Parshas Lech Lecha
By Nosson Chayim Leff
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 "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 journey.
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, paragraph 1, 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
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
check to see the entire posuk. Applying that rule in the present context,
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 one 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 purveyer 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."
But note a basic qualifying condition. The posuk's sequence is "out of
order" only if we read it as a command to gain greater cognitive knowledge
of HaShem. But, the Sfas Emes points out, the posuk's sequence makes
perfect sense if we do NOT view it as a call to get better knowledge of
HaShem. This perspective leads the Sfas Emes to a radical new
understanding of the pasuk and thus of its real world implications for
us. He sees the pasuk now as an injunction calling upon us to employ all
of our faculties -- in whatever sequence --ton developing our relationship
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
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
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 . 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 " Ma'aseh 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 knowing
where it will take us!
The most basic lesson that this ma'amar leaves us with is the charge that
we live our lives as constant striving to come closer to HaShem.
Clearly, Ba'alei Teshuva recognize and accept this vision of life. It may
be I harder for people who are "frum from birth" ("FFB") to see the
need for such a fundamental 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 to HaShem!