Iconoclast Introduction

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Other than the genealogical listing of Avraham as the son of Terach and his marriage to Sarai, we hear nothing about the life of Avraham Avinu until he is seventy five years old when Hashem commands him, “Lech lecha/Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” While the Medrash fills in some of the blanks that help us see Avraham’s journey to monotheism and the lessons we may derive from these stories, the Torah itself is silent. We are left to wonder why Hashem chose Avraham and why this first command to Avraham and Avraham’s obedience to it was so significant.

Ramban offers a simple, practical response to our question. If the Torah were to record Avraham’s journey, the Torah would need to record the views of the idolaters along with Avraham’s wisdom. Hashem did not want to give the idolaters’ views a platform.

The Torah could still have said that Avraham was righteous, or that he found favor in Hashem’s eyes, as the Torah says of Noach. According to the Maharal, Hashem had “personal” reasons for choosing Avraham, reasons that had nothing to do with Avraham himself. As Rabbi Mintsberg notes in Ben Melech, Noach was saved as a reward for his past righteousness. In contrast, Avraham was chosen for his future potential, for Hashem knows that Avraham “will command his children after him to follow Hashem’s path and practice righteousness and justice.”

The reasons for Hashem’s choosing Avraham are beyond our understanding, writes Rabbi Schlesinger, and the unconditional love between Hashem and Avraham’s descendants, Bnei Yisroel, is equally unexplainable. It is a love that is maintained even without being earned.

The Ner Uziel extends this idea of unconditional love to the love Bnei Yisroel have for Eretz Yisroel. While Yehoshuah and Kalev loved the land unconditionally in spite of its seemingly insurmountable challenges, the other ten spies were only willing to accept the gift of this land without the challenges of a war against its giant inhabitants. The spies’ sin, and subsequently that of the nation, was that love of the land was conditional, depending on the circumstances, rather than unconditional, based on its being Hashem’s loving gift to us. If love is to last, whether for another human being, for a land, or for a people, it must be unconditional. Only then will the love endure even in the knowledge that flaws exist, even when the object of the love does not continue to meet expectations.

 Extrapolating from this train of thought, since Hashem’s love for Noach was contingent on his righteousness, and Hashem entered into a covenant with Noach on this basis, when Noach’s descendants, i.e. all mankind, were no longer righteous, the covenant itself was no longer valid. In contrast, continues Rabbi Milevsky, Hashem’s covenant with Avraham was unconditional, and His gift of the Land to Bnei Yisroel must be viewed with the same eyes of unconditional love. The first command to Avraham cements both relationships. Hashem will continue to love us even when He is angry with us, even when we are unworthy. Hashem’s love for Avraham and his descendants is eternal and unconditional. And our love for Eretz Yisroel, for the land Hashem led Avraham to, must be equally unconditional.

Each of the first three portions of the Torah contains a story of creation. The first, obviously, is the creation of the world. This is followed by the creation of a new world after the flood. Finally, we read of the creation of the Jewish world. The first Jew was then commanded to go to the first Land, the center of the universe, explains Rabbi Wolfson.

That connection between the descendants of Avraham and Eretz Yisroel has never been severed. Just as we have yearned to return to the Land throughout the millennia of our exile, so has the land yearned for the return of her people. We have never stopped praying for our return to Zion and Jerusalem, and the land wore only sackcloth and ashes, unwilling to produce colorful, lush vegetation until her children finally returned. The two are inextricably intertwined, writes the Nachalat Yosef. Our connection to Eretz Yisroel is different from the connection of other peoples to their land. For us, the Land is not just a place to live and call home, as it is for other nations. The Land is part of our very essence, for it is the only place where our prophets could receive the word of God, and it is the place from which the deepest secrets of Torah can be studied and revealed, adds the Aderet Kohein.

