Parshas Lech Lecha

SHIUR HARAV Y.D. SOLOVEITCHIK זצ’’ל ON פרשת LECH LECHA

(Shiur date: 1955) Based on tape #5126 available from Milton Nordlicht. (c) (1999) Josh Rapps & Israel Rivkin, Edison, NJ. Permission to reprint this summary, with this notice, is granted [lightly edited/corrected by me]

Avraham is portrayed as the great personality of Jewish History. The previous 2 parshios are a preamble to Avraham, the other patriarchs and the birth of Knesses Yisrael. Avraham’s life culminated at the time that he consummated a covenant with Hashem. He did this twice. The covenant was consummated many years before the birth of Isaac. The sole purpose for the birth of Isaac was to carry on the Bris. There ar e 2 covenants in this parsha. The first is Bris Bayn Habesarim. The Torah says Bayom Hahu, on that day Hashem made a covenant with Avram to give him and his children the land of. At the end of the Parsha there is another covenant, which included Bris Milah, and again the gift of the land to Avraham and his children is repeated. [It is interesting to note that at the Akeidah there was no new Bris, rather the original Bris was reaffirmed.] Hashem commands Avraham to include Ishmael and circumcise him, but the covenant will not be passed to his children.

The first covenant very clearly revolved around the gift of the land to Avraham. Why not have only one Krisas Bris? When thinking about the granting of the land to the Jewish People, we very often overlook the second Bris with Avraham and instead focus on the Bris Bayn Habesarim. Another question is why separate the 2 covenants with the story of Ishmael and Hagar? Why not juxtapose the 2 covenants immediately next to each other?

The Rav answered the first question that Bris Bayn Habesarim says that Hashem gave the land to the children of Avraham. It does not say for how long. The first Bris did not guarantee the eternal ownership of the land. The second Bris says that it is given to the Jewish Nation forever.

Jewish History is very perplexing to one who attempts to understand the continuity of the Jewish Nation. How were we able to survive tragedy and holocaust throughout the millennia? In fact there is a doubly fascinating aspect here. The first is based on the Bris Bayn Habesarim, that Eretz Yisrael has waited for us. The Midrash says Vhashimosi Ani Es Haaretz (And I will lay waste to the land), this is a good thing for Bnay Yisrael, for it means that the enemies of Israel will derive no benefit from the land and would never conquer it and claim it. If one would analyze the colonial periods of the 1600s through the 1800s we find that major portions of the world were colonised. The Americas, Australia etc. The non-Jewish world excelled in their colonising ability. However many countries attempted to colonise Eretz Yisrael. Germany which was well known as being expert colonisers failed to colonise Eretz Yisrael. It is interesting to note that many of the nations around Israel were much more developed than Eretz Yisrael through this period. Egypt and Iraq were much more developed than Eretz Yisrael. Eretz Yisrael remained untamed and barren, a land of sand, stones and sea. Had the land been colonised it would have been much more difficult for the Jews to return. Eretz Yisrael is Kolet, absorbs, its inhabitants. Eretz Yisrael also has the ability to expel, L’Hakey, those that it rejects.

The Beis Halevi says that when Jeremiah says “Al Har Tzion Sheshamem Shualim Hilchu Bo, Atah Hashem Lolam Teshev” it implies a blessing for the Jewish people. Many wanted to settle the land but were unsuccessful. This is a sign that the Kedusha is eternal. Its stones could not be colonised. The land remained loyal to the people. Reb Yehuda Halevi in his Kinos says “Tziyon Halo Tishali L’shlom Asirayich”. How do we know that Tzion inquires as to the welfare of its inhabitants, the Jews? It is written in the barrenness of the hills and land of Judah and Israel, the fact that no one else was able to colonise it.

In Judaism we have the concept of Agunah. It implies someone who is locked in limbo, who is constantly waiting for her husband to return even though she is ageing and realises that her chance to remarry is slipping away with each day that passes. Yet she waits. The land of Israel is an Agunah in this respect. It waits for its mate to return even though he has been gone for so many years. The Bris Bayn Habesarim guaranteed that the land would remain loyal to the people.

