Lessons for Humanity from the Weekly Parshah
Torah Reading: Gen. 12.1-17.27
No spiritual seeker can fail to be thrilled by the challenge in G-d's words to Abraham with which this parshah begins: "Go to YOUR SELF.". G-d's challenge to Abraham is His challenge to every one of us: to go on the journey of destiny in search of the ultimate Source of the self and the soul. For G-d is the source and goal of all things.
All Abraham's descendants, the Children of Israel, and all the proselytes who have taken shelter under the wings of the Shechinah (Divine Presence) are justly proud of the founder of our faith and our nation. Abraham, "father of a multitude of nations", is revered not only in Judaism but also in Christianity and Islam, and evidence of his imprint on the culture and collective consciousness of mankind may be found in the religions of places as far afield as India, Japan and South America.
The Torah teaches us about the attributes of G-d by telling us stories of the outstanding Tzaddikim of all time, who emulated His ways. Study of the parshiyos recounting the lives of the founding fathers and mothers helps us attach ourselves to the very roots of our souls and to inculcate in ourselves the qualities through which we can come to know G-d. The Torah dwells more on the story of Abraham than of any of the earlier Tzaddikim (such as Adam and Noah) because the qualities embodied in Abraham, and particularly his CHESSED (expansive loving kindness) are the very key to finding G-d.
An originator and creative genius unique in human history, Abraham entered the world in the year 1948 after the creation (1812 B.C.E.), following twenty generations in which mankind had degenerated further and further into decadence. The Children of Adam had strayed far from the glorious role of benevolent kingship envisaged for Adam as ruler over creation and from Noah's New World vision of harmony among his three sons, each in their proper place. The world had fallen under the violent tyranny of Nimrod, son of Kush, firstborn of Ham. Ham was supposed to be the slave ministering to his brothers Shem and Yapheth. But the slave had rebelled: Nimrod had "stolen Adam's clothes" for himself, and was making himself into a world ruler who was determined to impose idolatry by force.
The popular image of Abraham as a placid, smiling white-haired Sheik amidst his tents and camels belies much of his very essence. From earliest childhood and throughout his life, Abraham was a revolutionary and a rebel against the complex, sophisticated yet often barbaric culture of the ancient Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Canaanites among whom he traveled extensively. Priests, mathematicians, astronomers, logicians and philosophers were to be found in plenty, but none of them could satisfy Abraham's unquenchable passion to discover the mystery of G-d's unity. The Midrash states that, without a teacher, Abraham's own kidneys flowed with inspiration and understanding, bringing him to supreme heights of attachment to the ultimate powers of creation. Abraham was willing to sacrifice his very life to sanctify the Name of G-d. His methods and teachings are inscribed in his Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), the earliest known text of the Kabbalah.
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The rectification of slavery
Abraham was unable to keep G-d for himself: he had to give Him to the whole world. By the time we meet Abraham when our parshah of LECH LECHA opens, he is already 75 years old. By the time he received G-d's prophesy to go on his journey of destiny -- which was to bring him eventually to the spot where Adam was formed, the place of the future House of Prayer for all the Nations -- Abraham was already well established. He was travelling with his wife, his orphaned nephew, their possessions, and a company of "souls they had made" during their sojourn in Haran. Who were these souls?
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov tells us that when Abraham would come to a town, he would stand up in the town square and start calling everyone to come and listen to him. He would ask them what was the point of squandering their lives on the pursuit of worldly vanity, telling them to think about the purpose of life in this world -- to find G-d. Abraham set the young people on fire with his revolutionary ideas, and they would come running after him.
The Midrash states that Abraham's chief slave, Eliezer, was none other than the son of Nimrod, who had cast Abraham into the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim. When Abraham escaped, Eliezer was so overwhelmed by the miracle that he abandoned his defeated father and became Abraham's slave and chief convert. Another prominent figure who was willing to become Abraham's slave for the sake of having a connection with this charismatic man was Hagar, daughter of Pharaoh.
Both Eliezer and Hagar were descended from Ham, the son of Noah, who aroused his father's ire when he saw his nakedness and was cursed to be slave to his brothers. Abraham's journey to the land of Canaan (Ham's son) was in fulfilment of Noah's blessing to Shem that G-d would "dwell in the tents of Shem", who would be served by Canaan. The Canaanite slave had rebelled: the Canaanites were occupying the land destined for the descendants of Shem. Abraham's mission was to return to the source -- the land from whose earth Adam's body was formed -- and to settle in the Land of Canaan.
The society that Abraham's descendants were to build there was to be one in which the concept of slavery was to be transmuted. The details of the Covenant of Sinai begin with the laws regulating slavery (Exodus ch. 21). In the power-crazy world of Nimrod, the slave was the lowest of the low, one held captive in the physical power of others. Historically, slaves have been subjected to every kind of abuse, physical and psychological. In contrast, the Siniatic Covenant gives the slave his dignity. Even the Canaanite slave must keep many of the commandments, including circumcision (as we find at the end of our parshah.) In due course the Canaanite slave may even be freed and become a member of the assembly of the Children of Israel.
Abraham rectified the concept of slavery by turning it into a way of understanding our relationship with G-d. Abraham was the first to call himself "Your servant" (Gen. 18:3). In his humility, Abraham knew that before G-d he was but "dust and ashes". Adam was created to be free and to rule the world, but he abused his freedom and fell slave to his lusts. Man pays the price of his sins by serving -- man has to work. Those who are slaves to other men may pay a bitter price for their sins, but those who are willing to serve G-d become free. The more they serve G-d, the more they are freed from servitude to the cycle of lust, sin and degradation. Through serving G-d, man reaches his greatest heights -- and once again he becomes His beloved son.
