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Lech Lecha


Parshas Lech Lecha 5774: The Two-fold Legacy of Avraham

The Ramban [1] poses a thought-provoking question at the onset of this parsha [2]. The majority of righteous people mentioned in the Torah are awarded an introduction as to who they are before the Torah mentions their deeds, attributes, or righteousness (for instance, prior to the burning bush episode [3], the Torah relates to us about Moshe’s birth [4], his being pulled out of the river miraculously by Basya Pharoh’s own daughter [5], and Moshe’s rescue of the Jew from his Egyptian oppressor [6]). On a similar note, in last week’s parsha before the account of Hashem commanding Noach to erect the ark, we are first notified that Noach was a righteous individual [7]. The Ramban notes that the exception seems to be Avraham Avinu. With a seemingly insignificant introduction in the Torah as to who Avraham was, with no mention of his merits or righteousness, we are immediately thrust into the discourse of Hashem personally speaking to Avraham to telling him to go to Eretz Yisroel. Why, asks the Ramban, does the Torah not relate what righteousness of Avraham merited his prophecy from Hashem?

Avraham Avinu was not raised by a G-d fearing father nor were his surrounding influences conducive to belief in monotheism. His knowledge of Hashem was therefore only known to him through thorough searching until he was fully convinced that there was a baal habira – a Leader of the great city, i.e. Creator of the world [8].

Our forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov are the cornerstone of our people. What they achieved became part of our spiritual and physical inclinations. Each one of them developed and excelled in a different area of understanding Hashem and His world and that legacy is passed on to this very day. Avraham was the first to recognize with absolute clarity the existence of the One Creator of the universe and that He is the source of all existence.

Avraham presented his vision to mankind and assured them that this clarity of vision lies within everyone’s reach. A person need only search within himself and he will find it there. For all succeeding generations these things were clear as well, and that clarity is deeply embedded within ourselves. Rav Dessler [9] understands this as the concept of zechus avos / the merits of the forefathers, meaning that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov instilled within their descendants those traits and values that remain with us until this very day.

In medieval times some rabbis debated the issue as to whether it is more worthy to gain a more profound and esoteric understanding of the existence of Hashem through Chakirah / philosophy to the utmost that one’s intellect can grasp, or to simply believe based on Emunah Peshutah / simple faith; that is to believe in the Jewish faith as is written in the Torah, and because this was passed down to us from father to son through the ages, a continuous unbroken chain from the events that transpired on Sinai.

Although, this discussion is certainly not for us to decide, nevertheless, the vast majority of achronim (meaning rabbis of our more recent past) understood that at least as far as their generations were concerned, the more preferable path is that of Emunah Peshutah – blind faith as it were, and that this is the course where the benefits outweigh the risks of impairment of our age old value system. It was agreed that the ancient Rabbis were more intellectually gifted and they were capable of raising the most probing questions and arriving at the conclusions that agree with those reached by our forefathers by virtue of the sheer power of the mind. The Rabbis of the later generations were less confident in their intellectually prowess and they felt that they might not gain the correct understanding when delving into areas of faith by the use of Chakirah, intellectual deliberation.

Indeed, simple logic dictates that we should shun this approach, for what advantage is there to be gained in Chakirah? Suppose for a moment that the ancient Jewish philosophers with their thorough scrutiny had not been able to fully comprehend as they did or, heaven forbid, on the contrary, they would have understood otherwise. Would it be excusable for them to not believe in the existence of Hashem? Certainly not! A heretic is not absolved for his sin because his intellect led him astray. To accept such a premise would be to allow for any bad behavior however perverse, because after all the perpetrator believed in it, did he not? And as such, since I am morally bound by the well-established Jewish creed, regardless of where intellectual exercises lead me, what then is the benefit in analyzing a matter which, either way, I am not at the liberty to do as I my poor wisdom dictates?

An oft quoted passage of Rabbi Yosef Yavetz [10] (he is known as the Chassid Yavetz) points out that throughout history in times of forced conversions the Jewish philosophers were actually less likely to cling to Judaism, whereas the simple folk, the women and youngsters imbued with simple faith, were more resolute in their refusal to succumb to their physical pain and danger.

Pursuant to the above, since Avraham had no Mesorah, no historical tradition upon which to base his faith, one might assume that Avraham only had the lesser level of faith, one based on his own understanding and not the superior level of Emunah Peshuta – blind faith. If this indeed was the case, how can it be expected of us to attain the higher level of belief? If our faith is a continuum of that attained by Avraham, our forefather, how can we aspire to that which he could not endow us, simple faith which himself seemingly lacked?

It can be suggested that Avraham actually did gain this level of faith through the incident of kivshan haEish (being cast into the burning furnace and being saved miraculously through Hashem’s grace). Since this was not at all a logical development it was evident to him that there are things we cannot fathom and understand about Hashem’s wondrous ways yet we still must believe. This too, is part and parcel of Avraham’s legacy.

We can now answer the question of the Ramban as to why Avraham’s accomplishments are not described before the pivotal events of his life are chronicled. Avraham’s greatness was actually not a result of his own spiritual development through his intellect and therefore the Torah need not mention this. His true greatness was his Emunah Peshuta which is alluded to in the end of last week’s parsha albeit somewhat veiled [11]. וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו בארץ מולדתו באור כשדים – Haran died in the presence of Terach his father in his native land Ur Kasdim. The Medrash [12] reveals that Terach denounced his son Avraham before King Nimrod for having shattered all of his idols. Nimrod then went and cast Avraham into a fiery pit for his religious beliefs, and he was miraculously saved through Hashem’s hand. The word Ur is similar to Or meaning fire of Kasdim / Chaldea.

In fact the Tiferes Shlomo [13] explains that this episode was actually considered as if Avraham had a new lease on life thus disconnecting him even physically from his father Terach, as the Medrash [14] tells us that when Hashem told Avraham to go out to the land that I show you, He told him that he was nullified from the commandant of honoring his parents thus enabling him to be the ‘father’ of Bnei Yisroel without all the spiritual blemishes inherited to him by his own father. This further explains why everything that transpired up to that moment was not relevant to the events occurring later in Parshas Lech Lecha.

[1] Nahmanides, also known as Rabbi Moses ben Nacḥman and by his acronym Ramban 1194–1270

[2] Ramban Bereishes 12;3 on the words ‘venivrechu’

[3] Shemos/Exodus 3:1

[4] Shemos/Exodus 2:2

[5] Ibid 2:5

[6] Ibid 2:11-12

[7] 6:9

[8] See Medrash, Bereishes Rabbah 39:1

[9] Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler 1892 -1953. Towards the beginning of his classic work Michtav Me’eliyahu vol. 1 the article is ‘Biur middas harachamim’.

[10] Rabbi Yosef Yavetz was born in Spain and left there during the Expulsion in 1492. He finally settled in Mantua, Italy, and assumed an honored place in the community. He authored many works for example Chasdai Hashem, Maamar HaAchdus and Yesod HaEmunah. He also wrote commentaries on Tehillim / Psalms and the Ethics of the Fathers. The latter work is extremely popular to this day. He also wrote Ohr HaChaim which is dedicated to the meaning of the Spanish Expulsion and why it occurred.

[11] 11;28

[12] Bereishes Rabbah 38:13

[13] Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowicz of Radomsk he was the first Radomsker Rebbe.

[14] Bereishes Rabbah 39:7