If the inanimate land elects to remain loyal to the people, it has the ability to remain loyal indefinitely. However the problem is how to ensure that the people remain loyal to the land? A husband can be an Agun as well, someone who waits for his wife to return. The Jewish Nation has been an Agun, waiting for the land. Achad Ha’am (someone far from religion) wrote that he came to Jerusalem and visited the Kotel on Tisha B’av and observed how Jews from Aydot Mizrach were mourning. He observed that the stones are witness to the destruction of our land and these people are witness to the destruction of our nation. He asked which is worse? He answered that a land that was destroyed can be rebuilt by those that return, like Ezra and Nechemia. But who will rebuild a nation that is destroyed?

Achad Haam’s mistake was that the group of people he observed were not witnesses to the destruction of the land. But the principle is correct. The question is how can a nation express its identity and live uniquely under such conditions? Everything about the Jew is different than the world around us. The way we write, the way we pray, the way we set our calendar are all examples of how we differ from those around us. Jews lived in Europe for a thousand years and remained loyal. Eretz Yisrael is another example of the uniqueness of the Jewish Nation. Rationally one should not support Israel, how can it survive against so many enemies? Yet this is the great wonder and power of our nation, our ability to wait for the land and to return to it. The same applies to the relationship of the Jew to Torah, especially Torah Sh’beal Peh. Just like one can’t learn and appreciate Mathematics by simply reading a book. It is a method that must be incorporated in the thought processes of a person. The same is true of Torah Sh’beal Peh, it is a method that becomes part of a Jew’s personality, distinguishing him from those around him.

The fact that people would wait for a land for so many years is based on Hashem granting us the land L’dorosam, forever. This eternal gift was granted in the covenant associated with Bris Milah and not in the covenant of Bris Bayn Habesarim. The second covenant grants the land eternally to a people that keeps Torah Sh’beal Peh, a people that rejoices differently and cries differently. This is the essence of Bris Milah. Milah is a Chasimah. Chasimah is not just a signature but rather it is the mark of the individual. It expresses the uniqueness of the individual that no one else can copy. Milah is called Chosam Bris Kodesh because the Jewish Nation is different and unique from all others. It is this uniqueness that guarantees our constant yearning for and connection to the land. Why is the story of Ishmael introduced between the two covenants? Because any nation can survive while they are on their land, even Ishmael. The distinguishing characteristic between Ishmael and Isaac is in their ability to maintain their uniqueness when they are removed from the land. That’s why Hashem says that He will transfer the Bris and its fulfilment to Isaac and not Ishmael. Because Isaac and his children will remain unique forever. Hashem retains responsibility to recognise and fulfil the Bris Bayn Habesarim so that the land maintains its loyalty to the people. However our job is to fulfil the covenant of the Bris Milah and to retain our uniqueness and identity as the Am Hashem.

Parshas Lech Lecha

Many Jews react in extremes because they don’t understand the mandated existential aloneness of the Jew. The reaction is usually at two extremes: some become left-leaning, tree-hugging, egalitarian-seeking, über humanitarians whose mantra is “Tikkun Olam”. They believe they can somehow meld into the world and become accepted by showing exemplary humanity and a tamer more palatable hold on their heritage. Others become rabid, angry, and even violent proponents of the “Malchus Shakai” concept. They are impatient. They believe in completely cutting themselves off from the seventy nations and either living on an island, or engaging in an often violent Milchamos Hashem, fighting for Shabbos or an expanded Israel.

None of this is new. It has manifested itself throughout history. The German approach of being a Jew “in the four corners of one’s house”, whilst an “elegant man of the street” when outdoors was also an ill-fated attempt at becoming “accepted” and “acceptable” in the eyes of the seventy nations.

The reality is that עם לבדד ישכון: we are a nation destined to loneliness. We can never look at this loneliness as a problem that we can or must “solve”. That approach is flawed and has proven to be flawed throughout history because it contradicts the very nature of Hashem’s covenant with Bnai Yisrael.

We certainly have a responsibility to be Mentchen, Torah Observant, good citizens, and Holy. These are immutable responsibilities. When they are, however, hijacked by motives to solve the “loneliness” problem, radicalism is born. Over time, only the shades of “reactionism” change through the prism of society’s expectations.

In understanding the nature of our covenant and our loneliness, I adapt a copyrighted (by Dr. Israel Rivkin and Josh Rapps) version of part of a talk from the Rav on Parshas Lech Lecha delivered in 1973.

The Rav noted that Parshas Lech Lecha and the story of Avraham is as current today as it was many years ago. The struggle between Jews and the Egyptian continued throughout the ages.

