Parshas Lech Lecha

Lift As You Climb

In the introduction to the Flood story, the Torah introduces Noach as the righteous man of his day. This is famously taught to be an ambiguous description – that Noach was the greatest in his generation; or that his generation was so awful that being the best of the lot isn’t saying much.

This is the introduction to the hero of an important story. Noach is quite clearly a significant figure – why would we want to interpret him negatively at all?

In isolation, it might seem a little harsh. But in the context of the bigger picture the Torah wants us to learn; it matters that we notice Noach’s mistake. The Rambam notes that the Torah is leading us through the trajectory of human history; how people just couldn’t get it right, until eventually, someone did – Avraham.

The Midrash teaches that after God told Noach to start prepping for the Flood, Noach would tell everyone what he was doing and preach to them to abandon their corruption and lawlessness to embrace ethics and morality. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

In a sense, this reinforces the question. All we can do as humans is try, in the hope that God helps. Why do we hold Noach’s failure against him?

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that Noach’s failing wasn’t in his efforts; it was his methods.

Noach didn’t attempt to understand his society; he separated himself from it. He insulated his family to the extent he couldn’t understand the people around him, and he couldn’t get through. The word “Noach” literally means “easy” – the easy way out.

We need to ask how we could consider ourselves righteous if we completely detach from humanity and society. How strong is our belief system truly if we don’t think it could withstand the slightest scrutiny?

The issues of Noach’s day weren’t ideological or philosophical because paganism isn’t a philosophy – it’s ad hoc. The issues of that day were lust, desire, greed, and selfishness.

The tragedy of Noach was that for all his efforts and personal righteousness, he didn’t put in the effort to understand the people around him.

Arguing with people rarely succeeds – and it rarely matters if you’re right.

In stark contrast, Avraham is lauded as someone who was very in tune with how to win hearts and minds. He fed people and washed them, caring for all people with genuine love and kindness. Pagans were not a threat to him because his beliefs and practices were strong enough to survive contact with them. The Raavad notes how Shem, Ever, and others are heralded as righteous, yet they don’t feature in our pantheon of greats because they never went out into the world.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by living out the Torah’s teachings – בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר.

Noach, the best man his generation could muster, failed:

וַיִשָּׁאֶר אַךְ־נֹחַ – Only Noach was left… (7:23)

Instead of saying that Noach survived – וַיִשָּׁאֶר נֹחַ, the Torah emphasizes that “only” Noach survived, underscoring the utter devastation and loss in the story. R’ Meir Schapiro highlights that this is the moment Noach understood the cost of his failure, abandoning his peers to their fates without doing all he humanly could.

R’ Josh Joseph notes that we highlight Noach’s failure despite his efforts because the image of Noach alone is terrifying, which leads to the rest of his life with alcoholism and misery. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes how that Noach defining feature was that there was nothing wrong with him – תמים – which is to say that Noach was perfectly adequate, and yet that wasn’t enough.

R’ Jonathan Sacks contrasts this broken figure of Noach, who couldn’t save anyone, with the bold and staunch figure of Avraham, who tried to save everybody – when God informed Avraham that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham passionately advocated for their survival – these people who stood for everything he stood against!

Whereas Noach walked with God – אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ – we see Avrohom as someone who goes above and beyond – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי.

We need to dig very deep to have a shot at saving others, lifting as we climb. So it resonates with us that Noach could have done more because perhaps we recognize that’s what it takes in order to live with ourselves.

God Needs Partners

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life, you would think he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good and full of life as well – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true!

Let’s recap. God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children – yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then, on their travels, Sarah was twice targetted by a despotic leader with unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham had to endanger himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused bitter strife in the family between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham sending Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, when we think of God’s great promises of the children and the land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have expected.

So why does the Torah sum up their lives as full of satisfaction and fulfillment?

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that happiness does not mean that we have everything we want or everything we believe we are due.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how we might expect. Avraham’s story seems so trivial – it’s about his business ventures, his travels, and his family disputes. It’s so ordinary!

Yet, R’ Berkowitz teaches, if we had a story about mighty heroes riding flying unicorns to vanquish their enemies and save the world from the clutches of evil, it couldn’t be more silly, and it couldn’t be less relevant. Avraham’s story matters precisely because it is so ordinary. It teaches us that God’s great mission for us comes without fanfare, with no red carpet and no grand celebration. Avraham is our hero because the work God would have us do is in the mundane things of everyday living. It’s in making a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The plain and mundane can be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. It’s not your job to do everything from start to finish, but we have a duty to do all we can to pave the way before passing the baton on to the next person or generation.