Beit Av brings us back to our original question, why does the Torah only begin telling us about Avraham Avinu when he received the command “Go” from Hashem. That is precisely the point notes Beit Av. The value of one’s actions lies in following Hashem’s command even without understanding and reason rather than doing what one perceives as good through personal deduction. This was the first command Hashem gave, and Avraham Avinu followed it without question, proving his worthiness of receiving Hashem’s blessing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe continues this thought. Our connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu was initiated by Hashem Himself, not by us, and it is through the mitzvoth, through doing, that we cement and grow the relationship. Our mitzvah observance, that which Hashem has already commanded, must stem from our desire for the relationship. Mitzvah observance brings our bodies as well as our souls into the relationship. Kiruv is most effective when one begins with doing rather than with intellectual discussion and listening. Na’aseh/Do, follow Hashem’s command on faith because it is His command, before nishma/hearing the details or reasons. If we examine the full command to Avraham, suggests the Lubavitcher Rebbe, we will understand that Hashem commands Avraham Avinu to distance himself from the past in more than physical ways. “Go mei’artzecha/your ratzon,” submit your will to His will, “Mimoladitcha/your homeland,” your family, personality, and familiar habits, “Umibeit Avicha/your father’s house,” from the seat of your identity, your brain and thought processes. This is the paradigm for every Jew. Hashem has wired us to seek that connection, and has given us the process through Torah and mitzvoth. When one performs a mitzvah because he has been so commanded, one reaches a greater connection than when one initiates the act.

Lech Lecha,” begin the journey and grow yourself, and through the process, “Arekah/I will reveal to you your true essence, an essence rooted in Godliness.

The Torah is not a novel or a history book. It begins with what is relevant to Bnei Yisroel, not with what may be interesting but relatively irrelevant to the descendants of our Patriarch Avraham, writes Rabbi Broide in Sam Derech. What becomes paradigmatic is itself recorded in great detail. As Rabbi Schlesinger notes, breaking idols, as the medrash tells of Avraham in Ur Kasdim, is not generally appropriate behavior. The emphasis is on the positive, on the souls Avraham and Sarah made in Charan. Great people, writes Rav Schlesinger in Zos Hatorah, focus on the constructive, not on the destructive. Focus on bringing more light, on strengthening the emunah/faith, rather than on highlighting the darkness. With enough light, the darkness of evil will disappear on its own. This is what we must focus on when interacting with our children. We must focus on the beauty and light of Yiddishkeit, not on the things we may not do. [Children don’t understand that restraint is a path to growth, that cutting back the overgrowth of plants will reveal the beautiful path through the garden. They just want to enjoy the pretty flowers they immediately notice while missing the hidden beauty further in. CKS]

Rabbi Reiss quotes the Sefat Emet, based on the Zohar Hakadosh, that brings a unique perspective to our study. The Zohar suggests that the call of lech lecha, go for yourself to the land that I will show you, was a universal call. Anyone could have been chosen. Everyone heard, anyone could have listened, but only Avraham answered the call. But that call was not a unique, one time call. Rav Reiss reminds us that a heavenly voice calls out every day to be conscious of the humiliation of Torah. Just as Avraham Avinu heard that call, so do our neshamot hear that daily call. We need to be proper receivers of that call, just as our forefather was. We too need to separate ourselves from our personal voices, from our egos, so that we can hear the voice of Hashem calling to us. We cannot hear both voices simultaneously.

Rav Reiss presents a wonderful metaphor to explain this situation. Observe two outwardly identical water pipes. Through one, the water flows freely and is easily accessible from the spout. Through the other, however, the water merely drips slowly and intermittently. What causes the difference between the two? One pipe is fully open and clear, while the other pipe is full of clumps of debris obstructing the flow. If we are to hear Hashem’s voice in messages He sends us constantly, we must remove the blockages created by our egos, our daily ruts and concerns. We must approach every day as a new opportunity to connect, to daven with renewed awareness, to observe a mitzvah with renewed focus and love. Sefat Emet notes that this is hinted in the words ‘lech lecha’, which could mean, ‘go, from yourself’. When one is able to constrict the ego, have the necessary humility, one can then hear the Voice of Above, and heed the call.

If we are to recreate ourselves into a new, elevated persona, we need to leave the familiar habits and surroundings that may be holding us down. This is the basis of Rabbi Dovid Hofstadter's explanation of Elisha’s request to say goodbye to his parents. The Prophet Eliyahu threw his cloak over Elisha, indicating that Elisha was to be his spiritual heir and prophet. Elisha understood that to reach such an elevated spiritual position, he needed to leave the familiar and comfortable parental environment and make a fresh start in a new life. Only if he could feel as if his father and his mother had abandoned him, leaving him with no one to rely upon, could he hope that Hashem would gather him in spiritually, and he could make the connection with Hashem necessary to reach his spiritual potential. This is the focus of the verse in Psalm 27 that we say every day from Rosh Chosdesh Elul through Shemini Atzeret, the season when we ourselves are on a heightened spiritual journey to connect with our Creator and the Creator of all mankind and the world. We are asked to answer this call not only during that season, but throughout our lives, to be ready to receive, and to follow.