Captives Return Home
אם מחוט ועד שרוך נעל ואם אקח מכל אשר לך ולא תאמר אני העשרתי את אברם
“I shall touch neither string nor shoelace from your spoils, so you shall not say, ‘I have made Abraham wealthy’” (Bereishit 14:23).
What could possibly motivate someone to refuse wealth?
Abraham’s nephew, Lot, left Abraham’s household and moved to Sodom. When the entire city fell to a group of four kings, Lot was subsequently captured. Coming to the aid of his nephew, Abraham waged war against the four kings and defeated them (Bereishit 14:12-16). Laden with the spoils of battle, the king of Sodom (whom Abraham just saved) offered an exchange: “Take the material wealth, and I will take charge of the captives.” Abraham refused, declaring that he wouldn’t touch a drop of Sodom’s wealth. Instead, he gave the king of Sodom both the spoils and the prisoners of war.
It might seem from this that Abraham disdained wealth. However, a later episode in Abraham’s life suggests otherwise. When Abraham and Sarah went to Gerar (Bereishit 20:1-18), Sarah was abducted and taken to King Abimelech’s palace. G-d dealt severely with Abimelech’s household, and the king begged Abraham to forgive him, offering him great wealth. This time, Abraham accepted the offer.
So, did Abraham appreciate riches or not?
In order to understand, let’s take a look at the fundamentals of giving and taking.
Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in his Treatise on Kindness speaks of two conflicting forces: giving and taking. Most people are defined by one or the other, becoming primarily either “givers” or “takers.” A taker may give, but it is usually a means to enable greater, more efficient taking — such as a dishonest seller giving a buyer a nice deal in order to establish good credentials, so that he can fleece others. Similarly, a giver may take in order to ultimately give more — such as a person who will take a handsome salary so he can give his family financial security.
There was a fundamental difference between Abimelech and the king of Sodom. Abraham, who epitomized loving kindness, responded to each accordingly.
Abimelech was truly desperate for forgiveness and sincerely wanted to give Abraham a gift to rectify his wrongs. He was a giver. By accepting his gift, Abraham was giving, in return, relief to Abimelech’s conscience. The king of Sodom, though, was a taker. Offering Abraham the spoils was only a ploy — a win-win (or take-take) scenario. If Abraham declined the wealth, the king would have his money back. If Abraham accepted, the king would get bragging rights to helping such an illustrious individual. It was to this overt “taking” that Abraham was vehemently opposed.
Each individual has to ask himself or herself: Where in the give and take spectrum do my own deeds fit in? When I give, do I harbor ulterior motives?
As the descendants of Abraham, and bearers of his legacy of kindness, let us strive for sincerity in our giving without thoughts of compensation or collateral.
Impossible is Nothing
ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך
“And G-d took Abraham outside and said, ‘Gaze now toward the Heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And G-d said, ‘So shall your offspring be!’” (Bereishit 15:5)
In the times of Abraham, the kings of four major kingdoms in the region went to war against an alliance of five other kingdoms. In the ensuing battles, Abraham’s nephew Lot, who lived in one of the warring regions, was taken captive. Upon hearing about this, the hopelessly outnumbered Abraham armed himself and his disciples and went to battle to rescue Lot.
After Abraham miraculously defeated the armies of the four kings and rescued Lot and the other captured people and possessions, he feared that the miracles G-d performed on his behalf had detracted from the reward awaiting him in the World to Come. G-d reassured him and promised that his reward would be very great. Abraham then expressed his worry that he had no children to inherit his spiritual legacy, to which G-d replied by promising that he would merit having children.
G-d then took Abraham outside and instructed him to gaze toward the Heavens. He challenged Abraham to attempt to count the number of stars and cryptically added, “So shall your offspring be.” Why did G-d present him with such an impossible task, and what did He mean with His blessing, “So will your offspring be?”
Rabbi Meir Shapiro explains that although finite, the number of stars is clearly beyond human comprehension, and certainly uncountable with the naked eye. An intelligent person who is challenged to count them will certainly decline the impossible task. Knowing that he will be unable to successfully finish the project, he will choose not to even begin. Abraham was also aware of this reality. Nevertheless, when G-d suggested that he attempt to count the stars, he quickly went outside, looked up in the sky, and began counting, “One, two, three.”
Abraham was undaunted by apparent restrictions and natural limitations, recognizing that the power of one’s will and his commitment to a project can allow him to succeed where others would only see the obstacles. Upon recognizing Abraham’s contagious enthusiasm and willingness to disregard naysayers, G-d quickly blessed him that his offspring should be a nation known for their dedication and perseverance against all odds. This blessing has constantly been fulfilled as the Jewish people struggled throughout the centuries as the most persecuted people in history, yet continuously outlived their many oppressors and tormentors.
Not surprisingly, Rabbi Meir Shapiro – whose yahrtzeit (7 Cheshvan) traditionally falls in the week of Parshat Lech Lecha – lived by his own teachings. More than any other single figure in the 20th century, he single-handedly revolutionized Torah study as we know it today through his development of the concept of Daf Yomi – learning one page of Talmud daily.
The odds of his program spreading and taking off were clearly stacked against him. The potential for any of a number of obstacles to derail his plan before it got off the ground was great. Yet like his forefather Abraham before him, Rabbi Meir Shapiro, whose memory we honor this week, ignored the probability of not succeeding, realizing that with the aid of the fire which burned within him, he would be able to reach the stars, and beyond!
You are a Star
ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך
“And He took him outside, and said, “Gaze, now, toward the Heavens, and count the stars if you are able to count them!” And He said to him, “So shall your offspring be!” (Bereishis 15:5)
Abraham stood ready to accept his fate. Though he and Sarah had spent a lifetime spreading loving-kindness and bringing countless people back to a relationship with the one true G-d, they had no children of their own. Though he had been promised offspring by G-d on at least two occasions (Bereishit 12:7, 13:16), Abraham’s understanding of the spiritual laws that govern human existence led him to believe that he and Sarah were not destined to have a child together.
