Parshas Lech Lecha
Take the Initiative!
We learn in Pirkei Avot (ch.5), “There were ten generations from Noach until
Avraham. This teaches how patient Hashem is, for they all angered Him
continuously until Avraham Avinu came and received the reward of all of
them.” Commentaries ask: What about Noach, his son, Shem, and the latter’s
great-grandson, Ever, all of whom were righteous?
R’ Ovadiah Yosef z”l (see back page) explains: Rashi z”l (to Bereishit 24:7)
writes that Avraham told his slave, Eliezer, “Originally, Hashem was ‘the
G-d of the heavens,’ but I accustomed people to know Him so that He is ‘the
G-d of the earth’ also.” This is a reference to the fact that Avraham and
Sarah converted many believers to monotheism.
In contrast, Noach, Shem and Ever did not reach out to others. Though our
Sages speak of the “Yeshiva of Shem and Ever,” only a small, isolated group
of students studied there, and only if they (the students) had sought out
This, writes R’ Yosef, is the difference that caused Avraham to receive the
reward for the good deeds of all of them. They did not trouble themselves
to sanctify Hashem’s Name in public, while Avraham did. To what may this be
compared? To the Gemara’s teaching (Berachot 47a), “One should always arise
early to be among the first ten in shul. Even if 100 more men come
afterward, he receives reward equal to all of them [because of his
initiative.] (Anaf Etz Avot p.325)
“Your reward is very great . . . What will You give me?” (15:1-2)
Avraham Avinu seems to asking, “Of what use is a reward if I have no child
to leave it to?” Why did Avraham ask this? Perhaps Hashem was promising
Avraham great reward in Olam Ha’neshamot / the “World of Souls” (what we
commonly refer to imprecisely as “Gan Eden” or “Olam Haba”)!
R’ Moshe ben Nachman z”l (Ramban; 1194-1270) explains: Avraham did not
understand Hashem’s promise to be referring to reward in Olam Ha’neshamot
because the existence of such reward is obvious and requires no promise.
Since our souls are not corporeal or physical, it is obvious that they do
not die with the body, but rather live forever.
For the same reason, Ramban writes, the existence of Olam Ha’neshamot is not
mentioned anywhere in the Torah; one can logically deduce that such a world
exists. Rather, the Torah focuses on non-obvious, seemingly unnatural
consequences, for example, that rain will fall if we serve Hashem or that a
person will become wealthy if he gives ma’asrot / tithes properly.
(Derashat Torat Hashem Temimah)
“He said to Avram, ‘Know with certainty that your offspring will be
aliens in a land not their own, they will enslave them, and they will
oppress them four hundred years. But also the nation that they shall serve,
I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth.”
We read in Shmot (11:2) that Hashem said to Moshe, “Please speak in the ears
of the people, ‘Let each man request of his fellow and each woman from her
fellow silver vessels and gold vessels’.” The Gemara (Berachot 9a) comments
on the use of the word, “Please”–Hashem said, “I implore you to tell them,
‘Please ask the Egyptians for silver and gold vessels so that tzaddik
[Avraham] won’t say that I kept My promise to enslave them but not My
promise that they would leave with great wealth’.”
This requires further explanation! Could anyone think that Hashem would not
keep His promise? R’ Reuven Margaliot z”l (1889-1971; Poland and Eretz
The above teaching of the Gemara was said in the name of “the academy of
Rabbi Yanai.” The same scholars, “the academy of Rabbi Yanai,” observe
later (Berachot 32a) that Moshe defended Bnei Yisrael after the sin of the
Golden Calf by saying to Hashem, “It’s Your fault! You gave them the gold.”