As only Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God can promise, but humans have to act. God may promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God may promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

Avraham had taken those first steps. He did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish People become numerous. He had begun, and he had perfect confidence that his descendants would continue. Avraham and Sarah were able to die at peace not only because of their faith in God, but because of their faith, trust, and hope that others would finish what they had started.

It was enough for Abraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

Looking Out for Yourself; for Others

Philosophers debate the nature of altruism, the practice of being concerned with others’ welfare, and how self-interest can intersect with it. We laud Avraham as the first man to reach out to others about the way humans ought to live; yet when God speaks to him, it is not with the language of altruism:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה. וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה – Hashem said to Avram: “Go for yourself; from your land, from your neighborhood, and from your father’s house; to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and those that curse you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (12:1-3)

Rashi explains that Avraham must go for his own sake; he must seek family, fame, and fortune because he desires them – לֶךְ-לְךָ / לַהֲנָאָתְךָ וּלְטוֹבָתְךָ.

Why does God command Avraham, the paragon of altruism, to pursue self-interest?

Perhaps our understanding of altruism is slightly skewed. We think it’s a good question because the conventional wisdom suggests that pure altruism requires one person to sacrifice for another with no personal benefit; that self-interest and altruism are antithetical.

Yet, in practice, we rightly admire people who create or contribute opportunities for our communities. We have no respect for people who let others walk all over them, which amounts to a lack of self-respect, not altruism.

As the famous saying in Pirkei Avos goes, if I am not for myself, what am I…? Rabbeinu Yonah explains that extrinsic motivation is fleeting; we need to pursue our goals for our own purposes – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.

Hashem tells Avraham to go on the journey for intrinsic purposes because it will be personally rewarding. The Rambam says that wise people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; any optimistic hopes about what may follow will always be secondary to doing the right thing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that only once we value ourselves can we learn to value others.

For Avraham to open his home to the world, he needed to have a house large enough to share with others and something to share with them. He had to establish himself in order to help others – וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

The how and why are everything. It is perfectly ok to have lots of money, for example, but the qualifier is what we do with it.

Avraham is altruistic, but he is not selfless, which is extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is outcome-oriented, so it cannot last – when we win the deal, marry the person, or build the school, what happens then? And what happens if we don’t get the outcome we hoped for?

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is process-oriented, which is more reliable in the long run because it is objectively fulfilling.

The Torah does not expect or condone selflessness. Selflessness is not sustainable, and it’s not an ingredient that leads to a lasting legacy. Hashem says to Avraham that he must take the journey for his own sake, not for God and not for others. His approach would only endure if it weren’t contingent on something extrinsic.

The Seforno notes that Hashem promises Avraham that on this journey of self-fulfillment that takes care of others, he will not only be blessed; he will literally become a blessing – וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

As the saying in Mishlei says, a kind man cares for his wellbeing, and a cruel man afflicts himself – גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ, אִישׁ חָסֶד; וְעֹכֵר שְׁאֵרוֹ, אַכְזָרִי. Altruism is possible, and altruism is real, although, in healthy people, it intertwines with the well-being of the self; our actions express and promote our values; they do not seek other people’s approval.

It’s ok to establish and stand up for yourself. The balance to strike is that we utilize our blessings to help others.

The Covenant of Perfection

The concept of covenant is a central theme of Judaism. Covenants typically have a sign, such as the rainbow signifying God’s promise not to flood the world. In Jewish men, the covenant is expressed through the practice of circumcision – בְּרִית – literally, “covenant.” A covenant is defined as a bilateral agreement of mutual commitment between two parties.

What is the agreement of the covenant?

When God engaged Avraham to enter the covenant, God mapped out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness, and the land of Israel. They just had to do one small thing:

וַיֵּרָא ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – Hashem appeared to Avraham, and said to him; “I am The Omnipotent…. Walk before me, and be perfect ”. (17:1)

All the covenant requires of us is… to be perfect. It doesn’t take much trying before you quickly realize that perfection is impossible. How can God ask us to do the impossible?

The question betrays the kind of defeatist thinking we are prone to. Perfectionism can be paralyzing – if we can’t do it perfectly, then why try at all?

We need to learn that perfection is not the outcome but the process. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we do our best, we will find ourselves becoming more perfect – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread an improvement from raw stalks of wheat, humans can and must improve the world around us.

The Gemara teaches that the name Hashem introduced Himself with, אֵל שַׁדַּי, expresses the concept that the Creator withdrew from creating so that life had space to be and grow – שאמר לעולמו די.

