Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 9 November 2019 / 11 Heshvan 5780

Parshat Lech Lecha

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Go It Alone

Our Torah portion begins with the very first command given to Avraham: Go alone, for yourself, from your country, from your birthplace, and from the house of your father, to the land I will show you. This was not merely a directive to go to Canaan. If that were the only purpose, the sentence would be much shorter: Leave to Canaan. The departure necessarily includes leaving his country, his birthplace and his home. Lech, explains Rav Hirsch, implies detachment and separation (related to chalak, divide). Lech lecha — for you — then means “go for yourself, go your own way, isolate yourself.”

One’s eretz, homeland, and moledet, birthplace, exert a powerful influence on a person’s physical, mental and moral states. One’s home is the private sphere in which the individual thrives and develops under the special care of his family. In full recognition of the value of home and homeland, Hashem tells Avraham to leave these behind. He is to isolate himself.

The tendency of that generation was to centralize. They began to build a tower (the Tower of Bavel) to glorify the collective power of man. The individual was reduced to a mere instrument of the masses. A move toward centralization and the power of community gives rise to the false belief in the exclusive authority of the majority. Any value held sacred by the majority is automatically revered and held sacred by every individual.

Now, the community should represent exalted values. Indeed, Judaism attaches importance to community and cautions not to separate oneself from the community. Nevertheless, at the outset of Jewish history, Avraham is told: Go for yourself, go your own way. If the principle adopted by the majority is untrue — then go it alone and serve G-d!

This single command was to characterize the mission of the Jew. The bond that attaches a Jew to his ultimate mission must be stronger than the bond that ties him to his home and his nationality. From our father Avraham we inherited the courage to be a minority. This is reason he was called “ha’ivri”— “ the one from over there” — Chazal note, because the entire world stood at one side, championing polytheism, and Avraham stood alone, on the other side, resolute in His monotheistic truth and piety. When everyone else in the world was seeking to integrate, to establish himself, and win the rights of a citizen, Avraham gave up his homeland and his rights of citizenship. For the sake of G-d’s mission he became an outsider and openly denied their gods.

For many centuries it was the test to remain faithful to Judaism in the face of “outside” persecution from the gentile nations. In Rav Hirsch’s time the challenges were from within. The strength to withstand the pressure to “update” Judaism to fit with the times — a pressure that exists no less today than it did in Rav Hirsch’s time — is bequeathed to us by virtue of Avraham’s fulfillment of this first command.

Source: Commentary, Genesis 12.1

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