Parshas Lech Lecha
Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Lech Lecha, 5632
The Sfas Emes begins this ma'amar by quoting a question raised by Rashi.
HaShem told Avraham to go "to the land that I will show you." Why did
HaShem not tell Avraham his specific destination at the outset of his
journey? For surely, by reducing uncertainty and resulting anxiety, it
would have helped Avraham to know to which land he was headed.
This question is not merely "academic," but rather is of direct practical
relevance to us. Chazal tell us that "Maaseh Avos simon lebanim." That is,
the lives of our Patriarchs provide a prototype of what we, their
descendants, will experience. Thus, each of us will be called upon in
his/her own way to undertake a journey similar to that taken by Avraham
Avinu, Hence, Rashi's question is in fact very meaningful to us.
So why indeed did HaShem not tell Avraham the destination toward which he
was going? Rashi provides an answer to this question. (See his comment on
Bereishis, 12:1, dibbur hamaschil "asher ar'eka.") So does the Sfas Emes.
As we have come to expect, the Sfas Emes offers us a radically new approach
to this question.
The Sfas Emes notes that the journey on which HaShem had commanded Avraham
to embark was spiritual as well as geographical. And, continues the Sfas
Emes, the uncertainty caused by the lack of vital information -- in this
case, not knowing where he was going -- was an essential feature of that
Why so? Because knowing where one is going gives a person a sense of
autonomy and control over his life. By contrast, the Sfas Emes tells us, an
intrinsic part of a righteous person's journey through life is the
willingness to do only the will of HaShem. That is, by freely willing
giving up our autonomy and control, we become, in effect, instruments to
realize the ratzon (will) of HaShem in this world.
The Sfas Emes continues with a paradox. We sometimes ask: What does HaShem
want from us? The Sfas Emes informs us that, only when we give ourselves up
totally to do HaShem's will -- regardless of what His will is -- and
therefore have no need to ask the question (of what HaShem wants from us),
only then does HaShem reveal His will -- i.e., what He wants from us!
(Please go now to the Sfas Emes for 5634, paragraph1, where the Sfas Emes
extends this analysis.) The Sfas Emes there quotes the first Medrash Rabba
on the parsha. .. In turn, the Medrash there cites a posuk in Tehillim
(45:11): "Hear, O maiden, and see, and incline your ear.
At first sight, this posuk seems to be totally irrelevant to this
discussion (and to Parshas Lech Lecha as a whole). But wait! When I was a
youth, I was taught that when a sefer quotes a posuk, always look it up to
see the entire posuk. Applying that rule in the present case, we find that
the posuk (of which the Sfas Emes had quoted only a fragment) continues: ".
. . forget your people and your father's house."
As you see, this posuk is in fact speaking to a person facing an ordeal
similar to the ordeal that Avraham Avinu experienced. For Avraham, too, was
told to forsake his people and his father's home. It would be easy to
underestimate the nisayon that the command "lech lecha" posed for Avraham.
These days, Avraham Avinu's home would be called "dysfunctiomal" ; for he
and his father -- a purveyor of idols -- were in conflict on some basic
issues. The people of Avraham Avinu's homeland were similarly unsupportive.
Thus, they looked on with complete equanimity when Avraham was thrown into
a fiery furnace. Nevertheless, Chazal reckon "lech lecha "as one of the ten
nisayonos that Avraham had to confront.
Continuing, the Sfas Emes applies the first part of the posuk -" Hear, see,
and incline your ear" -- in that context. That is, strive -- with all of
your faculties -- to come closer to HaShem. Further, the Sfas Emes notes
that the sequence in the posuk seems to be out of proper order. For, if the
posuk was referring to our achieving better cognitive understanding-i.e.,
knowledge- of HaShem, the correct sequence would be:first, "Incline your
ear" and only then, "hear." The posuk's sequence is "out of order" only if
we read it as a command to gain greater cognitive knowledge of HaShem. The
Sfas Emes notes that the posuk's actual sequence makes perfect sense if we
view it as an injunction calling upon us to employ all of our faculties --
in whatever sequence -- in developing our relationship with HaShem.