At that very moment, the word of G-d came to Abraham once more and reassured him that his fate has not been sealed. Not only would he have offspring, but also their numbers would be like the stars in heaven. Previously, G-d foretold that Abraham’s offspring would be as numerous as the “dust of the earth.” (Bereishit 13:16)
The Talmud comments on these two metaphors, noting that when the Jewish people stray from their mission and refuse to follow the will of G-d, they will be trampled and looked down upon by all – like the dust of the earth. However, when they fulfill their mission as G-d’s emissaries in the world, they rise to unimaginable heights – like the stars in the heavens.
There is a deeper aspect to comparing the Jewish people to the stars in heaven. From our vantage point, stars appear as tiny specks of light in the sky. It would be easy to regard each star as relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Each star is actually a phenomenally huge, burning mass of energy and power; most are more than a hundred times the size of our own sun.
The same holds true with regard to the powerful spiritual potential inherent in every Jew. From a distance, it can be easy to overlook – or not notice – the special talents and abilities found within each Jewish person. The truth, however, is that there is no such thing as hidden potential! There is only potential that we have perhaps not yet come to see, recognize or understand.
Rabbi Yisroel Brog relates this story from his childhood that illustrates this point:
Rabbi Brog’s father was a man with an enormous heart. He would regularly invite people into his home to share meals, even offering them a place to sleep if need be. Even when a person was a bit eccentric, rude, or demanding, he continued to care for them with patience, kindness and love.
One day, Rabbi Brog’s father brought an elderly, apparently homeless Jewish man home for breakfast. The man asked for two eggs cooked for exactly two minutes. When the eggs were done, he asked for another set – the first two had been cooked longer than his required two minutes! By the end of the week, not only was this man having his “two eggs cooked for two minutes,” he actually moved in – and ended up living with the family for a number of years!
Every day, this old Jew would leave the house at five in the morning. For large parts of the day, he was gone. No one knew where he went or what he did. Rabbi Brog, then a youngster, was curious. One day, he worked up the courage to ask him what he did. The man told him that if he wanted to know, he should join him. The next morning, the young Yisroel was up and ready at five a.m., and together, he and the old man left the house.
That day turned out to be one of the most memorable days of the young boy’s life. For an entire day, he watched as this elderly Jew went from hospitals to old age homes to individual homes, helping people without let-up. They visited the elderly and the infirm, bringing them various things they needed, helping them put on tefillin, cheering them up, and raising their spirits. The whole neighborhood felt the impact of this man and his good deeds.
It turned out that Rabbi Brog’s eccentric house guest was a survivor who lost everything in the Holocaust. Now, his only wish was to help others as much as he could. Imagine what the young Rabbi Brog would have grown up thinking had he never bothered to draw closer to this hidden treasure!
There are many such people among the Jewish people. Perhaps they are hidden just beyond our view, or perhaps we have not taken the time to discover who they are. Nonetheless, they are there. Learning to seek out, appreciate and encourage the spiritual potential of every Jew enriches our lives and helps us become a nation of people who are truly likened to the stars.
Riddle: What when broken is more powerful than when whole?
ותאמר שרי אל אברם חמסי עליך אנכי נתתי שפחתי בחיקך ותרא כי הרתה ואקל בעיניה ישפט ה’ ביני וביניך
“So Sarai said to Abram, ‘The outrage against me is due to you! It was I who gave my maidservant into your bosom, and when she saw that she had conceived, I became lowered in her esteem. Let G-d judge between me and you!’” (Bereishit 16:5)
After being married for ten years without bearing any children to Abraham, Sarah suggested that he should marry her maidservant Hagar and attempt to have children together with her. After Abraham married Hagar and she successfully conceived, Sarah became upset with Abraham. Rashi explains that she argued that Abraham hadn’t prayed on her behalf. When he beseeched G-d for a child to inherit his spiritual legacy, he prayed only that he should merit offspring but didn’t include her in his petitions.
Since the Talmud (Yevamot 64b) teaches that Sarah was physically incapable of conceiving a child, it is difficult to understand her claim. Of what benefit could Abraham’s prayers have been if she was unable to become pregnant? Why did she hold him responsible for not asking G-d for something which was impossible according to the laws of nature?
Rabbi Nosson Wachtfogel (1910-1998) answers that we ask this question only because we don’t understand the tremendous power of true heartfelt prayer. While it is true that G-d normally runs the world based on the physical laws of nature, prayer is a supernatural instrument which allows a person to bypass scientific obstacles.
This idea is illustrated in the following story. When Rabbi Avrohom Shmuel Binyomin Sofer, known as the K’sav Sofer (1815-1871), was a mere six years old, he became so ill and weak that the doctors despaired of his life. Based on their diagnosis of his ailment, they despondently said that there was nothing they could humanly do to save him. His illustrious father Rabbi Moshe Sofer, known as the Chasam Sofer, requested that everybody present leave the room in which his son was resting.
The Chasam Sofer entered the room, locked the door, and prayed as he had never prayed before. He emerged and confidently announced that he had successfully attained a yovel (50 years) on his son’s behalf. To the amazement of all but his father, the child had a miraculous recovery and went on to lead a prolific and productive life, one which was cut short at the tender age of 56!
Sadly, the Talmud (Berachot 6b) teaches that while prayer has the potential to reach the greatest heights imaginable, people don’t recognize this power and inappropriately take it for granted. The Talmud (Yevamot 64a) teaches that the infertility of our forefathers and mothers was due to G-d’s desire for their intense prayers.
