Our Father Abraham Goes to Eretz Israel to Bring Back Those Who are Far
It is written, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2). Rashi explains: “[Meaning] for your own benefit, for your own good. It is there that I will make you into a great nation, [whereas] here you will not merit having children. Also, I will make your character known to the world.”
We must understand how this departure was a test for Abraham, since G-d promised him that as a result He would bless him and make a great nation out of him. It seems obvious that he would be happy to leave Haran and obey G-d, since the Holy One, blessed be He, desired Abraham’s benefit and good.
We shall attempt to explain. In observing the situation, we see that several tests are combined here. First of all, we note that the Holy One, blessed be He, did not command Abraham to circumcise himself before his departure for Canaan. Now it seems that it would have been better to enter into a holy land with a holy body, and in that way even the journey would have been considered a great test. This is because it implied that Abraham was neglecting the mitzvah of honoring one’s father, which is the reason why the Torah mentions that Terah died before relating Abraham’s departure for Canaan. As Rash puts it: Why does Scripture recall the death of Terah before the departure of Abraham? So that people would not say that Abraham failed to show respect for his father because he left him in his old age. Scripture therefore declared Terah to be dead. In addition, in Haran Abraham would routinely serve G-d with all his strength. How then could he leave a familiar environment to go to one that he wasn’t at all familiar with? Perhaps this departure would lead him to neglect the Torah? Perhaps he also would not have been followed by all those whom he had converted, as the Sages have said concerning the verse, “And the souls they made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5), which teaches us that Abraham converted them and brought them under the wings of the Shechinah (Sifri Va’etchanan 32).
In addition to all these tests, Abraham also needed to go to Canaan without being circumcised – and thus without the ability to attain the level of holiness of that land – since he lacked the mitzvah of circumcision whose performance carries with it the perfection of the body’s holiness. It follows that his journey towards this land would constitute a spiritual plunge for him. Consequently, how are we to understand what G-d told him, namely to go “for your own benefit, for your own good,” since as far as Abraham was concerned this voyage was nothing but a spiritual descent? In fact in Haran he understood very little, and in Canaan the Holy One, blessed be He, told him that he would understand very much, hence there was reason to fear that he risked “not understanding anything because he wanted to understand everything” (Rosh Hashanah 4b).
From everything that we have said up to now, we see just how difficult a test it was for Abraham to have not received the commandment of circumcision before the age of 100, which is the numerical value of lech lecha (“go for yourself”), to the point that the Sages have questioned which test was greater, that one or the sacrifice of Isaac. Rabbi Levi bar Chayata said, “It is twice written lech lecha, and we do not know which test was more precious to G-d, the first or the second. From what is written, ‘Ve’lech lecha [And go for yourself] into the land of Moriah’ [Genesis 22:2], we understand that the second was more valuable than the first” (Bereshith Rabba 55:8).
To explain this point, let us say that at the beginning the Sages hesitated to determine which test was the greater one, for in the same way that the first lech lecha engendered a spiritual plunge for him, the second lech lecha also engendered the same, for how could he elevate himself once again after having slaughtered his son? He was lacking the concept of “the son is the foot of the father” (Eruvin 70b), meaning that even after the death of the father, the son contributes to his spiritual elevation. He was missing that as well, to the point that the Sages affirmed that the last test was greater than the first, since after the last one he would no longer be able to accomplish what was said of him: “For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him” (Genesis 18:19). In fact, after the sacrifice of Isaac he would already have nobody whom he could direct to perpetuate his service of G-d.
In that which concerns the test of lech lecha, we may add that even when Abraham was in Haran, before being circumcised, he served G-d will all his bodily members. He spread his doctrine and taught others, and he held firm in all trials without the orla disturbing him, for he was stronger than it. It was accounted to him as a merit to have discovered the light and to have felt it even while being surrounded by the orla and being blind at the mitzvah of circumcision.
