It is difficult to imagine the difference Avraham made to the world. We’re used to the fact that there is a Jewish people, and that there are non-Jewish nations, some believe in G-d, others do not, and some have simply made up their own version of what makes this universe tick. If you think this world is mixed and in trouble, you should have seen the one that Avraham was born into.
The Talmud cites that history is meant to last 6,000 years (in case you lost track, we’re holding in the year 5758 … that’s 242 years left to go!), and that the 6,000 years is to be divided into three equal portions of 2,000 years each. The last 2,000 years of history (in which we are presently living) is called the “Period Moshiach.” From the Jewish year 4,000 (around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, it has been a propitious time for Moshiach’s arrival.
The previous 2,000 years is called the “Period of Torah Dissemination,” because it was the period during which people began to turn to G-d. The climax of this period was the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai (2448/1313 BCE), and it began in Avraham’s 52nd year. It was during this period that Jewish people left Egypt, entered the land of Canaan, and built both Temples.
What was the first period of two thousand years called? The “Period of Spiritual Desolation,” because it was a G-dless society that best resembled the spiritual void and chaos mentioned in the first day of creation. The Great Flood of Noach’s day took place during this period, in the Jewish year 1656, and the Tower of Bavel met its destruction (last week’s parsha) in the Jewish year 1996.
Avraham was born in the year 1948 from creation, 52 years prior to the end of the “Period of Spiritual Desolation” and the beginning of the “Period of Torah Dissemination.” What makes this so significant is that it was Avraham who singlehandedly caused the transition. And in doing so, Avraham justified the future of creation, and paved the way for us, the Jewish people. This is why the midrash, paraphrasing the third possuk of creation says,
“And G-d said, ‘Let there by light! And there was Avraham!’ “
There are many midrashim that explain what Avraham did that was unique-why he was able to discover G-d while others could not. There are others that go into detail about his self-sacrifice for his belief in G-d, and the ten tests he suffered along his path to spiritual refinement. However, in the spirit of this parsha sheet, let us ignore the obvious and delve into the, well, less obvious.
Though Avraham was known for his remarkable acts of unlimited chesed, he is extremely famous because he was the first one commanded to carry out Bris Milah (circumcision). In simple terms, Bris Milah symbolized Avraham’s willingness to serve G-d, and to fulfill His master plan to involve man in the perfecting of G-d’s creation. Bris Milah removes a spiritually undesirable piece of skin to reveal perfection, and to signal our commitment to control our creative powers in the service of our Creator. However, on a deeper level, Bris Milah represents, at the very least, a reversal of the result of Adam’s chet: the illicit eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The Talmud calls Adam a heretic, and accuses him of undoing his inborn Bris Milah. Hence, somehow, the chet of eating resulted in the reality of a spiritual barrier that is rectified and removed through Bris Milah. How did Adam cause this reality? How does Bris Milah correct it?
Eating from the tree caused Adam to plummet from his high level of intellectual and spiritual clarity to one of confusion, another way of saying that the reality of G-d became less clear to him, as if a barrier had been constructed between he and G-d. The “orlah” removed through Bris Milah became the physical manifestation of that which occurred spiritually at first: an intermingling of good and evil to the point that their boundaries are no longer clear. For, it is the intermingly of good and evil that blinds us to the clear reality of G-d, and hinders our approach to Him. All of that was the result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Therefore, Bris Milah ought to facilitate a reversal of this intellectual and spiritual downfall, and does. This is why it is called Bris Milah, which literally means, “Covenant of the Word.” For, as we learn from Targum Onkeles on the creation of man, speech is the result of the soul entering the body, and is indicative of the control one exercises over the body at any given moment in time (what one says reveals a person’s intellectual level).
The “Covenant of the Word” is to use our mouth and other creative abilities to pursue truth, and to proclaim it. That demands being a truth-seeker, and making seeing truth a number one priority. This forces a person to use his intellect to reveal the hidden truths of life, and to fathom the depths of Torah, which is called the Aitz HaChaim-Tree of Life. It is this process that forms the basis of the tikun (rectification) of the spiritual and intellectual confusion caused by Adam’s chet. And it was this process that defined Avraham’s life and his goals, and why he merited to be the one to receive the mitzvah to “help” G-d bring man to physical and spiritual completion.
This week’s parsha joins Avraham’s life already well in progress. It wasn’t until the age of seventy that Avraham first received prophecy, and it wasn’t until 75 that he migrated to Canaan from his native Charan. Not only this, but “Lech-Lecha,” the mitzvah to leave Charan, according to the midrash, was Avraham’s third test of faith in G-d, not his first.
What were the first two tests?
The first test was to intellectually come to the conclusion that there is G-d, as He is, not as we want Him to be. In other words, it was Avraham’s first test at a tender age to reject the idol worship prevalent in his society.
