Thursday, November 02, 2006

When the going gets tough.

From Moshe Mordechai

The words lech l'cha can be taken in many different ways, as reflected by a wealth of annotations by our Commentators. Each interpretation has a different message to us, so I think that the issue is not what it says but what it tells us.

Lech by itself just means go, though in a bit unfriendly way. L'cha doesn't make it any friendlier. I would even read in it impatience and curtness. Go, already!

The Rabbis discuss that Lamed Chaf Sofit Lamed Chaf Sofit can also be vocalized and read as: Lech, lech: go, go. This then could refer to two journeys he made from Charan, to two stages in his trek from there or even foreshadow the next lech l'cha (Genesis 22:2). The latter connection then comes to clarify that both expeditions were equally hard on him.

The Ramban, however, sees nothing special in this l'cha. He explains that normal movements in Hebrew can be reflexive, like in the Song of Songs 2:11 or Deuteronomy 2:13 whereby the personal pronoun might not get translated into another language because it's just a Hebrew idiom. Only when such a construction is not clearly idiomatic the Rabbis will give meaning to it, he explicates. The following is such a case.

The Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Yoma folio 3 side b discusses that l'cha sometimes means mi-shell'cha: from what is yours: from your possessions, means. It argues that in Numbers 10:2 and Deuteronomy 10:1 the l'cha is not idiomatic because it's not used in a similar verse as in Exodus 26:1, so it must mean in these two verses something, and it suggests: from your own funds.

Mizrachi disagrees with the Ramban and shows that also when l'cha is used idiomatically, the Rabbis often still see all sorts of hints in it or try to develop from it all kinds of inferences. Examples of such discussions can be found in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate page of Suca 29b and 41b, of K'dushin 4b, P'sachin 24a, Baba M'tziya 31a, B'rachot 6b and Rosh haShana 16b.

On this last page our Chief-Commentator Rashi bases himself when he explains the l'cha here under discussion to mean: for you own gain, for your own good. On this I would say: gain refers to improvement, so if Abra(ha)m would say: I lack nothing: good is meant in an absolute way: even when completely pleased and satisfied you shouldn't forgo doing something that's good for you. This explanation by Rashi reminds me of what Moses says at the other end of the Tora scroll: all that G^d wants from us is only for our own good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13).

The ever relevant in our times of confusion Rabbiner Hirsch explains that the Hebrew go self usually means: go by yourself, to yourself, isolate yourself. We see this with Jethro in Exodus 18:27 (he went his way, leaving the Jews) and also in Joshua 22:4 (and now go your own way, leaving the nine and a half Tribes that stay on this side of the Jordan river). Detach yourself.

The Zohar takes this even one step further (pun not intended). Break away from your earthly shell. The body wants to take it easy and just wallow in good feelings. The Z'chuta d'Avraham reads it close to that, as: get out yourself, so that you will experience first hand the upsets of being on the road, so that in the future you will welcome travelers with the greatest understanding and empathy.

The numerical value of the words lech l'cha is one hundred. This reminds me of the one hundred Blessings that we should say every day. Abra(ha)m's blessing would be first of all to father a great, Holy Nation – according to many Commentators the main reason why he needed to get out of there. His first child for this gets born when he is a hundred years old (Yalkut). After his departure he would go on (live) for another hundred years (Baal haTurim).

It doesn't say: come – it says: go. Is G^d not there where he's supposed to go, Heaven forbid? Is He not going to walk with Abram? (There is another Portion of the week that is called Bo: come (to Pharaoh) (Exodus 10:1) and it's a good question there why G^d doesn't say instead to Moses: Go to Pharaoh.) Indeed, his servant Eliezer reports his master Abraham having said to him about this journey (Genesis 24:7) describing his relationship with Him that "…when I walked with G^d Himself, I preceded Him…" (Genesis 24:40). This is different from what G^d says at the start of the previous Portion about Noach: "Noach walks together with no One less than just G^d Himself" (end of Genesis 6:9). G^d never gives a test that we are unable to live up to. (It's the challenges that we seek out ourselves that don't have such a guarantee.) So G^d wanted to show here that Abraham could leave even if it meant that he would have to go the distance on his own.

It doesn't say where to go. So the issue here is not his going but rather his leaving. But when you leave you look back what you're leaving behind. Instead G^d wants him to only look forward. Forget about what was: go! Now, isn't that what you say to the horse of the carriage? What's then so commendable (previous paragraph) about walking ahead of G^d? Any well-trained horse can do that! An answer could be in the preceding piece about this Portion of the week. A harnessed horse gets constant instructions how to proceed. But Abra(ha)m is left greatly in the dark. Go, and figure it out while you're on your way. I trust you – you will get it. And then we can understand why G^d leaves things blank for His servants. Otherwise their virtues wouldn't rise above the level of a horse harnessed to a cart following his master. Great, those people who know exactly what G^d wants from them. But I don't and most people I know don't. That's not a handicap. It's a privilege that we get to figure it out on the way. And that He selected each of us for our own journey. And if that's not enough: He even trusts us that we can do it. Says Reb Shlomo: rather than teach young people to trust in G^d, teach them that He trusts in them.


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