The Kedushas Levi notes that by necessity, God forms this space for us to have any input because our input is precisely what God desires from us.

The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant. Circumcision is not an extrinsic sign; it is the covenantal mark on our bodies, living expressions of the covenant itself.

The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us, teaching us that we can our everyday lives can be elevated and refined to improve the world around us.

We can’t be perfect. But the perfect is the enemy of the good.

The Filter of Wealth

Abraham Lincoln famously said that any man can handle adversity; but if you wish to truly test a man’s character, give him power. Power and money are fungible, as both represent easy access to options.

It’s not unlikely that you know people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude became plain as day once they ”got ahead” after trying to hide it for a while; people who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for a few more dollars reveal themselves when the opportunity arises.

People think that money and power corrupt, but more likely than the idea that it changes us, is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities.

Avraham and his family were blessed with tremendous wealth when they left Egypt:

וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ–הַנֶּגְבָּה. וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב. וַיֵּלֶךְ, לְמַסָּעָיו, מִנֶּגֶב, וְעַד-בֵּית-אֵל–עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה, בֵּין בֵּית-אֵל, וּבֵין הָעָי. אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה; וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם אַבְרָם, בְּשֵׁם ה – Avram went up from Egypt; him, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South. And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold. And he went on his journeys from the South to Beth-el, to the place where his tent had originally been, between Beth-el and Ai; and to the site of the altar, which he had made earlier; and Avram called there in the name of Hashem. (13:1-4)

How do the Torah’s heroes handle the test of great wealth?

Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that his wealth hasn’t changed him; he returns to his old home, and his renowned altar on the mountainside – עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה / אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה.

In stark contrast, Lot’s attitude to wealth alienates him from the family, which causes the dispute:

וְלֹא-נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ, לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו:  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.  וַיְהִי-רִיב, בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-אַבְרָם, וּבֵין, רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-לוֹט; – The land was not able to bear them dwelling together; because their assets were so great. There was strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle… (13:6,7)

The Torah implies from the beginning that money is what stands between Avraham and Lot – וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that they drifted apart not because of a shortage of land, but because of such an abundance that they couldn’t figure out how to jointly manage it – כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.

The Malbim explains that people who can agree on principles can figure out a way to work together. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot just wanted to accumulate more – there was no way for them to work together anymore. The assets had become a burden – כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב.

The tension between the family leads them to separate, and Avraham magnanimously offers his young nephew the first choice of where he will go, and Lot chooses Sodom and the fertile Jordan Valley. The Torah lets us know what it thinks of Lot; he has literally and figuratively descended into the evil environment of Sodom, whose destruction is imminent – in contrast to Avraham, thanking Hashem with sacrificial offerings high in the mountains of Israel.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tribulations unite us, but our real test comes in times of plenty and security.

In any relationship, whether business, personal, or romantic, it just won’t work if each partner is only out for themselves. Keeping score will create a mutual incompatibility and is a sure way to lose. The only way everyone wins is when partners look out for each other and let small things pass.

Relationships are always a binary choice of working towards the vision, or division. The Torah teaches us that families and relationships disintegrate when individuals lose sight of the bigger picture of common goals and let money get in between them.

The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will enhance good character, instead of unmasking mediocre priorities.

The Call to Action

Our ancestor Avraham was counter-cultural, resisting the religious and social trends of his day, earning the blessing of being a father of multitudes:

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּטנָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִיםאִםתּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – And He took him outside, and said: ‘Look at the heavens, and count the stars if you could even count them’; and He said to him: ‘So will your children be.’

Because he was different, he was treated to a different fate, outside and beyond the natural course of history – וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה.

What made Avraham different was that his belief in one God was that he expressed that belief by dedicating his life to kindness, justice, and education. On this basis, before destroying Sodom, something remarkably unusual happens. God has a soliloquy, where the Torah narrates God’s thoughts:

 וַה אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. וְאַבְרָהָםהָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּבוֹכֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּטלְמַעַן, הָבִיא ה עַלאַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁרדִּבֶּר, עָלָיו  Hashem said to Himself: “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do? Avraham will become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. I know him; he will command his children and his house after him, that they may observe the way of Hashem, to do what is right and just; so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke of him.” (18:17-19)