In light of this, Rabbi Wachtfogel explains that Sarah understood this lesson and therefore wasn’t the slightest bit concerned by the apparent obstacle presented by her body’s inability to conceive, instead focusing her frustration on the real impediment to her pregnancy – Abraham’s lack of prayers on her behalf. Many times in life we face seemingly insurmountable challenges which we are sure cannot be physically overcome. At such times, we may take inspiration and comfort from the lesson of Sarah and the Chasam Sofer, that there is no hurdle large enough to stand in the way of our heartfelt prayers.
Circumcision Under Debate
ויהי אברם בן תשעים שנה ותשע שנים וירא ה’ אל אברם ויאמר אליו אני ק-ל שק-י התהלך לפני והיה תמים
“And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and G-d appeared to Abram, and He said to him, ‘I am the Almighty G-d; walk before Me and be perfect’” (Bereishit 17:1).
With this statement, G-d introduces the mitzvah of brit milah (circumcision) to Abraham (Abram). The Medrash (Tanchuma, Vayeira 3) recounts that Abraham consulted with three of his friends, Enor, Eshkol, and Mamrei, regarding this commandment. Enor warned him that his enemies might kill him in his weakened state. Eshkol cautioned that the operation might kill him. Only Mamrei advised him to go ahead with the circumcision.
Many questions come to mind when reading this Midrash. The notion that Abraham would seek counsel regarding a commandment he received from G-d is perplexing. He had already exiled himself from his birthplace and community to follow G-d to a better place and had allowed himself be thrown in a fire rather than serve idols (Medrash Rabba 39:3). This minor operation should have been a no-brainer for Abraham, especially since the reward was to “walk before Me and be perfect.”
Furthermore, if Abraham considered his friends’ advice valuable, why didn’t he follow the majority opinion against circumcision? Even more strangely, there is another Medrash (Bereishit Rabba 58:4) that tells us that all three of his friends, Enor, Eshkol, and Mamrei, chose to be circumcised. Why would Enor and Eshkol perform an action and yet advise Abraham against it?
Rabbi Shmuel Bornsztain (known as the Shem Mishmuel), offers the following explanation. Abraham was clearly not afraid of this minor operation, especially when G-d told him it would make him perfect. Rather, Abraham was afraid that by taking this huge spiritual leap, he would reach a level from where he would no longer be able to relate to the regular people with whom he came into contact on a daily basis. If he couldn’t relate to them, he wouldn’t be able to bring them closer to G-d, challenging his very raison d’être.
Although his friends circumcised themselves, two of them advised him that taking such a step would totally alienate him from the rest of the world, a place which only values physical strength and power, not spirituality. Mamrei, however, explained that the inverse of Enor’s and Eshkol’s concern was true. The more in tune one becomes with the spiritual world, the more selfless, caring, and giving he becomes. This is because the spiritual world emphasizes the “us” over the “me.” Perhaps this is why specifically after giving him this mitzvah, G-d changed Abram’s name to Abraham, saying, “I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” G-d was telling Abraham that by growing spiritually, he would not be limiting his capacity to help and affect others, but rather he would be increasing it exponentially.
Elevating ourselves spiritually is a powerful pathway to opening our hearts and minds to everyone around us.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
When commanding Abraham to leave his homeland, G-d promised him that in his new location he would merit to have children and become a great nation, would become wealthy, and would become well-known and respected (Bereishit 12:1-2).
Becoming wealthy and being honored would seem to be the antithesis of the spiritual lifestyle Abraham introduced to the world. Why, then, would this be used as a means of convincing Abraham to follow G-d’s command?
Why was leaving his homeland considered one of the ten tests of faith to which G-d submitted Abraham (Avot 5:3) since he was promised such great reward for doing so?
G-d promised Abraham that he would have innumerable descendants, and that they would inherit the Land of Israel. Abraham inquired how he would be sure that they would receive the Land. G-d responded by causing Abraham to fall into a deep sleep and then forging a covenant with him (Brit Bein Habesarim — the Covenant of the Parts). During this sleep, Abraham received a prophecy that inheriting the Land will follow a period of harsh exile (which later transpired in Egypt) (Bereishit 15:7-21).
Abraham was a man of great faith who blindly followed G-d to destinations unknown. Why might he suddenly have doubted G-d?
Since this covenant was supposed to be a binding agreement between the parties involved, why did G-d place Abraham in a deep sleep?
Abraham’s life’s work was to teach the world about monotheism, and he successfully attracted tens of thousands of followers before Isaac was born. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idol Worshipers, Chapter 1, Bereishit 12:5).
With regard to carrying Abraham’s legacy into the future, the Torah states that G-d’s covenant will be conferred on his children. In the future, they will occupy positions of kingship and be granted the power to suppress idolatry and fulfill Abraham’s mission for humanity. (Haamek Davar, Bereishit 17: 6) Given that loyalty to religious ideals is a matter of free-will and individual determination, why would the Torah consider it so important that Abraham’s mission be carried out by his biological descendants, as opposed to his loyal students?
At the beginning of this week’s portion, G-d commanded Abraham to leave his homeland and move to the Land of Canaan (the Land of Israel), where he would be blessed with children, money and fame, and where the entire world would look to him as a source of blessing. (Rashi, Bereishit 12: 1-3) Later, G-d promised Abraham that his children would inherit the Land of Canaan as an eternal possession. (Bereishit 17:8) From this point onward, the Torah focuses on the development of the Jewish people and their coming into the Land, where they would fulfill their destiny. If the Jewish people’s ultimate mission is to teach the entire world about G-d, why would physically being in Canaan be so central to this mission?
“And G-d said to Abram, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.’ So Abram went as G-d had told him and Lot went with him; Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Bereishit 12:1-4) Our sages tell us that Abram (later to become Abraham) endured and successfully passed ten trials.
Why would the place Abraham was to travel “from” be so heavily emphasized (“from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house”), while the place he was to travel to (“to the land that I will show you”) kept obscure?
