777 — 11/12/2016

Parashat Lech L’cha 5777 — 11/12/2016

Bereishit 12:1 – 17:27

In order for the world to undergo its required tikkun (rectification), the attribute of chesed must rule over the attribute of din. The initial tikkun must result in the continued existence of the attribute of din but subservient to the attribute of chesed.

The three parshiot beginning with Lech L’cha deal with the life of Avraham Avinu. Our three patriarchs personify or are archetypes of the three fundamental forces that Ramchal identified in parashat Bereishit: Avraham represents chesed, as we will see; Yitzchak represents din or gevurah and Ya’akov represents rachamim. In other systems, rachamim (mercy) is called tiferet (beauty), but in both cases it is held to be the synthesis of, or the balance between, chesed and din/gevurah. This balance is necessary, because too much of either chesed or din can be disastrous:

… a lack of rain, the attribute of din preventing blessing from descending, can result in drought and destruction. On the other hand, an overabundance of rain and blessing from the attribute of chesed can produce mass flooding and destroy the world as well. Harmony exists when blessing or chesed coexists with a specific amount of din preventing the overabundance of chesed.

In other words, there has to be a balance of din and chesed, but chesed has to predominate. Why is this?

If we analyze the nature of creation, the first step, according to Kabbalah, is that Gd as it were “contracts” himself, leaving a “void” into which finite creation can be manifested. The very existence of a finite creation depends on creating some “distance” between Gd and creation. One cannot see a candle in the bright light of the sun. Once this “space” exists, Gd can radiate His light into that space, and this is the essence of chesed. The finite boundaries can then reflect and refract this light into the manifold forms of the perceptual world. This reflection or formation of the infinite light into finite forms is the realm of din. The boundaries, represented by din (“judgment” implies boundaries between right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, mine and yours, etc.) are obviously necessary for the infinite light to be channeled in a way that it can appear finite, but they cannot be too rigid or else the flow is disrupted and progress cannot take place.

In fact, Kabbalah describes the process of creation in terms of Gd’s infinite light pouring into boundaries and actually shattering them with its force (“breaking of the vessel”), scattering sparks of Divinity throughout creation. Tikkun, rectification of this primordial shattering, is accomplished through the Jewish people’s performance of mitzvot, each of which “gathers up” a holy spark and elevates it to its celestial source. The question remains of course, why did Gd set things up this way? Why was it necessary for the “vessels” to be “shattered”? Why couldn’t they have been just the right strength to accommodate the Divinity pouring into them? In short, why was the world not created perfect?

We can look at this from another angle. Creation is full of change – everything changes all the time. In order for change to take place in an orderly manner, there has to be a balance of creative and destructive forces. The destructive forces destroy the old state and the constructive, creative forces bring out the new state. For a flower to bloom, the bud has to be destroyed. If the destructive forces (din) overbalance the creative forces, progress is thwarted and all we get is arid ruins. If the creative forces (chesed) overbalance the destructive forces, we get a garden overgrown and useless. However, in order for there to be progress, the chesed must predominate at least a little over the din. Were they equally balanced, life would be a stalemate between creation and destruction – a steady state where plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The preponderance of chesed over din gives change a progressive direction. That is, chesed must rule over din, and din must continue to exist, but must always serve chesed.

There is another area where I believe this balance between chesed and din plays a role, and that is in our relationship with Gd. We are told both to love Gd (Deut 6:5) and to fear/be in awe of Gd (Deut 20:10). Which takes priority? Rambam argues that when it comes to serving Gd, serving Gd out of love is preferable to serving Gd out of fear/awe. This makes good sense – when we serve someone it is better to do so with a full heart and a desire to serve, rather than simply out of a sense of duty. Rav Kook, on the other hand, appears to favor the view that it is our awe of the infinite, and its infinite superiority over our finite selves, that draws us on to the infinite – in other words, it is awe that leads to love.

Based on the complementary model Ramchal develops, I’d like to suggest that love and awe of Gd also have a complementary function. Love is that which unites, and it is love and devotion to Gd that brings us close to Him. However, when coming close to Gd there is a certain danger involved. An improper approach, as we see with the two sons of Aharon, who brought “alien fire” before Gd and died, can be dangerous. Awe of Gd’s majesty and power and greatness can prevent this kind of tragedy. Awe of Gd acts as a din, a boundary, to prevent us from a fatal trespass.

We can take this point one step further. As we grow closer to Gd, our individuality becomes more and more subsumed in Gd’s infinity. The distance between Gd and us closes as our minds and our senses progressively expand towards infinity. But in order for us to be able to experience Gd, there must be some distance maintained. If we merge completely into Gd, nothing has been gained. Gd remains as He is, infinite, Self-sufficient, aware of Himself. But we disappear! In order for there to be a relationship, there have to be the two poles of the relationship – one pole (us) cannot be completely absorbed in the other. Maintaining this tiny bit of individuality in the face of Gd’s overwhelming universality is perhaps din‘s finest hour, the ultimate service to the ultimate value of chesed!


Reflections on the Parashah

by Steve Sufian

Genesis Chapter 17

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 G’s command and we can draw some tips about how we may also walk before Gd and be perfect.

First, 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 some organization I respect so I can attune myself through service to people I feel are wiser, more experienced than I.

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 after leaving his homeland to go to an unknown place,  Abram continued to spread the word of monotheism and to build altars to 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 also 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.

After a battle in which Lot was taken captive, 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. 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 to small: Gd protects those who serve Him.Refusing to accept any recompense from the King of Sodom for restoring his possessions to him, Abram is blessed by Malkizedek, a priest of the Most High – to me, this means also a monotheist, and someone who has enough experience of Gd to serve as a priest, a very high way to serve. We,too, can put One first and material possessions second so that we are protected by our sense of proportion.And we can read Torah, listen to Torah, read from the Siddur, attend services at the Synagougue, as ways to raise ourselves up to direct experience and to priestliness.

Abram tells Gd, when Gd says his reward for this action will be great: Of what use is 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 circumcised 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. I interpret this to mean he became not merely a physical person bearing physical children but a spiritual person bearing spiritual wisdom,spreading spiritual wisdom. And we can treat circumsion not merely as something physical for males, but something everyone, males and females, can do to cut off anything that binds us only to the physical and to thus rise to be spiritual: to walk before Gd and become perfect as Abram did and became 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.

Baruch HaShem!