Follow in the footsteps of Abraham

He could have done G-d's work in Haran, but he heeded the call. So should we.

Daniel Pinner,

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

Parashat Lech Lecha begins with G-d’s call to Abram to leave his father’s house: “Hashem said to Abram: Get yourself out from your country and from your family and your father’s house, to the Land which I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation...” (Genesis 12:1-2).

“Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran” (v. 4) with his wife Sarai, leaving his father alone for the first time in his life and heading for an as-yet-unknown destination. Together they had set out from their birth-place of Ur Kasdim (often rendered Ur of the Chaldees) and travelled to Haran (11:31) five years earlier when Abram was 70 years old (Seder Olam Rabbah 1), fleeing from the tyrant Nimrod who ruled Ur and sought to kill Abram and his family for challenging his idolacratic rule ((Bereishit Rabbah 38:13, Ramban to Genesis 11:28).

By the end of the parashah, Abram had become Abraham (Genesis 17:5), his wife Sarai had become Sarah (v. 15), G-d had promised Abraham that his wife would yet bear him a son and heir (v. 19), Abraham was ninety-nine years old, his wife was 89 years old, and his son Yishmael was 13 years old (17:24-25).

And over the course of Parashat Lech Lecha, G-d spoke directly to Abra[ha]m on five separate occasions.

The first time, as we have noted, was the event with which our parashah opens, Hashem’s command to Abraham to leave his father’s home.

The second time was when “Hashem appeared to Abram and said: To your seed will I give this Land” (Genesis 12:7).

The third time was when “Hashem said to Abram after Lot had parted from him: Raise your eyes and behold from the place where you are, northwards and southwards and eastwards and westwards; because all the land that you see – to you I will give it and to your seed forever... Arise, walk through the Land, through its length and its breadth, because to you I give it” (13:14-17).

The fourth time was a longer dialogue, comprising the whole of Chapter 15. “The Word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision, saying: Do not fear, Abram I am your Shield – your reward is very great... I am Hashem, Who brought you out from Ur Kasdim to give you this Land...”.

Then follows the Covenant between the Parts (vs. 8-21) – G-d’s promise that Abram’s descendants would be exiled, enslaved, and oppressed for 400 years and then return to inherit the Land of Israel: “On that day, Hashem forged a covenant with Abram, saying: To your seed have I given this Land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates” (v. 18).

And the fifth and final time was “when Abram was ninety-nine years old, and Hashem appeared to Abram and said to him: I am G-d All-Mighty; walk before Me and be perfect...”.

On this occasion G-d changed Abram’s name to Abraham, adding to his name the letter heh from His own Name. “And I hereby establish My Covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations, as an eternal Covenant, to be G-d for you and for your seed after you; and I have given you and your seed after you the Land of your sojourns, the entire Land of Canaan, as an eternal holding, and I will be their G-d” (17:7-8).

When our Sages divided up the Torah into the 54 parashot with which we are so familiar today, they presented us with Parashat Lech Lecha, these 126 verses, as a single unit. They divided up the Torah such that these five occasions – the first five times that G-d spoke to Abra[ha]m directly – would be connected with each other.

What do these have in common?

The answer is obvious:

Each time, G-d tells Abraham to come to the Land of Israel and inherit it. “Get yourself out from your country...to the Land which I will show you”; “To your seed will I give this Land”; “all the land that you see – to you I will give it and to your seed forever”; “I am Hashem, Who brought you out from Ur Kasdim to give you this Land... To your seed have I given this Land, from the River of Egypt to the Great River, the Euphrates”; “I have given you and your seed after you the Land of your sojourns, the entire Land of Canaan, as an eternal holding”.

Parashat Lech Lecha is the beginning of Jewish history, and our Sages wanted to infuse us with the centrality of the Land of Israel. Only in the Land of Israel could Abram become Abraham, only in the Land of Israel could he and his descendants achieve their destiny. Because outside the Land of Israel there is no Jewish history and no Jewish national identity.

“‘Get yourself...to the Land which I will show you, and I will make you into a great nation’ – even though your wife is barren I will heal her, and in this Land she will give birth” (Radak).

 “‘The entire Land of Canaan as an eternal holding’ – and I will be their G-d, because you will be able to carry out My will in it, as in ‘and he gave them the lands of the nations...so that they could keep his statutes’ (Psalms 105:44-45), and thus I will be the G-d of each one of you personally forever” (S’forno).

“‘I have given you and your seed after you...the entire Land of Canaan, as an eternal holding, and I will be their G-d’ – and [specifically] there I will be their G-d; but a Child of Israel who dwells outside of the Land of Israel is akin to one who has no G-d” (Rashi).

Rashi’s comment is abstracted from the Talmud. “The Rabbis taught: A person should always dwell in the Land of Israel, even in a city which has a majority of idolaters, and should not dwell outside of the Land of Israel, even in a city which has a majority of Jews, because one who dwells in the Land of Israel is like one who has a G-d. While anyone who dwells outside of the Land of Israel is like one who has no G-d, as it says ‘...to give you the Land of Canaan to be your G-d’ (Leviticus 25:38). And anyone who does not dwell in the Land has no G-d?! – Rather, this comes to tell you: Anyone who dwells outside of the Land of Israel is akin to an idolater” (Ketuvot 110b).