While there is disagreement among the Sages about which trials are included in the list of ten, all agree that “Lech Lecha” – the command to leave his homeland and follow G-d to a new land – was one of those ten. Why would this be considered such a great challenge? Wouldn’t anyone hearing G-d’s promise (of family, fame, fortune, and infinite blessings) promised by G-d Himself jump at the opportunity? Though it was surely challenging for Abraham to abandon his homeland, wouldn’t those abundant blessings diminish the “test” involved?
(Rabbi Label Lam)
G-d commanded Abraham to name the child that Sarah would bear יצחק —Yitzchak or Isaac (Bereishit 17:19). Rashi explains that this name comes from the word צחוק (laughter). What connection could there be between laughter and Isaac’s inherent essence of serving G-d with the attribute of fear and strength. (Ohr Gedalyahu by Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr)
After a quarrel broke out between the shepherds of Abraham and the shepherds of Lot, Abraham suggested to Lot that they should part ways for the sake of peace, suggesting that Lot could choose to go to the right and he would go to the left, or vice-versa (Bereishit 13:7-9). If the purpose was to separate from one another, why was it necessary for both of them to move instead of merely allowing Lot to travel in whichever direction he so desired, or choose to stay put and allow Abraham to leave? (Meged Yosef by Rabbi Yosef Sorotzkin, MiTzion Mich’lal Yofee by Rabbi Avigdor Nebenzahl)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
Two Simple Words
“And G-d said to Abraham, ‘Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from the house of your father to the land which I shall show you. And there I will make you a great nation…’” Bereishit 12:1,2
“Lech Lecha” [Go For Yourself] – Hidden within these two seemingly modest words are many important historical allusions: Their numerical equivalent is 100, symbolic of the fact that he will not be made into a great nation until he is 100 years old, when Isaac will be born. – Midrash
They denote the fact that he will live another 100 years from the time that he followed these instructions [he was 70 years old when these instructions were transmitted to him, but he was 75 years old at the time that he left his birthplace, and he lived until 175. Each of these words represents one of the two [major] exiles into which his offspring would eventually be forced.
“Lech” [go] Lecha – The second word, which equals 50, represents the 50 generations of Jewish people that lived in the Land of Israel before being driven into the exile. The fact that he was 70 years old at the time of this promise alludes to the fact that they would return after only 70 years of exile in Babylonia. – Baal HaTurim
Every word of the Torah is imbued with layers upon layers of meaning and symbolism. Nowhere is this more evident than when the Torah discusses the lives of the patriarchs, whose lives served as a prototype for the Jewish nation. Rather than satisfy ourselves with grasping only the simple meaning of the text, we must strive to gain ever-deeper insight into the bottomless words of the holy Torah.
“And they captured Lot and his wealth, the nephew of Abraham, and he dwelt in Sodom.” Bereishit 14:12
The Nephew Of Abraham – Did we not already know that Lot was the nephew of Abraham? Rather, this informs us that Lot’s capture was motivated by something other than the reason for which they seized the rest of Sodom, who were their enemies and were imprisoned out of hatred and vengeance. Lot was not a native Sodomite, and therefore he would not necessarily have been a target. Rather, it was his relationship to Abraham, their intellectual adversary, which caused him to be taken into custody. Our sages explain that Amraphel was really Nimrod, with whom Abraham had engaged in a religious duel much earlier, and this was his opportunity to strike back at Abraham. He hoped that by imprisoning Lot, Abraham would engage in the war and fall captive as well, and diminish his effectiveness as a moralist. – Ksav V’kabbalah
History follows a constant and fixed pattern. First the non-believer attempts to overpower the Jew in an intellectual duel, and when that inevitably fails, he seeks to physically vanquish him. Since the threat to our physical harm emanates directly from our loyalty to G-d’s service, we merit a special protection from G-d, unavailable to any other nation. Consequently, we are the only nation to withstand the myriad threats to our existence, over a period of thousands of years.
“And Abraham was ninety-nine years old, and G-d appeared to Abraham and said to him, ‘I am G-d! Serve me and be perfect.’” Bereishit 17:1
Serve Me And Be Perfect – Serve Me through performing circumcision [Brit Milah] and through this you will be perfect [complete]. – Rashi
And Be Perfect – Don’t question My reasons for instructing you in the mitzvah of Brit Milah. – Ibn Ezra
The mitzvah of Brit Milah immediately preceded the conception and birth of Isaac. It symbolized an exalted level of spiritual attainment that only Abraham had managed to acquire. In his time, the act of circumcision was considered foreign and sacrilegious and required great courage on Abraham’s part to agree to it. Nevertheless, he consented to do it, knowing that it was not optional if he wished to produce the Jewish nation, for whom circumcision would be an integral part of their spiritual curriculum. His self-sacrifice in this area has served as a model for future generations, who would constantly be challenged to forgo this ritual by anti-Semitic despots. Just as Abraham withstood their exhortations to refuse to circumcise, his children have faithfully adhered to this commandment even when it cost them their very lives.
The Longest Night
“And it was in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar, Aryoch, king of Elassar, Chedorlaomer, king of Eilam, and Tidal, king of Goyim.” Bereishit 14:1
This incident occurred to Abraham to teach him that four powerful kingdoms will rise up to rule the world, but in the end, his descendants will prevail over them, they’ll be under our rule, and they’ll be forced to return all that they confiscated from us over the generations.
Amraphel, king of Shinar, represents the kingdom of Babylonia for it was compared in the prophecy of Daniel to the golden head of the statue.
Aryoch, King of Elassar represents Persia. There was a city in Persia named Elassar.
Chedorlaomer, king of Eilam, represents Greece for that was the city of rule for the first Greek king, and from there his kingdom expanded across the world.
