Parshat Lech Lecha
The downward spiral of the beginning of world history changes course in this week's Parsha. The first twenty generations of mankind, dating from Adam, angered Hashem until Abraham came onto the scene. This spiritual giant, who is the founder and foundation of the Jewish people, plays a primary role in correcting the mistakes and shortcomings of all of the previous generations. His importance can be readily seen by the fact that the Torah summarizes the first two thousand years of history in only two Parshiot (weekly readings) while the following two Parshiot are dedicated solely to Abraham's achievements and greatness. However, as we learn about this towering figure, it is essential to keep in mind that his personal development and accomplishments were the products of years of work. It took ten major tests over the span of decades for his spiritual potential to be realized.
Let's delve into the wording and nature of these tests and try to uncover some fascinating and important insights. In the first of his tests, Abraham was commanded to leave his homeland. Hashem obligated him with the words "Lech Lecha" - literally "go for yourself". What is meant by this seemingly superfluous wording? Why isn't it sufficient simply to say "Lech"- "go".
The simple explanation of the obligation to "go for yourself" is that Abraham was commanded to disassociate himself from the constrictions and limits of his birthplace and place of upbringing. The challenge was formidable: to leave friends and family and to sojourn to a foreign, potentially hostile land.
Curiously, at the end of next week's Parsha, after years of growth and self-development, Abraham was charged with one final test. This final hurdle on the road to becoming the father of the Jewish people was known as the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. As is well known Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. (We will try, with Hashem's help, to discuss this story next week.) What is relevant to our present discussion is that this final command was also introduced by the words "Lech Lecha". Why are both the first and final command phrased in this way?
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, the leader of 19th century German Jewry, suggests the following. Abraham would have two situations where he would need to separate himself from others and travel alone. In order to become the father of a new people he would need to distance himself from his past environment and start a new community dedicated to the belief in Hashem. He would need to weather the hardships and realities of leaving a familiar present for an unknown future. Similarly, dozens of years later he would have to take one more journey where he would be tested by himself, a final "Lech Lecha". Although Abraham did inform Isaac of the intended sacrifice on the way to the Akeida, even so, Abraham would again need to overcome this immense challenge basically by himself. In short, both the first and final tests would require him to follow the command to "go for yourself".
Let us delve into the nature of his tests on a deeper level. The Midrash notes this repetition of the use of "Lech Lecha"and asks an astounding question. Our Sages comment that if both tests start with the same words, "Lech Lecha", there should be some correlation, some connection. Based on this assumption they ask which one was greater, the first or final test? Was the first "Lech Lecha" of traveling from his homeland to go to the land of Israel greater or maybe the final one of sacrificing his son? The Midrash answers that, in fact, the final test was greater.
The Midrash is astonishing and the Rebbe of Slonim, the "Nesivos Shalom", wonders about how to understand the basis of the question the Midrash poses. How is it possible, he asks, to compare the hardships of travel and separation, as great as they might be, to the sacrificing of one's son? Is it possible that whatever hardships Abraham experienced during his travels were as immense as his final test to offer his own son as a sacrifice?
The Rebbe offers an essential lesson on how to view the challenges of life. He says there are two types of unique difficulties that a person can face. One is the day-to-day trials and tribulations of a situation which have no immediate resolve. This can include the very painful realities of illness, being single, childless, etc. Heaven forbid. One goes to sleep with the problem and one awakes to the problem. These situations can be used as springboards for growing in one's faith and belief in Hashem and in the knowledge that the test is ultimately for one's best. Even so, for many, there are no easy answers or resolutions to the problems themselves. On the other hand, there is a different type of test that can entail situations of literal life and death. These include heart-rending stories of the Holocaust and victims of terrorism where noble individuals and communities sacrificed or lost their lives and the lives of their loved ones. It took seemingly super-human strength to overcome so many of those challenges. These are often not long-term or drawn-out ordeals, however the enormity of the tribulation over-weighs the brevity of the hardship.
Which one is greater? Ultimately the Midrash teaches us that the challenges of sacrifice, of life and death, are greater and more formidable even if they are shorter in nature. Even so, notes the Nesivos Shalom, according to the Midrash there is room to question which one is greater because sometimes the anguish of day-to-day, long-term tests can be comparable to the intensity of the short-term situations of sacrifice.
I would like to suggest that the first explanation offered above of Abraham's requirement to "go for yourself" adds insight into the nature of the day-to-day challenges. As explained, the phrase "Lech Lecha" signifies that Abraham faced his first and last tests as an individual, without the support of any community to ease the challenge. Those individuals who, Heaven forbid, suffer the pain of long-term trials and tribulations can often feel that they too are walking the path alone.
These insights teach us that in every generation there are Abrahams who, although they don't literally give up their lives or the lives of their dear ones, do have tests which, according to the Midrash, are comparable to the Akeidah itself. Additionally they often walk a lonely road. If these type of tests were given only to an Abraham for fear that a lesser individual would buckle under the challenge, how awesome are those special individuals who are the Abrahams of this generation who Hashem tests with situations of unique hardship.
I want to end with a thought and a prayer. I try to write thoughts based on the Parsha which are relevant to our lives. I walk gently on the holy soil of personal suffering, Hashem should save us from any hardships. But with these words are the prayers of myself and the many who feel deeply for those who are going through personal misfortune. We are praying for Hashem's loving salvation for every individual who, Heaven forbid, may be suffering in any way. May we all see His collective and individual redemption soon and speedily in our days.