And this, indeed, is the halachah in practice according to the Rambam (Laws of Kings 5:12).

Similarly, the Talmud cites the dictum of Rabbi Yishmael (Avodah Zarah 8a) and Rabbi Shimon ben Eliezer (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 26): “When Israel are outside of the Land of Israel, they worship idols in purity”.

Exile and idolatry – two terrible curses, equivalent to each other, indeed inseparable from each other.

At the single most central moment of Jewish history, when we stood around Mount Sinai, united “like one person with one heart” (Rashi to Exodus 19:2, based on Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael and Vayikra Rabbah 9:9), G-d began the Ten Commandments with the words, “I am Hashem your G-d, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the slave-house; you shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2).

Though this is traditionally split into two separate Commandments, it is nevertheless read as one single verse (following the ta’am elyon, the traditional cantillation marks which the Torah-reader follows for public reading).

The Rashbam comments, “‘you shall have no other gods’ – because I alone brought you out of Egypt”. That is to say, there is a direct, even causal, connexion, between the Exodus and not worshipping idols; and there an equally direct, even causal, connexion, between the Exodus and the subsequent entry into the Land of Israel.

At this most crucial juncture of history, G-d began by infusing into us the connexion and interdependence between the Land of Israel and worshipping Him – and, by inference, the connexion and interdependence between exile and worshipping other gods.

Over and over again, G-d warns us that the severest punishment for disobeying the Torah is exile, and that an inevitable component of exile is idolatry:

“And Hashem will scatter you among the nations...and you will worship there gods made by people, wood and stone...” (Deuteronomy 4:27-28).

“Hashem will lead you and your king...to a nation which neither you nor your fathers knew, and there you will worship other gods, wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:36).

For sure, we as a nation have been forcibly prevented for millennia from living as a nation in our national homeland, and have been reduced to a mere “religion” (such a terribly un-Jewish concept), scattered among all the world’s other nations.

Only in these last generations have we been able to return to the life that G-d ordained for us at the very dawn of Jewish history, when He commanded Abram to leave all his familiar surroundings and make Aliyah.

It is distressing indeed to see how many Jews – even Jewish leaders, great Jews from whom we have the right to expect and demand far better – still chose to remain in exile. Some Jewish sectarians, such as the Reform and the Neturei Kharta, have even elevated exile into an ideal, openly redefining Judaism as merely a “religion” and nothing more, and opposing the Return to Zion on those grounds.

Others, who yet remain within the bounds of normative Jewish tradition, present myriad reasons for remaining in exile. The government of Israel is not to their liking; the economy prevents them from driving the latest model BMW and buying $10,000-sheitels twice a year; the purported spiritual dangers of living in a state which is not run according to Torah-law (as if Britain and the USA are...); the necessity for Jews to lobby for Israel on Capitol Hill and in Westminster in the House of Lords.

Indeed the reasons are legion.

And yet –

And yet, when G-d told Abram to come to Israel, he upped and went without any of these considerations.

Having fled from Ur Kasdim, he and his family lived comfortably and peacefully in Haran. Abram and Sarai indeed did important spiritual work in Haran, converting hundreds if not thousands of idolaters there to belief in the One true G-d. At least as important as explaining Israel’s position to Congress or to the House of Lords, the BBC, and The Guardian.

In Canaan, Abram and Sarai faced famine; they faced uncertainty; they faced wars – there was constant tension between them and the Canaanite nations, and as if that wasn’t enough, Abram, his family, and his students got inadvertently caught up in the war between the four kings and the five (Genesis 14).

Abram could have remained comfortably in Haran, doing G-d’s work, preaching the truth of His existence and mastery – and he would have remained Abram.

But he didn’t. He came to Israel, where he became Abraham and set the course for the nation of Israel for all time. In fact, in Haran he could never have preached G-d’s message perfectly, because in exile he himself would have been inherently lacking.

So too, with Jews – including some of the greatest Jewish leaders and thinkers in the world today – who preach and teach Judaism in exile.

Some 25 centuries ago, the prophet Ezekiel lamented the exile: “They came to the nations, and by their very coming there they profaned My holy Name, in that they said to them: These are Hashem’s nation – and they have left His Land!” (Ezekiel 36:20).

Indeed – “how shall we sing Hashem’s song in a foreign country!” (Psalms 137:4), which was King David’s prophetic lament for exile millennia before Boney M used those words in a world hit.

Can any Jew today truly broadcast the Word of G-d while living in exile? Can we really expect any non-Jew to take a Jew seriously, when it is so painfully and embarrassingly obvious that he doesn’t take his own Torah and his own G-d seriously? Is it any wonder that Jews in exile are losing argument after argument, and that Israel is being delegitimized in every conceivable forum?

G-d’s charge to Abram rings out to every Jew in the world, clearer by the hour: Get yourself out from your country and from your family and your father’s house... and I will make you into a great nation”.

Dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Naftali ben HaRav Moshe, who passed away on 15th Marheshvan 5742 (12th November 1981).



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