October 18th-19th, 2002
13 Cheshvan, 5763
The following is a revised edition of the Insights edition from 1997/5758
"Hashem said to Avram, 'Go for yourself from your land, from your
relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.
And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and make your
name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you,
and him who curses you I will curse; and all the families of the earth
shall bless themselves by you.'" (Bereishis 12: 1-3)
I. A LONELY PATH…
Sometime or other in our lives, we have all probably felt the difficulty
of being Jewish. Perhaps we have heard an anti-semitic remark or
inflection, been denied access to some society (official or unofficial)
because of our religion, or simply--on some level-- experienced the
tension between the tenets and of our faith and the mores of the
surrounding society. In some life situation, large or small, a painful
choice had to be made: follow my Judaism in this instance, or heed the
opposing call of family, friends, society. Such trials simply come with
However, if "lonely struggle" is the only mode of being one associates
with Judaism, or even the dominant one, then something is tragically
wrong: joy and happiness with one's lot in life are among Judaism's most
highly praised character traits. What is the ultimate goal of our lives if
not to rejoice in our special closeness to G-d, in the beauty of Torah and
mitzvos, of Jewish observances and ideals and celebrations...and weddings.
(There is no greater simcha in the world than a traditional Jewish
wedding, that's for sure!)
Moreover, accenting the pain and conflict doesn't exactly sell: as a great
departed sage of our time noted, untold numbers of American Jews were lost
to observance earlier in this century because the strongest message they
picked up from their parents was, "How hard it is to be a Jew!" Making
Holocaust studies the main staple of Jewish education and identity would
seem to be repeating the same mistake.
Still, though it may not be as hard as we sometimes think (or, more
correctly as our "evil inclination" seeks to persuade us), it is not
always the easiest thing in the world to live as Jews. And at those
moments of crisis that have occurred, where on earth have we Jews found
the strength and stubbornness to exist...or resist? Who taught us to go
against the tide?
The opening words of our parsha give us a clue.
Hashem summons Avram to leave everything familiar behind--homeland,
hometown, parental home--and to go to an unknown land...much as Moshe
would later summon the children of Israel to leave Egypt and follow G-d
out into a desert. The difference is that here, Avram didn't have a whole
nation with him; he (and his family) were alone. Lech lecha, go for
yourself…in opposition to the crowd.
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interestingly points out, this was in
complete contrast to the trend of his time: Avram grew up during the era
of the Tower of Babel, when mankind had joined together in a monumental,
and misguided, building project that showed the collective power (and
folly) of mankind. The individual counted for little; what the majority
deemed important became everybody's standard. And even though Judaism
itself puts a very great value on community, Hirsch writes that
"...at the head of Judaism, the words Lech lecha, 'go for yourself,'
stand as being higher still; nobody may
say: I am as good, as honest, as everybody
else is, as is the fashion here today. If necessary, alone--with
G-d--when the principle worshipped by the
majorityu is not the true godly one. This is
what was demanded from Avraham as the starting point
for his and his future people's mission."
(Hirsch, Commentary on the Torah: I, p. 224)
In truth, Avram had already shown his courage and independence prior to
this point. At the end of Parshas Noach, Rashi quotes the famous Midrash
telling of Avram’s being thrown into a furnace by King Nimrod for his
idol-smashing activities in the metropolis of Ur. (Being persecuted for
our stubborn adherence to truth goes back to the very beginning of our
history as well.) G-d's call to Avram here only confirms, and broadens,
his self-imposed mission.
II. TO BE A BLESSING
What was the goal of Avram’s independence, the ultimate purpose of his
aloneness? Hashem states it clearly: Veh'hyay b'rachah--"and you shall be
The Jewish people have been chosen to be a blessing--to bring holiness
into the world, and to serve as an example to mankind of a life infused
with the holiness of G-d’s word and commandments. As Maharal points out
(quoted in the introduction to The Laws of B'rachos by Rabbis Forst and
Twerski, p. 28), the word baruch, which opens most blessings, denotes
"increase." Whenever we make a blessing, we are praying to G-d that He
should increase His influence in the world, that He should bestow the
ultimate in good to His creation...which, it should be noted, was the
original purpose of His handiwork in the first place. (See Derech Hashem:
I, 2) And the Torah we study, and mitzvos we do, achieve that cosmic
effect of increasing holiness in all of creation. The whole world has
always been--and continues to be--the beneficiary of our "aloneness," of
our separateness as a people.
Of course, we Jews are still members of the community of mankind: we live
and work among other peoples, and interact with them. But when it comes to
our mores and our morality, we adhere to the lofty Jewish standards set by
our great ancestors (and enshrined in the Torah)…and not to community
standards! If that means standing on one side, while the entire world
stands on the other, then so be it. We have never been interested in
buying popularity when the price to be paid is our Torah principles.
"To be a blessing" means, in short, to be a partner with G-d in fulfilling
the original purpose of creation. That was the meaning of G-d’s call to
Avram at the beginning of this portion…and the mission of his descendants
(us!) down to this very day.
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