This incident takes place because, remarkably, God feels obligated to tell Avraham. The story implies that otherwise, Avraham would wake up the next morning and find two smoldering cities blown off the horizon, and, believing that any innocent citizens of Sodom were swept away with the guilty, he would no longer be able to teach that Hashem is just, which is precisely his line of questioning when he, again, remarkably, challenges God:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע – Avraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?!” (18:23)

Avraham continues:

 חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְהֲשֹׁפֵט כָּלהָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. – “It profanes You to do such a thing – to slay the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should exactly be the same as the wicked – it profanes You! Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?!” (18:25)

Hashem accepts Avraham’s fundamental premise that collective punishment is unjust, and it would be wrong to destroy a whole group indiscriminately. Once God has shown Avraham that this principle is correct, Avraham negotiates how many innocents are worth saving:

וַיֹּאמֶר אַלנָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְהַפַּעַםאוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֲשָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה. – And he said: “Please, don’t be angry, Hashem, and I will speak just once more. Perhaps ten innocents can be found there?” And Hashem said: “I will not destroy the city for the ten’s sake.” (18:32)

Of course, God did rescue the innocents, in the form of Lot and his family, and then God destroys the city anyway, as God was always going to.

The seed for this entire highly unusual dialogue is for the stated reason that Avraham is going to teach his descendants about justice and integrity – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

Unlike Noah, who accepts God’s condemnation of his world, Avraham establishes a precedent followed by Moshe, Jonah, and many others of brazenness towards Heaven, for Heaven’s sake – חוצפה כלפי שמיא. And we must not think this is sacrilege – it’s the exact opposite! Hashem very literally invites and prompts Avraham into the argument. There is a reason Avraham is known as the Hebrew, the stranger standing alone on the other side – אברהם העברי.

Avraham was loyal to God and committed to justice, but his loyalties were at odds in this conversation. The test is that God would appear unjust to see whether Avraham swayed towards justice or to God. By appearing to lose the staged argument, God demonstrates a commitment to justice, paradoxically validating Avraham’s loyalty to God. Thus, the story of Avraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to simultaneously be a story of God testing Avraham’s commitment to justice.

But he cannot teach what he does not yet know! R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God orchestrates the whole conversation simply so that Avraham and his descendants – we the readers – can learn that there is nothing sacred about accepting suffering or wrongdoing.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that there is no satisfactory answer to injustice in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

It is up to us as the bearers of Avraham’s legacy to stand up for what is right. When there is something you can do to make it right, do not close your eyes and turn away.

The Illusion of Perfection

The Torah is written in the language of humans, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools.

Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in the form of stories.  Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.

Some authorities say that the stories of our tradition are not about ordinary people like you and me; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different to us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different to us, how can their stories relevantly guide our lives?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that power of the Torah is that unlike other cultures, our heroes are not gods or demigods, they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human.

God promised Avraham family, fame, and fortune; yet had to fight for them his whole life. When famine struck his new home in Israel, he decided that he could take better care of his family in the fertile land of Egypt. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts; he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after she was taken by Paroh.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not waiting for God’s promises; and by abandoning Israel, he risked the promises and endangered the family he was trying to protect.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this very discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage.

Our ancestors are the prototypes of what the ideal person looks like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; they are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; because if they weren’t like us, they wouldn’t be relevant. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems we do: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.

Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He was not born holy, and he did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him a holiness advantage.

The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; it’s ok to be human.

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult, and rarely black and white. Only a story transmits the eternal turmoil of moral responsibility.

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people make mistakes. Perfection is ever-elusive, but greatness is not.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

A Wish Upon A Star

One of the most beautiful promises ever made was the one God made to Avraham about his future descendants:

ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך – He took him outside and said, “Look at the heavens above. Count the stars, if you ever could! So will your offspring be.” (15:5)

This can be read literally, that Avraham’s lineal and intellectual descendants would be numerous, and this certainly came to pass – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests a further figurative approach, that perhaps כה יהיה זרעך means that just like Avraham would look heavenward and dream of a better future, his children would be stargazers as well.

Living and looking beyond the present, hoping and working towards a better future.

One Step Closer

When God reached out to Avraham to leave his homeland, Avraham never knew where he was going. Avraham was told לך־לך – and he just went!

Why wouldn’t God say where he’d be going?

The Sfas Emes finds this interaction, the first of its kind, instructive as to what it means to be a Jew. There is no destination because it is a dynamic mission that evolves along the way. Being a Jew calls for different things at different times – a good Jew during the Inquisition looked different to a good Jew in New York today, and a good Jew 500 years from now will look different still.