By the time we meet Abraham in our parshah, he was already the epitome of humility, and he was therefore capable of becoming a master. Abraham rectified the concept of slavery by having slaves like Eliezer and Hagar, who were capable of serving their master in his mission of bringing G-d to all the world. In this way the power of Ham becomes harnessed in the service of the G-d of Shem. In order to completely rectify the concept of slavery, Abraham's own descendants, the Children of Israel, also had to descend to the level of slaves in Egypt until they were freed by G-d in order to serve Him (see in our parshah Genesis 15:13-14).
Very shortly after Abraham entered Canaan, famine forced him to go down to Egypt in the archetypal pattern of descent and ascent that would be repeated by his descendants. Egypt was the land of Ham's second son, and accordingly it was a place of rampant immorality, as exemplified in the story of the capture of Sarah by Pharaoh's officers. Things were only set right again when Sarah was released and Pharaoh's daughter Hagar became her maidservant.
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Conflict and conflict management
Abraham was childless, and it flew in the face of nature that an old man like him could have children. Yet his mission in Canaan was to take possession of the land that was occupied by the descendants of Ham, who had been cursed, and to settle it with his own descendants, the Children of Shem, who had been blessed. Having no children of his own, Abraham had taken in his orphaned nephew Lot.
As the man of CHESSED -- kindness -- Abraham displays his love of peace in his dealings with his nephew Lot, as when he suggests that since they are both expanding, they should avoid conflict by going their separate ways. However, Abraham's love of peace does not prevent him from going to war when the necessity arises, as when Lot was captured by the Four Kings and Abraham went out in hot pursuit.
In geopolitical terms, the war of the Four Kings against the Five (Genesis ch. 14) was a war for control over the blessed strip of land on the East Coast of the Mediterranean that is G-d's chosen, Promised Land. "Amraphel King of Shin'ar" is Nimrod -- Ham's grandson and Abraham's implacable adversary. Ham is fighting Shem. What spurs Abraham into action is the capture of Lot -- a mortal threat to Lot's destined progeny, including Ruth the Moabite, grandmother of Mashiach. Abraham rouses his followers -- those he has educated -- namely Eliezer, Nimrod's own son, the rectified slave (Genesis 14:14, see Rashi there), and miraculously rescues Lot. In this way Noah's prophesy is fulfilled and Eliezer, the descendant of Ham, serves Abraham, descendant of Shem, in helping pave the way to Mashiach.
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Hagar and Yishmael
In many places in the story of Abraham, he is depicted as praying to G-d -- because prayer is one of the main pillars in the path of service of G-d which Abraham established. The simple, direct language of Abraham's prayers are a lesson for all, Israelites and gentiles alike, in how to approach G-d with words.
Faith in the power of prayer is the message of the name that Hagar gave to Abraham's son, Yishmael -- "G-d will hear". Yishmael's service is the service of prayer. It is an historical fact that Yishmael and his descendants brought knowledge of the G-d of Abraham and the service of prayer to many parts of the world, including many of the Children of Ham. As noted earlier, Hagar herself was a descendant of Ham. In this way, the families of the earth are being prepared for the House of Prayer for All Nations, when "Yapheth will dwell in the tents of Shem and Canaan will be servant to them".
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"...which G-d created to DO" (Genesis 2:3): Man was created incomplete in order that he should acquire merit through DOING, serving G-d by completing and perfecting himself. The form of the male ADAM is incomplete as long as the crown of the organ of creation remains covered by the impure ORLAH, the foreskin, a pleasure-center that keeps those from whom it has not been removed uncontrollably attached to the material. The genitals are vital to the whole body and whole person (cf. Deut. 25:12) and the presence of the ORLAH influences the person's mind and outlook, preventing him from becoming being perfectly attached to G-d.
It is said that Abraham agonized long when he began to understand that circumcision was to be the sign of his bond to G-d and the mark of his slave-like attachment to the Master of the Universe. Abraham feared that by cutting his flesh in this way, he would be setting himself apart from the rest of humanity, making it more difficult to bring them to the knowledge of the True G-d. In the end, however, Abraham accepted G-d's commandment, because the purity which the circumcision bestowed upon him him enabled him to serve as Priest of all mankind in bringing man to G-d. The sign of G-d's Covenant with Abraham is inscribed upon the very organ with which we procreate, signifying that the foundation of the Covenant is that we submit our powers of procreation to G-d's service.
The commandment of circumcision is not one of the universal commandments of the Torah, but rather the exclusive mark and sign of the Children of Israel. The descendants of Yishmael consider themselves bound by the commandment of circumcision, but they do not perform the P'RIYAH (peeling of the membrane) as practiced by the descendants of Jacob.
Christianity presents itself as a "new stage" in the revelation that began with Abraham, in which the original covenant or "old testament" with Abraham and his biological descendants, marked by the circumcision, was "superseded" by a "new covenant" or "new testament" with all humanity which did not require circumcision. It was the abandonment of circumcision that put the seal on Christianity's break with the Torah of Moses, which states that "an uncircumcised male who will not circumcise the flesh of his forskin, that soul will be cut off from her people, he has broken My covenant" (Genesis 17:14).
Nothing can change these words, for "G-d is not a man that He should lie or the son of man that He should change His mind. He spoke -- will He not do it? He pronounced -- will He not fulfill it?" (Numbers 23:19). "For I am G-d, I have not changed." (Malachi 3:6). "Go and let us ascend to the Mountain of G-d, to the House of the G-d of Jacob." (Isaiah 2:3).
Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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