Rav Soloveitchik on Parashat Lekh Lekha

05 Nov 2009
OU Press

Finding the Holy

“And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem… and the Lord appeared to Abraham and said: To your seed will I give this land; and he built there an altar unto the Lord who appeared to him” (Gen. 12:6-7). Why was it necessary to say “who appeared to him”? The sentence “He built there an altar to the Lord” would have sufficed. The answer is clear. He built the altar because God had confirmed his choice of the land by appearing to him. Abraham knew that his intuitive choice was correct, and he built an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him and sanctioned his choice of the land.

Rashi (Gen. 12:2) says, “He did not reveal the land to him immediately, in order to make it precious in his eyes,” and notes in the same comment, “Similarly we find [in Gen. 22:2], ‘upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.’” When Abraham was commanded to offer Isaac on Mount Moriah, God did not identify the mountain on whose top the sacrifice was to take place. Abraham had to search for the mountain and identify it intuitively; only then would God confirm it. The Bible tells us that it took Abraham three days to find and recognize the mount (Gen. 22:4). He found it, and God sanctioned his finding. “And they came to the place of which God told him” (Gen. 22:9). However, prior to the word of God confirming the identity of the place, Abraham had to find it by himself.

King David and the Sanhedrin searched long and hard and decided in favor of Ornan’s threshing floor as the site for the Temple. Only afterwards did God sanction their choice through the prophet Gad. “Then the angel of the Lord commanded Gad to say to David that David should go up and rear an altar to the Lord in the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite” (I Chron. 21:18). First one must search for the abode; only then will one be able to establish the sanctuary.

Here is a central idea in Judaism: kedushah attracts. This was perhaps the greatest discovery made by Abraham. The generation of the flood thought that beauty is fascinating and that it is man’s duty to respond quickly to the aesthetic challenge, to succumb to the beautiful and pleasant. The generation of the dispersion thought that power is the idea that overwhelms man; technological achievement takes man prisoner, making him worship the genius who made this kind of achievement possible. Abraham proclaimed to the world that kedushah is the great attractive force.

The Almighty has implanted in the Jew a sensitivity to kedushah, to the holy. We are supposed to react to kedushah the way the eye reacts quickly and sharply to a beam of light. In a word, the covenantal community is supposed to be equipped with a sixth sense enabling it to be spontaneously attracted by the holy and to discriminate between the holy and the profane. Abraham was tested to determine whether or not he possessed the capability. His whole destiny was dependent upon the outcome of these tests, and he came out with flying colors. He identified kedushah even though others, who saw just the surface, did not recognize the mount (Gen. Rabbah 56:2). Knowledge of God is not just abstract in nature. It is dynamic, passionate, experiential, all-powerful, and all-redeeming. It is not knowledge in the ordinary sense of the word; it is ecstatic and perceptional.

Excerpted from Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

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