Tidal, king of Goyim represents the kingdom of Rome whose kingdom was a conglomerate of multiple nations. – Midrash Rabbah, Nachmanides
Abraham’s battle with the Four Kings is symbolic of the extended battle his children would face with four primary nations throughout the bitter years of exile. It is noteworthy that Abraham fought the battle during the night, a symbol of the exile, which is compared to the darkness of night. Furthermore, at the conclusion of the battle, Abraham is visited by Malchi Tzedek who awards him the title, “Priest to the G-d on High,” in recognition of his unquestionably exalted status over his foes. Similarly, when the Moshiach arrives, all the nations will acknowledge our spiritual superiority and learn from our example how to properly serve G-d.
An Uncommon Thread
“The King of Sodom said to Abram: ‘Give me the people, and take the possessions for yourself.’ Abram said to the King of Sodom: ‘I have lifted my hand to G-d the Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. Neither a thread nor a shoelace! I will not take anything of yours, so you will not be able to say, I have made Abram wealthy.’” Bereishit 14:2
Neither a thread nor a shoelace! – Will I retain for myself from the spoils. – Rashi
So you will not be able to say – “For, G-d, has [already] promised me to make me wealthy, as it is said: ‘And I will bless you, etc.’” – Rashi
Why was Abraham so quick to refuse this offer without stopping to consider whether this was the means G-d had sought to fulfill His promise to enrich him? G-d’s promise to enrich him was stated in the following manner, “And I will bless you.” Blessing does not arrive in the form of pain and angst. The King of Sodom was only giving Abraham the money because he had been captured, not out of any desire to part with his wealth. It was a very difficult and painful concession for him. Thus, Abraham knew that this could not be the venue through which the Almighty chose to fulfill His promise. – Maharal
The commentators add that this attitude of Abraham to refuse the booty, lest the King of Sodom claim that he made Abraham wealthy, fit right in with Abraham’s life mission to spread the glory of the Almighty. So fiercely did Abraham believe in his mission that there simply was no way he could risk desecrating G-d’s name just to partake of his newfound wealth, significant though it may have been. The Talmud tells us that in the merit of Abraham’s refusal, the Jewish people merited the Mitzvot of Tzitzis [a thread] and Tefillin [a shoelace], two mitzvot with which we declare the Almighty’s majesty and our fealty to it.
A Proud Father
“No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have appointed you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you fruitful with very much and I will make you into nations; and kings will descend from you.” Bereishit 17:5, 6
No longer shall your name be called – Why were Abraham and Sarah’s names changed, whereas Isaac’s name was not [Jacob merited an additional name, but his original name was still utilized]? Both the names Abram and Sarai were names given to them before they entered into a covenant with G-d. These were their “non-Jewish” names, so to speak. Thus, considering their new status as servants of G-d, these names were no longer appropriate for them. Isaac’s name was actually given to him by G-d [See Bereishit 17:19] and therefore would never need to be changed. – Riv”a, Baalei HaTosafos
I will make you fruitful with very much – This blessing immediately preceded the commandment to Abraham to circumcise himself. Abraham might have feared that doing so would weaken his ability to produce offspring. Therefore, G-d reassured him that the opposite would be the result. He would be exceedingly fruitful and merit many descendants. – Malbim
Rabbi Y.Y. Trunk of Kutna points out that the wording of this verse is somewhat puzzling. Translated literally it reads, “And I will make you fruitful [B’me’od] with much,” instead of the more grammatically correct, “And I will make you fruitful [Me’od] much,” eliminating the word “with.” Nachmanides teaches us that the word Me’od implies “far beyond the normal standard.” G-d blessed Abraham doubly. Not only would he be fruitful, but also he would also be blessed “with Me’od,” – i.e. children who were far above the standard in their talents and abilities. The descendants of Abraham would not merely be great in number, but they’d be standouts in their capabilities and accomplishments as well.
To See or Not To See
“G-d appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.’ There he built an altar to G-d Who had appeared to him.” Bereishit 12:7
There he built an altar – In gratitude for the two blessings that had been promised to him: children, and that they would inherit Eretz Yisrael. – Rashi
To G-d Who had appeared to him – Prior to this, although he’d experienced Divine prophecy and inspiration, he had not yet experienced Divine Revelation. This was his first revelatory experience and a source of great joy for him. – Ramban, Heemek Davar
Or Hachaim adds that although he was certainly very grateful for the tidings regarding children and the Land, the verse does not identify those items as the central cause for his joy. Instead, it highlights the fact that the Almighty appeared to him, which to Abraham, was the real reason to be joyous. This demonstrates the great love that Abraham had for the Almighty, and that his greatest desire was to experience true closeness with Him. No wonder he was so successful at convincing others to follow his example of monotheism.
A Separate Peace
“Lot chose for himself the entire Plain of Jordan, and Lot journeyed from the east and they separated from one another.” Bereishit 13:11
And they separated – This was no mere separation, but a separation that would manifest itself again in later generations through the Torah’s prohibition against marrying the people of Ammon and Moav, direct descendants of Lot. – Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyah ben Manoach)
They separated from another – Abraham – The last letters of these four words are Shin, Lamed, Vov, and Mem. Together, they spell Shalom – peace. This indicates that although they separated from one another, it was for the purpose of peace, which was ultimately achieved. In fact, even in later generations, we were bidden to be at peace with the people of Ammon and Moav, as the verse [Devarim 2:9] says, “Do not antagonize Moab…” – Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher)
Sometimes breaking off a relationship is a sign of a lack of desire for peace, and sometimes it is an indication of a desire for peace which can only be achieved by separating the two parties. Abraham was a man of exemplary kindness and peace and in order to achieve that with Lot, in whom he had already invested so much, caring and training him to lead an upright life with disappointing results, he knew that his only option was to take leave of him. If peace was to reign among them, it would have to be from afar.