In short, according to “the academy of Rabbi Yanai,” Moshe would have
preferred that Bnei Yisrael not receive the Egyptians’ riches and that is
why Hashem had to implore him. (Nitzotzei Ohr: Berachot 10a)
“Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not
their own, they will serve them, and they will oppress . . .” (15:13)
R’ Yehuda Loewe z”l (Maharal of Prague; died 1609) writes: Commentaries have
offered a number of explanations for why G-d decreed the exile in Egypt,
nearly all of which are premised on some sin committed by Avraham Avinu
(though they disagree what the sin was). If so, why did only Avraham’s
descendants suffer the exile, not Avraham himself?
Maharal explains: It was Hashem’s plan that the family that suffered the
exile would inherit Eretz Yisrael. Since He didn’t want the descendants of
Yishmael and Esav to have a share in the Land, He waited until they had
split off from the Patriarchs’ family before beginning the exile.
In reality, Maharal continues, the question above does not require an
answer. The reality is that a person (here, Avraham) may be deserving of
punishment, but his merits will protect him. However, if his children have
insufficient merits, they will not be protected and will suffer because of
their ancestor’s sin, provided that there is a reason for the children to
suffer. Here, the reason for their suffering was to eradicate from
Avraham’s descendants the minute vestige of lack of emunah / faith that was
reflected in Avraham’s question, “How shall I know that I am to inherit it?”
(Gevurot Hashem ch.9)
“When Avram was ninety-nine years old, Hashem appeared to Avram and said
to him, ‘I am Kel Shakkai; walk before Me and be tamim.” (17:1)
R’ Avraham Halevi Fattal z”l (died 1981; father-in-law of R’ Ovadiah Yosef
z”l) explains: Avraham Avinu’s greatest desire was to teach others to
recognize Hashem. He did this by persuading people with rational arguments
to believe that there is one G-d and that He is the Creator.
Avraham might have worried that the mitzvah of brit milah, which requires
causes paid, would discourage potential converts. Therefore, he was
commanded to be “tamim,” in the sense of “innocent,” i.e., not questioning
R’ Fattal continues: This interpretation is alluded to in the midrash which
explains that G-d used the Name that we pronounce as “Shakkai” because that
Name (which is spelled “shin-dalet-yud”) as if to say, “I am the One who
said ‘Dai!’ / ‘Enough!’ to Creation.” He meant: If I had not said “Enough!”
the universe would have continued to expand forever. But that was not My
desire. Similarly, I am not interested in the *numbers* of converts you
assemble, but in their *quality*, which will be tested by their willingness
to sacrifice part of themselves at My command. (Va’yomer Avraham)
Memories of Yerushalayim
R' Yisrael Meir Lau shlita (former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel)
records the following memory of R’ Ovadiah Yosef z”l (1920-2013; former
Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel), who passed away earlier this week. This
story took place in the early 1950s, when the orphaned Yisrael Meir Lau was
a teenager studying in Yeshivat Kol Torah in Yerushalayim.
My father’s sister, Aunt Mata a”h, worried about my health and sent me from
New York an $18 money order with which to buy food to supplement the meager
rations in yeshiva. I didn’t use it for that purpose--first, because I
didn’t want to eat alone and there wasn’t enough money to feed all the
students; second, because of my great desire to buy sefarim. . .
There were three used-sefarim stores in the Meah She’arim neighborhood:
“Pappenheim,” “Shtitzburg,” and “Schreiber.” On Fridays, when I was free
from yeshiva, I used to go and wander in the stores, searching for bargains.
These were very small stores, with sefarim piled from the foundation until
the ceiling. It was impossible to walk around in these stores; there was
barely room to stand there. One of the three booksellers said to me, “You
are beginning to remind me of Rabbi Ovadiah.” He explained, “There is a
married student here, a Yerushalmi Torah scholar, by the name of Ovadiah
Yosef. He comes to the store wanting to look at the sefarim. He has no
money to buy sefarim. He is the father to a large family. I allow him to
stand on the ladder, which he does for three hours at a time--one leg on one
side and one leg on the other--studying a book until he completes it.
Thereafter, that book is stored in his head as if it were filed away.” (Al
Tishlach Yadcha El Ha’na’ar p.139)
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