The Sfas Emes elaborates further on the thought that what is most important
in life is the striving to come closer to HaShem. In fact, he goes so far
as to say that our yearning to approach Him gives HaShem more joy than the
knowledge of Him and the Torah that we actually obtain! The Sfas Emes piles
paradox upon paradox. Thus, he tells us that through our striving -- not
through our cognitive capacity -- we do, in fact, attain a better
intellectual understanding of HaShem.
The Sfas Emes proceeds to present the possibility of a beneficent, upward
spiral. That is, through an act of will -- our yearning ("teshuka") to come
closer to HaShem -- we also achieve cognitive progress ("hasaga"). And then
the upward spiral continues. (By implication, we also face the possibility
of, chas veshalom, a self-sustaining downward spiral, a so-called vicious
cycle. The Sfas Emes is too gentle to mention this other option.)
Summing up, we can say that the Sfas Emes is telling us that the way HaShem
made the world, we should be aware at the outset that we will not get the
answers to all our questions. Further, this is a view of life which sees us
constantly in motion. There is no menucha (repose) in this world. What we
have instead is constant yegiah (striving).
The Sfas Emes continues with a quote from this parsha's Medrash Rabba. The
first paragraph there compares Avraham's journey to that of a person who is
moving from place to place, until he encounters a "bira dolekes" -- a
palace in flames. Said the traveler: "Is it possible that no one is in
charge of this palace?" Whereupon, the Master of the palace spoke to him
and said: "I am the Master of the palace."
Note a key feature of this Medrash. Standard hashkofo (Torah doctrine)
infers the existence of God from seeing the world in harmony and
rationality. Here, however, Avraham encounters HaShem in a context of
destruction and irrationality! Further, this picture of the world in flames
is much closer to the reality of which we hear when we listen to the daily
news than a well-ordered, harmonious world.
We conclude with a non-pshat that the Sfas Emes presents in the name of his
grandfather. The Chiddushei HaRim reads the word dolekes" in the Medrash
just cited as being used in the same way that the root DLK is used in
Bereishis, 31:36, that is, "in motion." In other words, the Sfas Emes is
telling us that Avraham Avinu recognized that the world - including
ourselves -- is constantly in motion, trying to reach an equilibrium of
menucha. But, in fact, no such point of repose exists in this
life. Instead, we have constant motion -- either coming closer to HaShem
or, chas veshalom, moving in the opposite direction.
This Sfas Emes is unusually long and complex (also, hopefully, unusually
rich). But complex and rich ideas are not enough. What about a practical
take-home lesson? We saw one such lesson earlier with the mention that
Maaseh Avos simon lebanim." That is, each one of us, at his/her own
individual level, must make his/her own journey, striving to come ever
closer to HaShem. Moreover, the Sfas Emes has told us that we may have to
embark on this journey without our knowing where the journey will take us!
Clearly, baalei teshuva have recognized this charge of living one's life as
constant striving to come closer to HaShem. It may be harder for some
people who are "frum from birth" ("FFB") to recognize the need for such a
concerted effort. These needy people-the FFB's- can find help from a phrase
in our daily davening. At the beginning of Shemoneh Esrei, we address:
"Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, Velokei Yaakov." (That is, "the God of
Avraham, the God of Yitzchok and the God of Yaakov.) We can understand the
need to mention Avraham, who had to find HaShem on his own. But why the
mention of "Elokei Yitzchok" and "Elokei Yaakov"?
The Seforim explain that being "frum from birth" is not enough. Thus,
Yitzchok and Yaakov were the world's first "FFBs." Indeed, they were raised
in the home of parents whom we know to have been tzadikim and tzidkoniyos.
Nevertheless, the passage at the beginning of our Shemoneh Esrei davening
tells us that each of these FFBs had to strive on his own to make his way
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org