“On that very day Abraham and his son Ishmael were circumcised.” Bereishit 17:26
On that very day – That day was Yom Kippur and each year on Yom Kippur, the Almighty looks at the blood of Abraham’s circumcision and forgives his descendants in that merit. – Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer Perek 28
On that very day – The Almighty said, “If Abraham would have circumcised himself at night all the people of his generation would have claimed that had he done so during the day in full view of them, they would have stopped him. Instead, he did so in broad daylight and ignored all their demands that he refrain from doing so.” – Midrash Rabbah 47:9
On that very day – On the very day that he was instructed to circumcise himself along with the members of his household, he immediately began to do so and did not stop until he had circumcised all 318 members of his house, his son Ishmael, and himself. – Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, 12th century, Spain)
Many ask why Abraham waited until he was instructed by the Almighty and did not circumcise himself beforehand? From his behavior subsequent to his receiving the instructions, it is abundantly clear that fear or unwillingness to do so were not among the reasons for the delay. Not only did he refuse to wait until the next day before circumcising himself, but he carried out the command on every single male member of his large household as well, on that day. His love for this mitzvah was so great that he could barely contain himself once he received his orders. It is no wonder that a mitzvah originally performed with such love and eagerness still remains overwhelmingly popular today, thousands of years later, even among Jews who are very distant from traditional practice.
Hey, I Never Knew That
Abraham is commanded to circumcise himself and the males of his household (Bereishit 17:10) and is told that his descendants must fulfill this commandment as part of their covenant with G-d. Maimonides notes that had we not been commanded to circumcise our children by the Torah as given on Mt. Sinai, the fact that Abraham fulfilled this command would not have obligated us at all. Judaism is not a system of ancestor worship, nor is it merely “tradition!” as Fiddler on the Roof would have us believe. Rather, the Torah is predicated on the truth of Divine revelation, and that is the source of our obligation in the commandments. Once the Torah reveals the obligation to us, we can learn from Abraham’s circumcision and from his actions, but the essential obligation is not due to Abraham but due the commandment of the Torah of Moshe (Maimonides, commentary on the Mishnah, Chullin ch. 7).
The Maharal of Prague (Netzach Yisrael, Ch. 11) notes that when G-d first spoke with Abraham, there was no introduction at all. The text in the Torah contains no statement about Abraham’s righteousness, no recounting of anything that he had done, and no mention of his greatness. There is a genealogical reference to Abraham in the previous chapter, but other than that, it is as though G-d speaks to him out of the blue. G-d’s first words to Abraham were a command to go to the Land of Israel and a blessing and promise that he would be the ancestor of G-d’s chosen Nation. The Maharal explains that had anything specific about Abraham been mentioned in the Torah prior to G-d’s choice of Abraham, it would have implied that G-d’s love for Abraham was dependent on that specific attribute, quality, or action. However, G-d’s love for Abraham and his descendants is “a love that is not dependent on anything specific” (Avot 5:16). It is a love that transcends specific attributes and actions, and hence is constant and eternal.
Word of the Week
Melchizedek is described as a “כהן — kohen to the exalted G-d” (Bereishit 14:18). This is the first time that the word kohen is used in the Torah, and it is usually translated as “priest.” Onkelos’s Aramaic translation renders the term differently depending on context. When the Torah speaks of a kohen of G-d, he translates it as shamasha — servant (as he does here) or just leaves the word as kohen. When the priest is a pagan, he translates the word as rabba, meaning “great one” or “master.” It is possible that Onkelos is teaching us that a monotheistic kohen is a humble servant of G-d and of the Jewish people. In contrast, a pagan priest uses his status to rule and master his people, and even regarding the deity that he worships considers himself somewhat of a master, who can manipulate and control the gods.
תמים – perfect
G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and the men of his family and household. In the preamble to this commandment, G-d told Abraham, “Walk before Me and be tamim — perfect” (Bereishit 17:1). Generally, the word tam means “complete,” so that when G-d told Abraham to circumcise himself, He was telling him to complete himself physically through circumcision and spiritually through the covenant with G-d that circumcision represented (Radak, Sefer Hashorashim). Later, when the Torah commands every Jew to be “tamim with the L-rd, your G-d” (Devarim 18:13), the meaning is similar: to be “totally or completely faithful” to G-d and not to rely on divination, magic, astrology and other superstitions (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah).
Rabbi Menashe Klein was asked by the first Prime Minister of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, to show him evidence from the Torah regarding the criteria of Jewish identity. One of the proof texts that Rabbi Klein used to show matrilineal descent is in the Torah portion this week. When G-d promised Abraham a son, Abraham responded with a prayer that Ishmael should live. G-d replied, “However, your wife Sarah shall bear a son for you and you will name him Isaac, and I will fulfill my covenant with him as an eternal covenant with his descendants following him” (Bereishit 17:19). It is clear from the dialogue that G-d’s covenant with Abraham would only be realized through Isaac and his descendants, not through Ishmael. Rabbi Klein suggests that this is due to the fact that Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, was never part of the covenant, and hence as a “gentile,” her son too was a “gentile.” Sarah, who was included in G-d’s covenant, was essentially “Jewish” and hence so was her son and his descendants (Responsa Mishneh Halachot 4:161).
Ovadiah was an Arab who had been raised as a Moslem but later converted to Judaism. He addressed the following question to Maimonides: Jewish prayers contain numerous references to the ancestors of the Jewish people: “our forefathers,” “our father Abraham,” and “G-d Who took our fathers out of Egypt.” Ovadiah asked whether he may say these prayers in their original version, since as a convert, he was not descended from Abraham, his ancestors were not the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people, and his forefathers were never slaves in Egypt. Maimonides (Letters of Maimonides, No. 293, Blau Edition) responds to Ovadiah with great respect and love and addresses him with the title “master and teacher.” He answers that Abraham was not only the father of his genealogical descendants but also the father of his ideological descendants. Maimonides writes that anyone who has “taken shelter under the wings of the Divine Presence” and accepted the monotheism and Torah of Abraham is considered a child of Abraham and a member of his household. Maimonides therefore instructs Ovadiah to say the prayers and blessings in precisely the same way as every other Jew. He concludes by saying, “Do not take your genealogy lightly; although we trace our ancestry back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — you trace yourself back to the Creator, Who spoke and created the world.”
