The Forefathers as Forerunners of Jewish Destiny

However we interpret Abraham’s actions, it is obvious that he didn’t leave the Land of Israel, the Land which G-d had promised to his descendants, simply because he could find chocolate-flavoured puddings cheaper in Egypt.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism מילקי בתלת מימד של טעם
מילקי בתלת מימד של טעם

Parashat Lech Lecha covers some of Abraham our father’s most dynamic events spanning 24 years, from leaving his home and family when he was the 75-year-old Abram until the day he circumcised himself and all the males of his household when he was the 99-year-old Abraham.

Our parashah begins with G-d’s command to Abram to leave his home and family, and to travel to the Land of Israel. “Go for yourself from your country and from your homeland and from your father’s house, to the Land that I will show you… So Abram passed through the Land as far as the place of Shechem, as far as Elon Moreh, and the Canaanite was then in the Land (Genesis 12:1-6).

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270), in his commentary to Verse 6 (based on Midrash Tanhuma, Lech Lecha 9), says that “everything that happened to the forefathers is a portent for their descendants, which is why the Torah relates so extensively the narratives of the travelling, and the drilling of the wells, and all the other events”.

Scattered through the Midrashim are countless examples of how Jewish history echoes the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and specific events therein.

The Tanhuma Yashan (Lech Lecha 60) and Bereishit Rabbatti explain G-d’s command to Abram – “Lech lecha, go for yourself from your country and from your homeland and from your father’s house” (Genesis 12:1) – to foretell that Abra[ha]m would beget his son and heir when he would be a hundred years old. The four letters of “lech lecha” are לך לך. The gematria (numerical value) of lammed is 30, the gematria of chaf is 20, so the two words לך לך yield a gematria of 100, Abraham’s age when Isaac was born.

The Ba’al ha-Turim (Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher, Germany and Spain, c.1275-1343) cites this Tanhuma Yashan and Bereishit Rabbatti, and adds other hidden allusions in the phrase “lech lecha”. Abraham would live another 100 years after leaving his country of birth, since he left when he was 75 years old and lived to be 175 (Genesis 25:7).

G-d’s words “lech lecha” also allude to the two exiles (Babylonian and Roman), the two times that Israel would go into exile.

The word “lech” (go), with a gematria of 50, also hinted to Abraham that after 50 generations his descendants would go into exile, in the days of King Zedekiah (2 Kings 24:17-20, Jeremiah 39:28-40:1-2 Chronicles 36:11-21), and that in Abraham’s merit, that G-d spoke to him when he was 70 years old in the Covenant between the Parts, they would return after 70 years.

The reference to 50 generations is based on a few Midrashim (Sh’mot Rabbah 15:26, Pesikta Rabbatti 15:17, Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 5, and Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 190), which list the 30 generations from Abraham to King Zedekiah. Since Abraham was 20 generations after Adam, King Zedekiah and Israel’s exile to Babylon occurred in the fiftieth generation since Creation.

This, concludes the Ba’al ha-Turim, is the reason that the Torah juxtaposes “and Terah died in Haran” (Genesis 11:32) with the very next words, “and Hashem said to Abram: Go for yourself from your country and from your homeland and from your father’s house, to the Land that I will show you”: “They were exiled in G-d’s fury [haron, a cognate of Haran, the final word of the previous parashah]”.

The words “lech lecha” mean literally “go to you”, or more idiomatically, as we have translated here, “go for yourself”. Hence Rashi explains it to mean “for your pleasure and for your benefit; there I will make of you a great nation, and here you will not merit having any children”. This last phrase seems to echo Rabbi Yitzchak’s opinion in the Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shana 16b), that “it was the merit of the Land of Israel that benefitted him”.

Clearly it was only in the Land of Israel that Abra[ha]m could fulfil his destiny, and it follows (according to the principle that “everything that happened to the forefathers is a portent for their descendants”) that it is only in the Land of Israel that Abraham’s descendants – the nation of Israel – can fulfil their national destiny.

And this is the reason that the famine which struck the Land of Israel immediately after Abram arrived and which forced him to leave for Egypt (Genesis 12:10) was one of the tests with which G-d tested Abraham. “With ten tests our father Abraham (peace be upon him) was tested, and he withstood them all, which tells you the great love that our father Abraham (peace be upon him) had” (Pirkei Avot 5:3), and according to all the commentators (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 26-31, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 33, Targum Yerushalmi to Genesis 22:1, Rashi, Rambam, Rabbi Ovadiyah of Bartinura, Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona, the Vilna Ga’on) this famine was one of those ten tests.

It must have been terribly demoralising for Abram, particularly – as Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona notes in his commentary to Pirkei Avot 5:3 – it came so soon after G-d had promised him that “all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3). And now Abram was unable even to feed himself and his wife, he was unable to remain in the Land which G-d had commanded him to migrate to, and of which He had promised, “to your descendants I will give this Land” (Verse 7).

When Abram was forced to flee from Israel to Egypt to survive this famine, he withstood the test by maintaining his unwavering faith and trust in G-d and in His promises, and maintaining his unswerving determination to continue with the mission with which G-d had charged him.

