Commentary for Lech-Lecha

21 Nov

This week’s parshah begins with God’s famous commandment to Abraham to “go for yourself from your land, from your kinsman, from your father’s household, to the land that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” There has been much commentary written on different aspects of this verse, dealing with things from the momentous step this was in the relationship between God and the Jewish People to the emotional bonds we form and the difficulty of leaving our family and the surroundings we know. Surprisingly little, however, has been written about what this meant for Abraham himself, there in that time.

We were introduced to Abraham at the end of last week’s parshah. His father was named Terach and he had two brothers, Nachor and Haran. We are also told that Haran died an early death in front of his father, and that afterwards Terach, Abraham, Nachor, and Haran’s son Lot left their home of Ur-kasdim. Attempting to ascertain why the seemingly extraneous details of Haran’s death and the fact that he died in front of his father are included in the Torah, Bereishit Rabbah follows up on Rashi’s well-known midrash that upon discovering that God is the One True God, Abraham smashed up the idols in his father’s idol shop with another midrash: Terach turned his son in to the authorities, and King Nimrod sentenced Abraham to be burned alive in a fiery furnace. Abraham managed to hide for thirteen years before he was finally caught. Abraham’s brother Haran was unsure whether to side with his brother or his father and his king, so he resolved that he would see what would happen when Abraham was thrown into the furnace: if he died then Haran would declare his support for the king’s point of view, and if Abraham miraculously survived then he would declare his support for Abraham’s new concept of monotheism. Abraham was thrown into the furnace, but God protected him and he emerged unscathed. Seeing this, Haran declared his support for Abraham, so Nimrod ordered that he, too, be thrown into the furnace, but because his support was conditional- as opposed to the full faith shown by Abraham- God did not protect Haran and he died there, in Ur-kasdim, in front of his own father, who felt responsible for his son’s death.

Because of this, Abraham’s family left Ur-kasdim to make a new life for themselves in the city of Charan. There Abraham married Sarah, and they preached monotheism, and as most interpretations of Gen. 12:5’s “the souls they had made in Charan” indicates, they were very successful at it, amassing many followers. Pirkei Avot 5:3 teaches that God tested Abraham’s faith and character ten times, most lists of which list destroying the idols in his father’s shop and walking into the fiery furnace, ready to martyr himself for God as the first two. After these two tests, the only person who ever considered adopting Abraham’s new idea- his own brother- is dead. And now God is commanding Abraham to go to this new land, to which he will surely be joined by his wife, his brother’s son Lot, and his many followers, putting them at risk of whatever dangers await Abraham in that place as well. After his brother’s death, this is surely weighing very heavily on Abraham’s conscience.

Abraham follows God’s command, and his wife and nephew and followers come with him, and soon after their arrival a famine hits the land. Gold commands them to go to Egypt, where Sarah is kidnapped. After that ordeal it is Lot who is taken prisoner, and Abraham must lead his followers into a war to rescue him. More and more tests ensure, but in each of them Abraham, his family, and his followers emerge unscathed because of their faith in God.

Interestingly, Gen. 12:1 can also be translated as “go for yourself… to the land so that I will show you (Gen. 12:1).” What is God trying to show Abraham? That what happened to Haran is not an indication of what will happen to everyone who follows him. Abraham showed faith in God and so now God shows Abraham what he needs to see to regain some faith in himself. God teaches Abraham a lesson we can all benefit from: don’t let your past failures discourage you from future success.

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