Despite all this, Abraham felt great darkness within himself when G-d spoke to him, for he understood that everything that he had accomplished with his own strength up to that point was trivial compared to the fact that G-d spoke to him. This enabled him to understand everything that he had been missing prior to this Divine communication. This was particularly true when he was told that there is a constant light in the Holy Land, even when no Divine communication would be given to him, because the eyes of Hashem are on the land from the beginning of the year to its end (Deuteronomy 11:12). This means that the land itself is under the providential care of the Creator of the world, and therefore a person can elevate himself just by simply walking on its soil, much like one performs the mitzvah of the Sukkah just by being inside it. The mitzvah of living in Eretz Israel is like that of the Sukkah, not because the Sukkah is the “shadow of faith,” but because of the real presence of the Shechinah.
This becomes especially clear when we understand what the Sages said on the verse, “Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations” (Genesis 6:9), namely that Noah was a righteous man in his generation, which is why the Holy One, blessed be He, had to save him (Sanhedrin 108a). Consequently, Abraham thought that as long as he lived in Haran (a place filled with the wicked, where despite everything Abraham controlled himself and served G-d with devotion since the age of three – Nedarim 32a), since he was considered a righteous man before G-d, He would help and protect him from the evil inclination.
Yet in Eretz Israel, which is a land that devours its inhabitants, if Abraham was not perfect then everything that he had accomplished on his own in Haran would have been considered as nothing, due to the greater holiness of Eretz Israel, as it is written: “The air of Eretz Israel grants wisdom” (Bava Batra 158b). Under such conditions, if he had not been commanded to circumcise himself, and thus if he had not merited to be considered as being completely G-d fearing, what purpose would his wisdom have served, since it is written: “The beginning of wisdom is fear of the L-RD” (Psalms 111:10)? Without considering the fact that when the Holy One, blessed be He, told him that it was precisely in “the land that I will show you” that he would merit comprehending a great light at the age of 100 by circumcision, it would have been difficult for him to understand what would become of everything that he did before.
This is precisely what is written: “Go for yourself from your land…” (Genesis 12:1), as well as “They left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan” (v.5), meaning that in the same way that “Go…from your land” constituted a great trial for him, his arrival in Canaan would also constitute a trial because he began to perceive and feel the holiness of the land. There he sensed the presence of G-d more than in any other place, and he also perceived that it was the starting point of Creation (Bamidbar Rabba 12:4). On the other hand he felt as nothing, far from his Creator. Yet despite this he overcame that trial without losing hope, and on the contrary he sought and found a way to overcome without protesting against G-d’s word. He did so by reasoning with a Kal Vachomer concerning Noah, who was considered to be a righteous man in his generation. At the time when all the men of Noah’s generation died, he felt at that point that he no longer had any merit with respect to them, since they were all dead, and the attribute of strict justice began to rage against him because he was not worthy of being saved. He only merited being saved because of the generosity that he had show to the animals in the Ark, as the Sages have said: Abraham’s servant asked Shem, the son of Noah, how Noah and his sons had merited being saved in the Ark, and Shem replied that it was because they had given Tzeddakah and demonstrated kindness toward the animals in the Ark day and night (Sanhedrin 108b).
Consequently, Abraham too – who was now in the place where the Shechinah resided, a place whose holiness abounded – was also by this very reason in considerable danger. Those who had accompanied him were considered insignificant, which is why at that point everything depended on Abraham to carry out the mitzvah of hospitality and to bring every passerby under the wings of the Shechinah with more fervor, even more than in Haran. Thus he became worthy of living according to Tzeddakah, which his righteousness pushed him to perform in that place. As a result, it was there that he chose to plant a tree, as it is written: “He planted an eshel in Beersheba, and there he proclaimed the Name of the L-RD” (Genesis 21:33). The Sages add that it was because of this eshel that the Holy One, blessed be He, was called the G-d of the entire world. When Abraham’s guests had finished eating and drinking, he would say to them, “Bless the One to Whom everything you consumed belongs. You thought that it was mine? It belonged to the One Whose word created the world” (Sotah 10a).
We see from here a great principle in serving G-d, namely that the Holy One, blessed be He, only send a person trials if he is able to overcome them. Even if he sees no apparent way of being saved from a trial and a spiritual fall (which is very grave indeed), if a person bitterly regrets – because of the terrible hardship that he suffers – not having served G-d as he should have, in the end the Holy One, blessed be He, will open up a path for him as He did for Abraham. G-d will show him a way to be victorious in all trials, and that person will then merit pathways of holiness to be opened in his body, a light of spiritual awakening from on High that will descend upon him.