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Lech Lecha: Hearing the Call

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Oct 29, 2009

Va’yomer Hashem el Avram, lech lecha me-artzecha, u-mi’moladetcha, u-mi’beis avicha el ha-aretz asher ar’ekah. (12:1) 

This opening of our parsha is both dramatic and well known. Avraham (at this point referred to in the Torah as Avram) is called on by Hashem to leave his familiar surroundings, his ancestral homeland, and his family. Even though Avraham was mentioned briefly at the end of last week’s Torah reading, it is the opening of Parshas Lech Lecha where he makes his grand entrance onto the Biblical stage.  

In this initial presentation we are told not only of his intended journey, but also of Avraham’s ultimate destiny. “Ve’e’escha le’goy gadol,” I will make you, God says, into a great nation, “ve’avarechecha,” and I will bless you, “va’agadlah shemecha,” and I will make your name great, “ve’heyei beracha,” and you will be a blessing (12:2-3).  

The destination of the journey may not yet be known but the purpose is clear: for Avraham and his descendants to blossom into a great nation 

For all that the Torah reveals in these pesukim, what is most striking is what we are not told. We are never told anything about Avraham’s life story before his selection and we are thus never told what Avraham did to merit this divine chosenness. The Torah speaks only of the future but never reveals the ast. 

Compounding the difficulty of this textual lacuna is the reality that this choice isn’t simply the choice of Avraham over another individual, but rather, a radical change in God’s relationship with mankind.  

Previously the focus has been on Hashem’s relationship with all of humanity. Whether it was the initial attempt with Adam and Chava in Gan Eden or the subsequent effort during the generation of Noach, the subtext was always what Hashem expected from the entire world. But now, after these failed attempts at a universal vision, Hashem is choosing a particular person to carry out His vision.  

Considering the radical transformation that is taking place and the significance that this choice will have for human history, we would have expected the Torah to tell us why Avraham merited being the one charged with carrying out this new mission.  

It is true that there are various well-known Midrashic descriptions (Bereishis Rabbah 38:13, Pesikta Rabbasi 21, and others) of Avraham’s formative years in which Chazal paint an inspiring picture of a spiritual and intellectual giant with courage and strength of character. We are told, for example, about his discovery of God, confronting his father’s idolatrous way of life, and his willingness to die – in a fiery furnace no less – for his monotheism.  

The significance of these stories can best be highlighted when considering that the Rambam cites them – in considerable detail – in his Mishneh Torah (Avodah Zara 1:2-3), a halachic work that does not typically include aggadic midrshaim or historical recollections. 

And yet, these sources don’t answer the question, they beg the question: If knowing Avraham’s biography is of such central importance, why isn’t it presented in the Torah text? Why aren’t we told of all of his accomplishments and formative experiences? 

The Ramban (11:28) first addresses this difficulty – and his suggestion deserves study – but I’d like to focus on the highly original approach offered by the Sefas Emes (Lech Lecha 5632). 

The Sefas Emes cites a tradition from the Zohar that “lech lecha wasn’t, as the straight forward reading of the pasuk implies, a private call solely to Avraham, but was in fact a universal call for all to hear. According to this amazing insight, in essence, Hashem was holding an open casting call and the offer of “I will make you into a great nation” was made to anyone who was willing to listen.  

It thus emerges, according to the Sefas Emes, that the Torah does tell us the source of the selection: “And Avraham went as God had spoken to him” (12:4) – he listened to what Hashem told him and acted accordingly.  

In other words, Avraham was chosen not, as we have assumed until now, because of his previous accomplishments, as great as they were, but because at this moment he was spiritually sensitive and attuned to hear and heed God’s call.  

This original understanding not only transforms our understanding of this pivotal event in Biblical history but also, I believe, can serve as the basis for valuable self-reflection. Do we hear the call of Hashem in our own lives?  

While perhaps not as clearly as the way He spoke to the nevi’im, Hashem still speaks to us. Whether it is through experiences we have or people we meet, there are many different ways and times that Hashem can choose to communicate. We don’t always realize it, but make no mistake, Hashem is calling. The only question is: are we listening? 

The greatness of Avraham is that he heard the call. Do we?


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