Translated and abridged by Rabbi Chanan Morrison
According to an intriguing Midrash (Tanchuma Toldot 4), Abraham would not have made it out of his hometown of Ur Casdim alive, were it not for the intervention of his grandson. King Nimrod ordered Abraham thrown into a fiery furnace because of Abraham's rejection of idolatry; but Jacob came to the rescue, as it says, "So said God to the house of Jacob who redeemed Abraham: Jacob will not be ashamed, nor will his face become pale." (Isaiah 29:22)
Even given the poetic license of Midrashic literature, Jacob could not have literally rescued his grandfather in an incident that took place before Jacob was born. Rather, the Sages wanted to teach us that Abraham was saved due to some special merit or quality of his grandson Jacob. What was this quality of Jacob that Abraham lacked?
Two Paths of Change
There are two different paths of spiritual growth that we may follow. The first path is one of sudden, radical change, usually the result of some external catalyst.
One example of such a drastic transformation may be found in the story of Saul. The prophet Samuel informed Saul that he will meet a band of prophets playing musical instruments. This encounter, the prophet told Saul, will be a turning point in your life. "The spirit of God will suddenly come over you and you will prophesy with them. And you will be transformed to a different person" (I Samuel 10:6).
The second path is one of slow, deliberate growth. We attain this gradual change through our own toil; it does not require an external stimulus, and is thus always accessible. But why are there two different paths of change available to us?
If God provided us with two paths, then clearly both are needed. We should first prepare ourselves and advance as much as possible through our own efforts. After we have attained the highest level that we are capable of reaching, we may benefit from unexpected inspiration from the soul's inner resources.
Abraham was a revolutionary, introducing the spiritual revolt against his generation's idolatry. Abraham is the archetype for radical change. The defining moments his life were dramatic events of prodigious dedication and self-sacrifice, such as his brit milah(circumcision) at an advanced age, and the Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. By merit of Abraham's far-reaching spiritual accomplishments, his descendants inherited those soul-qualities that foster sudden transformation.
Future generations, however, cannot rely solely on Abraham's style of radical change. As a normative path for all times, we also need the method of gradual spiritual growth. The model for this type of change is Jacob. Unlike his grandfather, Jacob never underwent sudden transformations of personality or direction. Rather, the Torah characterizes him as "a quiet, scholarly man, dwelling in tents" (Gen. 25:27). Jacob's place was in the tents of Torah. Jacob worked on himself gradually, growing through perseverance and diligent Torah study.
Two Names for Jerusalem
The city of Jerusalem combines both of these paths. The Midrash teaches that the name Jerusalem is a combination of two names, reflecting both qualities of the holy city. Abraham called the city Yireh, while Malki-tzedek called it Shalem. Not wanting to offend either of these righteous men, God combined both names together, naming the city Yeru-Shalayim — 'Jerusalem' (Bereishit Rabbah 56:10).
What does the name Yireh mean? The holy city, particularly the Temple, had a profound impact on all who experienced its unique sanctity. This profound spiritual encounter is described as a form of sublime perception — "Your eyes will see your Teacher" (Isaiah 30:20). The impact from this elevated vision inspired visitors above and beyond their ordinary spiritual capabilities. In honor of the intense spiritual change effected by perceiving Jerusalem's holiness, Abraham named the city Yireh — "he will see."
Malki-tzedek, on the other hand, referred to the city's qualities that assist those who seek to perfect themselves in a gradual fashion. Jerusalem is a place of Torah and ethical teachings, "For Torah shall go forth from Zion" (Isaiah 2:3). Therefore Malki-tzedek named the city Shalem ('perfection'), referring to this incremental approach towards spiritual perfection.
Jacob to the Rescue
Returning to our original question: how did Jacob rescue his grandfather from the fiery furnace? In what way will Jacob 'not be ashamed'?
The Kabbalists explain that the goal of humanity, the reason why the soul is lowered into this world, is so that we may perfect ourselves through our own efforts. This way, we will not need to partake of nehama dekisufa (the 'bread of shame') for taking that which we did not earn.
While this explanation fits the path of gradual change, it would appear that the path of radical transformation is an external gift that we do not deserve. Is this not the undesired nehama dekisufathat we should avoid?
Not necessarily. If we are able to take this unexpected gift, and use it to attain even greater levels of spiritual growth with our own efforts, then there is no shame in this gift. It is like a father who gave his son a large monetary gift. If the son simply lives off the money until it is finished, then the father's gift is nehama dekisufa, a disgrace reflecting no credit upon the son. If, however, the son uses the money to start a new business, and through his efforts doubles and triples the original investment, then the son has certainly pleased his father and brought honor to himself.
This is exactly the way that Jacob 'rescued' his grandfather Abraham. Left on his own, the most natural path for Abraham — whose revolutionary soul called for sudden, drastic change — would have been to attain complete and absolute self-sacrifice in Nimrod's fiery furnace. It was Jacob's trait of gradual, careful change that saved Abraham from this fate. Jacob's path of spiritual growth caused Abraham to also follow this slower path. Abraham left the furnace, and over the years worked diligently to attain the spiritual elevation that he had relinquished inside the furnace of martyrdom.
Why bother with the slower path? 'Jacob will not be ashamed.' By growing slowly through our own efforts, the spiritual gifts of radical change are no longer an embarrassing nehama dekisufa, but an honorable gift that we have utilized to the fullest.
(Adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 289-292)
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Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkookTorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).