TESTING TESTING 123
by RABBI ELAZAR MEISELS
Dear Rabbi Meisels,
Perhaps you can help me understand something that’s been bothering me for a long time. In Parshat Lech Lecha we read about how G–d tested Abraham. What I’m trying to understand is why G–d needs to test him if G–d knows full well how he’s going to respond?
Thank you for your excellent question, which is discussed by the commentators who offer a number of interesting approaches. Two of the better known explanations are from Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban – Nachmanides), and Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam – Maimonides). Here is the essence of their comments:
Ramban [Bereishit 22:1]
Although the word “test” is often used to describe the adversity Abraham experienced, in reality the word “test” is an imperfect definition of what the Mishnah [Avot 5:3] calls a “Nisayon,” because a nisayon is not merely G-d’s way of testing us. He has no need for tests to determine our level of religious commitment and He knows exactly where we stand on every matter and how we will respond to whatever challenges He throws in our way. Rather, the goal of a nisayon is to afford the person undergoing it an opportunity to grow beyond his own expectations, transform his good intentions into positive action, and receive abundant reward for those actions. Thus, a better definition of the word “nisayon” would be “growth opportunity,” for it is a custom-tailored opportunity designed to encourage and assist a person in his quest for spiritual growth.
The reason such opportunities are necessary is because the majority of people find a comfort zone and rarely venture beyond that point if they can help it at all. It’s only when external factors force them to expand their range of activities that they agree to do so. This is true in both the material and the spiritual aspects of life. Very few people are self-motivated to push themselves beyond the pursuit of their basic needs in life. They are content to make do with very little, so long as they don’t have to work too hard for it. Only when that too, proves insufficient, for whatever reason, do they extend themselves further.
In spiritual matters this is especially evident. Most people are quite pleased with where they are spiritually, or think they’ve already over committed to G-d. They’re content with fulfilling a select few of the mitzvot, a yearly donation to their favorite charity, and wearing Tefillin when they attend a relative’s Bar Mitzvah. Rarely do we express concern over how to develop our relationship with G-d into the deep and fulfilling relationship that it could be.
Nisyonot then, are G-d’s way of drawing us out of our comfort zone and allowing us to go beyond what we may have ever thought possible. He sees the potential within us and He knows how rewarding it would be for us to maximize that potential. Thus, he presents us with challenges that compel us to realize that potential in the manner similar to well-meaning parents who encourage their lazy but exceptionally bright child to attend a well-respected university, in the hopes that he’ll utilize the opportunity to achieve his vast potential.
Obviously, just as these well-meaning parents would never push their below-average child to attend a first-tier university where he’d get lost in the mix, G-d never presents us with a nisayon that will prove too much for us to handle. Instead, He carefully calibrates each nisayon to afford us maximum growth while still remaining well within our capacity.
Rambam [Moreh Nevuchim 3:24]
Rambam maintains that the purpose of Abraham’s nisyonot was not to “test” him, but rather to serve as an example for the rest of the world. The world that Abraham lived in was one where people worshiped deities that they could relate to in a physical sense (sun, moon, wind, ocean, fire etc.) The concept of monotheism which Abraham sought to introduce, in which there is a greater power controlling the universe, seemed inconceivable to human beings and was something that they struggled to assimilate. They refused to believe that someone could faithfully adhere to moral choices demanded of them by an abstract G-d.
When the people witnessed Abraham’s dedication to these principles even under the most demanding circumstances, they were inspired to act in a comparable manner. His performance set a precedent for faithful obedience that was unheard of previously, and stimulated many others to abide by the principles of monotheism even against all odds. His performance under pressure demonstrated the necessity and viability of faithfulness to G-d’s expectations of us.
May you be strong and resilient enough to maximize all of the wonderful opportunities life has to offer and realize the blessing in the challenges that G-d grants you!
WHAT IS IN A NAME?
by RABBI YEHUDA HIRSCHSON
I recently attended my neighbor’s son’s Bar Mitzvah and was honored with gelila, tying the Torah. As I was called up, they asked for my Hebrew name, but I was embarrassed to say that I didn’t have one. Question: If my parents did not give me a Hebrew name, can I still be given one as an adult? How would I go about doing that, and is there any fee involved?
An “anonymous” Jew
Don’t be embarrassed that you do not have a Jewish name yet. You are in good company with a very famous Jew who was not given his name until he was 99 years old! I’m speaking of Abraham, the first Jew, and his wife Sarah (who was 90 at the time).
Abraham’s name at birth was in fact Abram and Sarah was called Sarai. In this week’s portion, Lech Lecha, the Torah states that G-d changed their names to reflect the new, elevated spiritual status that they had achieved. (Bereishit 17:5-16)
So, the short answer to your question is, yes, you can acquire a Hebrew name as an adult. And no, there is no charge! It will be helpful if you can find out your parents’ Hebrew names as well, as we are traditionally called to the Torah by our own Hebrew name as well our father’s Hebrew name. Many prayers as well are said using our Hebrew name along with our mother’s Hebrew name.
Before we get to how this is done, it’s a good idea to fill in a bit of background regarding the nature of the Hebrew language in general and Hebrew names in particular.