After he successfully passed the first test, his faith was refined even more. Nimrod, then king of Babylon and self-appointed god, rejected Avraham’s notion of a higher, single deity. As was the custom of his day, Avraham was given the choice between a fiery cauldron and a change of belief from G-d-worship to Nimrod-worship. As history records, Avraham chose the former, and was thrown into the fiery furnace for three days, while everyone of that day watched with a mixture of suspence and satisfaction. As this week’s parsha, and our history testifies, Avraham survived that test as well. After three days of intense heat, Avraham walked out of the furnace, no worse for the wear, with only the rope that had bound his hands being singed, and with somewhat of a following.
However, the question might be asked: Why didn’t the Torah start with those two tests, or, at the very least, the latter one? Surely Avraham’s preparedness to walk into a fiery furnace to stand by his ideals, and G-d, would become a great example for all future of generations of Jews given the same choice …
One answer to this question might be the concept in the Talmud,
“Greater is the one who performs an act because he is commanded to than one who does it for his own reasons.”
Starting from the third test, Avraham was commanded to perform each one, including the Akeida (binding of Yitzchak). On the other hand, the first two tests Avraham “volunteered” to perform, inasmuch as he had not received any (direct) prophecy telling him what to do, or that he was even being tested. In fact, the midrash says, had it not been that Ya’akov would one day have to be born, Avraham would have burned that day in Ur Kasdim!
This is why it is so important that when performing mitzvos, even ones that you enjoy doing (like eating on Shabbos!), you should focus yourself before doing the act and do it for Hashem … as a mitzvah. It is this intention that transform the act from being a personal, human deed into one done on behalf of G-d, as an extension of His will, not merely our own. It is this type of mitzvah that effects the real tikun olam-rectification of the world-and which earns us the eternal reward in the World-to-Come we know we’re here to receive.
“You shall circumcize the flesh of your foreskin, as a sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days, you shall circumcize every male child born to you throughout the generations …” (Bereishis 17:11-12)
There are two aspects of the mitzvah referred to in the verse. Firstly, milah is a sign of the covenant between Avraham and G-d; secondly, milah is to take place on the eighth day from birth. The significance of these two aspects becomes more apparent when considering the context within which the mitzvah is given to Avraham, namely, after Avraham’s successful routing of the Canaanite kings. In fact, it is this that helps to explain his unusual reaction to what had seemed like a nice gesture by the king of Sodom, whom Avraham had saved:
“Give me the people, and the possessions take for yourself.” (Bereishis 14:21)
At face value, the offer of the king of Sodom seems innocent enough. However, from Avraham’s reaction (or rather, over-reaction) to it, it seems that Avraham didn’t perceive it that way, and he explained why:
“I have vowed to G-d, the Most High, the Owner of heaven and earth! I will not take even a thread to a shoelace from anything of yours. You will not be able to say, ‘I made Avraham rich.’ ”
Was Avraham being melodramatic? Would not a polite refusal have accomplished the same purpose, without making a scene? Furthermore, if Avraham was so worried about taking money from anyone but G-d, then why did he not put up the same resistance when Paroah loaded him down with riches at the beginning of the parsha? In Egypt, Avraham seemed completely unbothered when Paroah showered him with gifts to send him off back to Canaan.
The difference between the two gifts was not in the giving itself, but the circumstances that led to the giving. In each case, it was a miracle that led to Avraham finding favor in the eyes of his benefactor. However, the nature of the miracle was different. In Egypt, G-d had performed an obvious miracle when he sent the plague to Paroah and his entire household. The victory over the Canaanite kings, on the other hand, was a less obvious miracle, since Avraham had to fight the war.
For Paroah, there was no way to view Avraham’s “victory” as being anything other than a miracle of G-d. Avraham did not go to war against him; on the contrary, Avraham waited passively while G-d inflicted Paroah and his court with sickness.
Therefore, any reason Paroah might have to give to Avraham could only be viewed as the will of G-d. Paroah saw his giving as an obvious fulfillment of G-d’s promise to make Avraham a wealthy man. As such, it was also a tremendous sanctification of G-d’s name.
However, the king of Sodom could view Avraham’s success in terms of natural forces, since he did fight. Therefore, any booty Avraham might take would not necessarily appear as a fulfillment of G-d’s promise, and therefore, it could lack the potential to sanctify G-d’s name.
This, Avraham could not accept. By emphatically refusing the king’s offer, and by stating why, Avraham sanctified G-d’s name. He also, perhaps unbeknown to him at the time, rose to a whole new spiritual level, for which bris milah would be the reward. When Avraham melodramatically expressed his complete dependence on G-d for his physical sustenance, he demonstrated his unwavering commitment to live above nature, which is what Bris Milah is all about. This is why Bris Milah occurs on the eighth day after birth, a number which, according to the kabballists, signifies the supernatural.