In Parshas Lech Lecha, Avraham is commanded to differentiate himself from the nations of the world. Avraham is the progenitor of the process of the separate nation. Avraham, the first Jew, encounters Egyptians soon after he enters Eretz Yisrael. Ironically, Avraham is blamed for the tension because he had claimed that Sara was his sister and did not declare that she was his wife. Had she been his sister, would that have given the Egyptians the right to take her? [Apologists would blame Avraham, of course]

Egypt constantly surfaces throughout Tanach as the antagonist of the Jewish Nation. Avraham was not the only ancestor to have dealings with the Egyptians. Yosef was enslaved in Egypt, after which the Jewish Nation was enslaved there. During the time of the first and second Temples there was constant friction with Egypt. Why?

The prophet Zechariah says that all the nations will gather against Jerusalem and Hashem will come to battle them on behalf of His nation. In the Messianic period Egypt will be singled out for special punishment in that it will not celebrate the festival of Succos.

Parshas Lech Lecha lays down the everlasting principle that the Jew must be separate and alone from other nations of the world. Bilaam [and latter-day Bilaams] recognised this and said that the Jewish Nation dwells alone and does not count itself among the other nations of the world. This separation began with Avraham, culminating with the Mitzvah of Bris Milah. [In our time, the holocaust denier, Mahmoud Abbas, is allegedly “comfortable” with a State, but specifically will not accept a State for Jews. This is the behaviour of a latter-day deceitful Bilaam]

The Torah (Breishis 17:1) says that Hashem commands Avraham to “walk before Him and to be complete” so that Hashem will grant The covenant between Avraham and his descendants. Rashi comments that Hashem tells Avraham that He is all-powerful and all-capable to administer each and every creature. Accordingly, “you shall walk before Me and I will be a God and protector for you”. Based on this interpretation, what is the connection between this statement of Hashem and the Bris Milah itself?

The Midrash says that after he was commanded to perform the Bris Milah, Avraham was concerned that this separate act of Milah would cause a fundamental change in his relationship with the rest of the world. Until that point, all people sought out Avraham, and he was able to influence them. [Tikkun Olam was easy. There were no obstacles]. Even though they knew that Avraham ascribed to a different philosophy, there was enough in common with the nations of the world to the extent that they sought Avraham out.

Avraham protested. With the inception of the Bris Milah, they would no longer associate with him and he would be alone. The Torah describes that Avraham sat at the door of his tent, at the height of the heat of the day, searching for guests, yet none passed by. The people did indeed boycott him. Hashem reassured Avraham that he should not worry about his loneliness, Hashem will always be with and protect him.

Milah and Shabbos (and Yom Tov) are both classified as Osos (signs) from Hashem to Bnai Yisrael. The Rav pointed out that although they share the concept of sign, they symbolise different aspects of the relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. Shabbos symbolises the unique Kedushas Yisrael; the sanctity of the Jew. The Jew has to follow a path of Kedusha and be separate from the other nations of the world.

The essence of Mila, however, is that the Jew is inherently different from the other nations. He has a different, unique destiny. The non-Jew can understand that there is a concept of sanctity. He might grasp that there is a concept of performing Mitzvos. However he has a hard time grasping this unique separation between the destiny of the Jew and the destiny of the rest of the world. He finds it especially difficult to grasp the connection between the Jew and Eretz Yisrael; the embodiment of this destiny.

Avraham understood that with the Mitzvah of Mila, the Jew will now embark on a separate, unique life style and destiny from the rest of the world. After Mila there will no longer be seventy-one nations. Rather there will be seventy nations on one side and one nation on the other. The Jew will always be excluded from the “United Nations”, throughout the ages. Avraham was afraid to be alone and separate from the rest of the nations. [Others still seek the approval and acceptance of the United Nations as the panacea]

Hashem promised Avraham that should he perform the Mila He will protect him and always be with him. Hashem promised that Ani Kel Shakay, He will be the God and protector of Avraham. Hashem’s alliance with Avraham will be far superior to the alliance between Avraham and the other nations of the world. And it is through the merit of the Mila that Avraham and his descendants were also granted Eretz Yisrael, for this is the destiny.

It is these two linked concepts, Mila and Eretz Yisrael,  that define the Jew while causing him to remain an enigma to the rest of the world.