The first language of humanity was Hebrew (see Rashi, Bereishit 11:1). One of the first tasks G-d gave to Adam was to name the animals. Whatever name Adam assigned to a living creature remained its name. (Bereishit 2:19) However, rather than simply assigning random appellations, Adam employed his spiritual insight to ascertain the core nature of each animal he named. For example, the Hebrew word for dog is “Kelev,” which in Hebrew translates to “like the heart.” Ask any dog-owner, and he will attest to the truth of the close connection he has with his dog! There are numerous other examples as well.
In addition, Rachel and Leah gave careful consideration to the spiritual nature of the child and his circumstances when naming their children, who were the progenitors of the 12 Tribes of the Jewish people. (Bereishit 29:32-30:24) Finally, the Hebrew word for soul, neshama, contains the word “shem” (name), which demonstrates the connection between a person’s soul and his or her name. Our name, then, reflects our unique qualities and strengths.
So how do you go about choosing a suitable name?
This is mostly a matter of intuition and insight. You may want to start by looking through lists of Hebrew names and learning their meaning. If something resonates with you, it may be a sign that you are onto something. Or, if your birth date is near a particular Jewish Holiday, you may wish to choose a name associated with the Holiday. For example, girls who are born around the holiday of Purim are often given the name “Esther,” for Queen Esther the heroine of that story.
You can also check which portion of the Torah corresponds to your birthday and explore the portion for names or themes that may appeal to you. If you are close with a Rabbi who knows you very well, you may want to discuss options with him as well. I know of one woman convert who was looking for a Jewish name. Her childhood, unfortunately, was not happy, and her parents did not show her much affection. Her Rabbi suggested that she consider adding the name “Ahuva,” which means “beloved,” to any name she chose. The idea was that every time she heard her name, the idea that she is beloved by G-d would be strengthened and reinforced.
With regard to how your new name is conferred, you can establish this by having your friends call you and refer to you by your new name for at least 30 days. (Code of Jewish Law, E.H. 129: “Bet Shmuel” 33; Igrot Moshe by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, E.H. IV 104) There is also a custom that a new name can be given via a special prayer at synagogue, known as the “Mi Sheberach.” Usually, this is said for a newborn, but with minor changes, the Rabbi can easily employ this prayer for an adult.
When you do choose a Jewish name, please let me know!
Rabbi Yehuda Hirschson
Parsha at a Glance
This week’s portion, Lech Lecha, begins a new chapter in human history. Roughly 2,000 years had passed since the creation of Adam, and Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, is now the focus of G-d’s mission in the world.
The portion begins with the first of Abraham’s ten trials, namely G-d’s command that he leave his home and family and move to new land. G-d reassured him that he would be blessed with wealth, renown and children. Those who bless Abraham will be blessed; those who curse him will be cursed.
Abraham moved to the land of Canaan with Sarah, his wife, and Lot, his nephew. However, his first stay there was short-lived. A famine struck the land, and he was forced to move to Egypt. As he and Sarah approached the border, Abraham feared that the Egyptians would kill him because of Sarah. As a protective strategy, Abraham asked Sarah to state that she was his sister, rather than his wife. The strategy worked – too well. Sarah was taken away to Pharaoh’s house, and Abraham was given slaves, maidservants and livestock as a “dowry.”
G-d intervened and afflicted Pharaoh’s household with plagues, sending a clear message that Sarah was the wife of Abraham and therefore prohibited to anyone else. This experience was enough to encourage Pharaoh to allow Abraham and Sarah to leave his country unharmed.
Abraham returned to the land of Canaan laden with wealth. Lot, too, acquired great wealth, so much so that the land could not support the two clans dwelling together. Quarrels began to break out between Abraham’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds. Not wanting to see strife develop, Abraham asked Lot to leave, but allowed him to dwell anywhere he chose. Lot chose the area in and around Sodom, which had become a hotbed of immorality.
As soon as Lot separated from Abraham, G-d appeared to Abraham and once again promised him that his offspring would inherit the land of Canaan forever. Abraham moved his encampment to Hebron and the surrounding area.
The portion now turns to the “international scene,” describing the war of the Four Kings against the Five Kings. This war, which at first did not involve Abraham, quickly drew him in. The King of Sodom was allied with the losing faction and escaped – but Lot was taken captive.
Upon learning this, Abraham embarked on a mission to save his relative. With just a small force, Abraham decisively defeated the victorious kings, and restored all of the people and possessions, including Lot.
After these events, G-d again reassured Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. He informed Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a “land not their own” and that they would be oppressed for 400 years. However, they would eventually leave that land with great wealth and inherit the land of Canaan.
The portion now turns to Abraham’s situation within his own household. Despite G-d’s promise of children, many years had passed without it coming to fruition. Sarah encouraged Abraham to take Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, as a second wife, so that they could have a child whom Sarah would raise as well.
Abraham accepted Sarah’s decision and took Hagar as a wife. She immediately conceived, leading her to believe that her status was superior to that of Sarah. Sarah was deeply hurt at these developments and began to treat Hagar harshly. Hagar escaped to the desert, but an Angel of G-d appeared to her and instructed her to return to Abraham’s household and to accept Sarah’s authority. Hagar was told that she would conceive and give birth to a son, whose name would be Ishmael. This came to pass; Ishmael was born when Abraham was 86 years old.
13 years later, G-d again appeared to Abraham and renewed His covenant with him. G-d gave Abraham and Sarah new names. Until now, they were known as Abram and Sarai, and Abraham had understood that they were not destined to have children together. Now, G-d gave them their new names, and informed Abraham that he would have a son with Sarah; Abraham was 99 years old and Sarah 90 at this point in time.
G-d told Abraham that he would be the father of a multitude of nations, that he would be “exceedingly fruitful,” and that kings would descend from him. Abraham was given the commandment of circumcision for himself and every male in his household.
The portion concludes with Abraham following G-d’s command by circumcising himself, his son Ishmael and all the male servants of his household – in the middle of the day, before the eyes of the world.