It was no simple decision for Abram to leave the Land of Israel – but this was no ordinary famine: “there was never any famine like it” (Tanhuma, Lech Lecha 5), which was why Abram was justified in leaving. After all, there are clear criteria which limit when a Jew may leave Israel:

“It is forbidden to leave the Land unless two se’ahs of grain cost a sela. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay says: When does this apply? – At a time when he lacks the money to buy even at that price; however, if he has the money, then even if one se’ah costs a sela he should not leave” (Bava Batra 91a, Bereishit Rabbah 40:3).

To put this into perspective, a se’ah is a measurement of volume, approximately 11.8 litres (21.5 U.S. dry pints). A sela was a silver coin; the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 5:2) suggests that one sela would pay the rent for an apartment for a month, and the Talmud (Bava Batra 86b-87a) suggests that a labourer’s wage would be 1 dinar (= ¼ sela) per day most of the year, 1 sela per day in the harvest season.

Translating this into modern equivalents, a Jew is justified in leaving the Land of Israel if food becomes so expensive that 18½ kg (41 lb) of wheat, or 15 kg (33 lb) of barley, costs the same as a month’s rent.

Why is it so heinous for a Jew to leave the Land of Israel? “It is forbidden to leave the Land because he thereby breaks himself free of the mitzvot” (Rashbam, commentary to Bava Batra 91a).

And so, even though he was forced by circumstances to leave Israel, he left only temporarily. “There was a famine in the Land and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there” (Genesis 12:10), on which the S’forno (Rabbi Ovadyah S’forno, Italy, c.1470-1550) comments sweetly and simply and succinctly, “‘to dwell there’, and not to settle down there permanently”.

Nevertheless, the Ramban (commentary to Genesis 12:10) writes: “Abraham our father inadvertently committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to an obstacle that could have caused her to sin, because of his fear that they would kill him. He should instead have trusted in Hashem to him and his wife and all that they had, because G-d has the power to help and to save. Likewise leaving the Land, concerning which he been commanded from the beginning, because of the famine, was a sin that he committed, because even in famine G-d would save him from death”.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) cites the Ramban, but disagrees with him. He concedes that even the greatest of our ancestors and forefathers and leaders were human and therefore subject to human errors, and that the Torah never presents them as perfect. “It deifies no man”, he writes. “Altogether it never presents the life of a man before us as the pattern from which we are to learn what is right and good, what we have to do, what refrain from doing… The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors, and weaknesses of our great men”.

But having said this, Rabbi Hirsch continues by analysing what Abraham did. “He did not wait to see whether G-d would feed him miraculously in the midst of this universal famine, but went to Egypt to seek food. There an equally threatened danger brought him to a denial of the true relationship between Sarah and himself, through which Sarah’s moral position was very nearly violated”.

But, as he continues, “It is, of course, easy for the Ramban or for us, who have such an abundance of experiences in our history, to say: Abraham should have stayed in Canaan, and in Egypt he should have left everything to G-d’s control… But that G-d surrounds those who are fulfilling His commands with special protection, that ‘those sent on a mitzvah-mission are not harmed’ (Yoma 11a), was an experience that Abraham and his descendants had not yet had. No Abraham had preceded Abraham. And even having this experience does not does not preclude the duty of doing everything that is legally within ones own powers first, and trusting on G-d only for what lies beyond. Abraham could well say to himself, It is forbidden to rely on a miracle”.

However we interpret Abraham’s actions, it is obvious that he didn’t leave the Land of Israel, the Land which G-d had promised to his descendants, simply because he could find chocolate-flavoured puddings cheaper in Egypt. Neither did he leave because the government ruling the Land was not to his liking, nor yet because the idolatrous Canaanites posed a spiritual danger to him and his family, and they could find greater holiness in exile.

It is related that in the early years of Israeli independence, a yeshiva student from the Diaspora who had been learning in an Israeli yeshiva came to bid farewell to the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, Belarus, Vilna, and Israel, 1878-1953) before returning to his home. “Is one permitted to leave the Land of Israel?” the Chazon Ish asked him. The student stammered and replied, “I understood that if one came to the Land of Israel with the intention of returning eventually, he is permitted to leave.” The Chazon Ish spoke in a tone of disappointment: “We are trying to devise methods to get Bnei Torah to settle here, and you are involved in finding ways to be able to leave?!” (Pe’er Hador, vol. II, p. 42).

Only in the Land of Israel could Abram become Abraham, only in the Land of Israel could he found the nation of Israel, only in the Land of Israel could he fulfil his divine mission in life.

Today, of course, the excuses for not living in Israel are legion. The cost of living, Arab terrorism, a government that is hostile to Torah, the necessity for Jews to lobby the American government…the list is endless.

True, a Jew who lives in Israel is unlikely to be able to afford to buy a new $5,000 sheitel twice a year, and to afford a brand new BMW for himself and a Mercedes for his wife every year, and a luxury cruise to the Bahamas every winter.

But only in the Land of Israel can our national mission as Am Yisrael, the Nation of Israel, be fulfilled. A Jew in exile – even the most comfortable and luxurious exile, even the exile with the most impressive yeshivot – is still in exile.

Only in the Land of Israel can the Jew really be part of the national Jewish mission, only in the Land of Israel does the Jew have a future as a Jew.