Of all the booty that Avraham received from Paroah on his way out of Egypt, one thing he had not counted on was Paroah’s own daughter, Hagar. Hagar, the midrash says, decided to abdicate her right to Egyptian royalty in order to be a simple concubine to the great man of G-d, Avraham. The result of her self-sacrifice was Yishmael, her son through Avraham and the father of the future Arab nations.
Interestingly enough, the Talmud states elsewhere that Timna, the future wife of Eliphaz (the son of Eisav), also wanted to join Avraham’s following as a concubine rather than live as royalty among her own people. Perhaps she had learned from Hagar to do so, but this time Avraham rejected the offer (perhaps after seeing the trouble marrying Hagar caused with Sarah and Yitzchak). The result: Amalek (Eliphaz’s and Timna’s son), the future Jewish nemesis and most virulent source of anti-Semitism.
It is true that it is hard to call the Arabs our “kissing cousins.” However, I believe a distinction can be made between Hitler and the average Arab leader. Hitler did not care about the Land of Israel, nor did he know of any boundaries that separated the Jew from his Final Solution. In his own words, “Where the Jew stands, I cannot stand. When I stand, the Jew cannot stand.” Spoken like a true Amalekian.
However, in the words of Arafat himself (paraphrasing The Jerusalem Post quote), “Once he [Peres] gives me Jerusalem, it won’t be long until we get Israel. Then the Jews can stay if they want to, but they will probably rather live in America than under Arab rule, which is fine with me.”
It is hard to generalize, but, it seems (at least from my own personal conversations with many Arabs) that as much as the Arabs don’t like us, their distaste for us is mostly limited to our living on this land. In my personal opinion, I don’t think the average Arab would chase a Jew to the corners of the earth, just to annihilate him (they even prefer our kosher meat!). They may harbor some jealousy because we claim to be the true spiritual heir of a similar father, but I’m not sure that that jealousy always translates into a primordial hatred of the Jew and all he stands for.
(By the way, it is possible for Amalek to have “infected” Yishmael’s descendants, and to have risen to positions of power among the Arabs, and other nations as well, to incite them against the Jews; this seems to have been the case many times in the past, and in the present as well. Even the entire terrorist cell Hamas could be a “lightning rod” for those among the Arabs who think like Amalek. Thus, you can have among Yishmael those whose only complaint against the Jewish people is their “occupation” of Eretz Yisroel, and those whose hatred of the Jew is not necessarily tied to the land at all, but rather to his very existence.)
That is not the case with the average Amalekian, as Hitler proved. Hitler “made” Jews out of people who never considered themselves Jewish before! and treated them accordingly. And it is only Amalek against whom G-d has waged war, not Yishmael or his descendants.
And to think that this fundamental difference comes down to the acceptance or rejection of a concubine!
It is very hard to second-guess our Forefathers, and Avraham , who was a great prophet, had his reasons for turning down Timna (maybe her potential to produce an Amalek was safer “outside” the Jewish people rather than “inside” the Jewish people, for, it is easier to deal with an enemy from without than with one from within). However, we can still draw a lesson from the Talmud, and that is, be careful about whom you reject and how you do it-you never know how that will boomerang in the future.
The Talmud states it another way: Never laugh at the downfall of your enemy. Colloquially, it is, “The same people you see on the way up are the same people you see on the way down.” In other words, be careful. As the mishnah states, “There is no thing that does not have a purpose, and no person that does not have his moment …” And that moment may be the one to save your life, as the following story told to me (by the person himself) indicates.
The Russian had caught the Jew before he could escape. Clearly this Jew was part of the underground, and posed a threat to the Communist regime. Stalin would have had no trouble pulling the trigger with delight.
The Jew stood there before the Russian with his hands held high in the air. It was the moment of truth, that moment that Jews have had to confront with fear throughout the millennia. This Jew’s life was over, and it was time to die to once again sanctify the Name of G-d with Jewish blood.
However, the Jew decided to plead anyhow with the Russian, and asked him,
“Do you have a mother at home? How would your mother feel if you didn’t come home tonight? How will my mother feel if I don’t come home tonight?”
And for reasons unbeknownst to the Jew to this very day (other than the fact that G-d had interceded and had performed a miracle), the Russian’s heart was moved, and he allowed the Jew to escape.
Now, this does not mean that you must court your enemy and make friends with the people who endanger your life. But it does indicate that salvation doesn’t always come from the places we most expect it to. So, at least with the people you ought to get along with, get along with them. Be very careful to what and to whom you turn your back on.
Have a Great Shabbos!
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org