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 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, 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.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.