Strangely, the first three Parshot in the Torah do not give us definitions and frameworks for our lives. Why did the Torah not begin with laws? It seems only appropriate that if the Jewish people are to serve as Gd’s light in the world, they should have been given the laws upfront. Tell us what you want us to do. Then explain why you want us to do it. Any good editor would have told that to Gd.
The Torah does not begin with instructions because it recognizes that identifying truth is the easy part. We all have a soul within us, a moral compass from birth. With the help of a few self-help books, some philosophy, and a couple of Jordan Peterson videos, we should be able to acquire a reasonable sense of what life is about: be good, connected, moral, righteous. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Easy. Gd could have delivered that message in a pamphlet.
But he didn’t. Rather, the first three Parshot and the Torah address a much larger question, a much more important question, a question that hits at the core of human nature: Why do we not live what we know to be true? Why can we be so certain, so connected, so clear on who and what we want to be, and then, the next moment, be so disconnected, so full of anguish and doubt, doing exactly what we assured ourselves we would never do again?
The first two Parshot are the stories of humans who fall because they tried to follow only themselves towards truth. The first righteous humans, Adam, Chava, and Noach, all succumbed, to a certain extent, to their own rationalizations, fears, and doubts – their yatzer rah –which led them away from truth. Parshat Lech Lecha gives us a framework for how to avoid those pitfalls and how to move from where we are to where we want to be.
Gd’s first words to Avraham are lech lecha. Until this point, Avraham had ascended to spiritual heights no human being had reached since being placed in Gan Eden. So successful was he in his pursuit of truth, that on his own, he discovered Gd. Gd didn’t find Avraham. Avraham found Gd. And then Gd tells Avraham: lech lecha. “Go, for yourself, from your land, from the place you were born, and from your father’s house to the land I will show you.” Avraham has risen as high as he can on his own. To grow more, he needs Gd’s help.
Implicit in this command to leave is the lesson that true growth and truth-seeking requires fracturing existing frameworks. It is impossible to engage wholeheartedly with truth if we limit ourselves to certain outcomes – outcomes that will be accepted by those around us, by those in our land, in our family, in our father’s house. No…we can only find what we are looking for when we let go of the expectations of others and our own fear of judgment. And what lies at the end of this journey for Avraham? Rav Sholom Noach Berezovsky says that (ֶ֛לְך־ְלָך) Lech Lecha, can be read as “go for yourself” (i.e. this journey will be good for you), or as “go towards yourself...” And if we read it as the latter, then we also read the last four words not as “to the land which I will show to you,”but as “to the land, and I will show you yourself.”
The first time Gd speaks to Avraham he does not dictate to him his laws and rules. Rather, he instructs him on the first step to integrating truth. Disconnect from those things holding you back. Cleave to truth even when it is difficult, and in the end, you will find your most authentic self. What you seek is inside you. Get out of your own way.
This journey Avraham embarks upon is strewn with obstacles. The Torah tells us the purpose of life is to perfect creation. In a sense, this means to perfect ourselves: to constantly strive towards being whole, authentic, balanced human beings. We are all given gifts and strengths and we all deal with weaknesses and lackings. Rav Dessler writes about Avraham and his strength of hesed – lovingkindness, generosity, pure giving. On his own, without Gd appearing before him, Avraham has essentially perfected his strength. He embodies the ideal of generosity. However, for him to develop his perfect self, he requires Gd. He requires challenges put before him by Gd. We do not grow if we only play to our strengths and Avraham, for his entire life, has been playing to his advantages. Thus, Gd brings obstacles before Avraham that challenge Avraham’s weaknesses. These obstacles challenge his giving nature and force him to pursue truth and justice even when it means hurting those close to him, disappointing those he most cares for. Gd’s challenges force Avraham to limit his hesed with truth: he tells him to kick out his servant Hagar and his son Yishmael. Then he tells him to take his beloved son, Yitchak, and sacrifice him before Gd. Both of these challenges must have broken Avraham’s heart.
If we want to become the best and truest versions of ourselves, then challenges are necessary. It is self-evident, but challenges are challenging for us because they play on our weaknesses. Challenges are unique to all of us; for others, they may well not be challenging. They hold a mirror up before us and allow us to painfully see areas where we must grow. The Hebrew word for a test is נסיון which comes from the root נס, meaning banner. As we raise up a banner, so too do trials raise us up, transcending us beyond our basic nature. Only through challenges can we rise above our base selves, the self that is easy, the self that contains only one aspect of our wholeness.
Yet, becoming a whole human being does not mean denying ourselves our strengths. Rather, it is through our strengths that we become whole. For Avraham, this meant using his natural perfection of hesed to incorporate truth. By cleaving to Gd with his enormous capacity for love and generosity, he transcended his fears and pursued truth, even when the challenges threatened to break him.
In the same Parsha, Lot, Avraham’s nephew, skirts around the challenges. He hides from what he knows to be true. He deludes himself. He rationalizes the truth of his actions away. At first, Lot walks with Avraham and Gd. But the tests encountered by Avraham break Lot, and he forsakes Gd and Avraham to go to Sodom, the Las Vegas of the times. He rationalizes the decision: there, the pastures are green. But the text tells us a different story. Lot and Avraham are to the west of Sodom, yet when Lot leaves Avraham to go to Sodom, the Torah tells us he went ִמֶקֶּ֑דם - from East, which can only mean west. Why would he go west, away from his destination? Rashi tells us that Lot goes west, but then he turns east so that Avraham won’t realize he’s going to Sodom. He fears Avraham’s judgment. We only fear the judgment of others when we aren’t fully whole in our decisions. Lot knows deep down that he is not running towards green pastures. He is running away from the truth, going towards pleasure, comfort, old patterns.
We hide our actions from others because we are ashamed of our intentions. Lot deceives Avraham, but in reality, he deceives himself. For Lot, the challenges are too great, the struggle of growth too much. Better, he thinks, to close his eyes and walk blindly once more. Yet, as with all of us, he cannot run away from what is inside of him. We cannot run away from these challenges. We can only distract ourselves from them. Challenges are there because they are inside us. They manifest out of our framework for viewing the world. If we do not transcend them, but only skirt around them, we will continue to encounter them again and again – in our relationships, in our self-image, in our actions. Unless we transcend, we are destined to live in hell, falling again into the same holes, tearing ourselves open along the same seams. Eventually, Lot’s running and numbing destroy him, as it can us all.
Challenges are signposts pointing inwards. They are Gd’s message to us: go inwards. You cannot change the natural order of the world. But you can change yourself, and by changing yourself, you will change your world. Lech lecha.
I would like to thank Rabbi Gersht, Rabbi Bernstein, Rabbi Taub, Rabbi Jacobs, and Rabbi Gershenfeld for their insightful and meaningful lessons on this week’s Parsha.