Perhaps that’s why Rashi notes that every step brought its own reward. It’s not about extrinsic rewards of Paradise and eternal bliss – it’s about the intrinsic blessing that each step reveals.

Without a singular focus on the outcome, Avraham could put his heart and soul into the process. Every step Avraham took brought him somewhere new. But the effort for every step was the same because each step could be the last. In a way, לך־לך is an instruction to go לך – within yourself, a lifelong journey of self-discovery. There is no destination because it’s a challenge – how deep can you go? The process is the purpose of the instruction, not the outcome. Each step compounds development.

We never control our circumstances or outcomes, but we control our actions and ourselves. It was this desire and commitment to progress that mattered. This attitude was characteristic of Avraham, the prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to emulate.

One of the most beautiful parts of Tanach is God’s promise never to forget the sacrifice and belief the Jewish people once showed:

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה – So says Hashem, “I remember the kindness of your youth; the love of your commitment. You followed me into the desert, into a barren land…” (Jeremiah 2:2)

The model for this is Avraham, the first to put himself out there, long before God spoke to him. His entire life was about exerting himself to reach out to others.

One of his greatest moments came when he was lame and exhausted on a searingly hot day. There was every excuse to take it easy, but that’s not what Avraham stood for. In his idiosyncratic way, he did the only thing he knew. He left his home and went out into the scorching heat because there was another human he might be able to help.

Avraham wasn’t born special. God’s call was always out there, and others heard it – there was Shem, Ever, Methuselah. But Avraham was the first to take the initiative and try to make his world a better place.

Maybe that’s what לך־לך means – a better world looks different to every generation, but our duty, and the commitment it requires remain the same.

We can always do more; it’s just one step away.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

Avraham spoke to God many times without incident. But just one time, in the conversation where God instruction Avraham to leave his birthplace, something unusual happens:

וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham fell on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)

Avraham recoils as though he were burned. This sort of reaction to God’s presence is unique – nothing like this happens any other time.

What made Avraham fall?

In this conversation, Avraham got a glimpse of the future in store for his descendants, a covenant marked by the sign of circumcision.

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that before something is required, there is no deficiency for not complying. But once the obligation exists, we are liable. Avraham didn’t have to circumcise himself before God told him – how could he know? But the very moment God gave the instruction, Avraham was physically defective and literally could not stand in God’s presence in such a state.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of.

But improvement is gradual and incremental. So long as you are not ready for more, it’s not your fault you’re not there yet.

But when the moment arrives that you can do more, and remain content to stay put, the burden counts against you – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Yes, chase more responsibility, learn more, and demand a higher standard of yourself. But the moral life is a marathon, not a sprint. One step at a time is an effective strategy too.

Don’t run before you can walk.

All You Can Be

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham was the immense challenge to abandon all he had ever known:

לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the home of your father, to the land which I will show you.” (12:1)

The instruction is quite odd because it doesn’t focus on where Avraham has to go, and the sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave home, then the neighborhood, and then the country.

Why does the story emphasize leaving, and in such a strange way?

The Sfas Emes explains that the hallmark of great people is that they actively seek challenges and opportunities. Avraham was the first person to intuitively understand God’s vision for humanity of ethics and moral consciousness. But he couldn’t bring it about in the stagnant place he grew up.

You can forget your nationality quicker than the community you grew up in, and you can forget your community before you forget your family, but it is tough to forget what you learned at home. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the thrust of Hashem’s command is to discard the poor traits he might have picked up along the way.

Avraham was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision, and they had to go.

Our environment is essential to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have. The order of God’s instruction isn’t the order of how we leave home, but it’s the order of how home leaves us – מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that greatness isn’t simply about going somewhere or doing something. It’s about leaving the comfortable, the familiar, and the supportive behind as well, what we’re letting go of. To get where we want to go, sometimes we need to let something go of something – לך לך.

The Mesilas Yesharim observes that the most natural default state for living things is laziness. When animals aren’t trying to eat or reproduce, they often won’t do anything at all because moving is a waste of energy. Even further, entropy is a law of physics that dictates that everything will sink to its most static state. Stagnation is natural!

It’s hard to move and think outside the comfort zone, and we develop a self-image, the story we tell ourselves of what we can and can’t do. After all, if you can’t do it, it’s not your fault, and it’s not your responsibility! We have to let go of that – לך לך.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet since that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of, we don’t even begin! We tell ourselves greatness is beyond us, so we don’t have to do anything.

That’s why more than God emphasizes the need to get somewhere; God emphasizes the need to get started – לך לך.

We need to get off zero and get going.