This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
לֶךְ לְךָ ~ Lech Lecha
“Layer by Layer”
|[12:1] “Go for yourself [your benefit] from your land, and from your birth place, and from the house of your father, to that land that I will show you.”||וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה׳ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ|
Hashem redirects His mission for mankind through Avraham Avinu, as He instructs him to follow Him to an undisclosed land with the famous words “Lech Lecha Mei’Artzecha U’MiMoladetecha U’MiBeis Avicha El Ha’Aretz Asher Ar’eka”-“” [Bereishis 12:1]. With this directive, Avraham sets out with his wife, his nephew, and rest of his entourage, towards what would later be revealed as the land of Cana’an. Thus, the Abrahamic journey begins.
So, there are already a couple of famous questions that many people ask around this point in the Torah. Among them is a major question that focuses not on any internal peculiarities in our text, but on the larger story, as we’ve been taught our whole lives. The question is: What happened to the story of Avraham surviving inside the fiery furnace? Assuming that this account historically happened, it seems crucial to our story which is presumably about the rise of the monotheistic revolution, because in fact, the Midrash [Bereishis Rabbah 38:13; Tanchuma] tells us that Avraham was thrown into the furnace by King Nimrod because he refused to forfeit his belief in the One G-d, and he miraculously survived!
And surely, as a rule, the Torah does not just record all of the history that occurred, but why should we exchange perhaps the most important and exciting story about Avraham for a dragging series of chronicles of an aging Patriarch who is travelling through deserts on camelback?
Another question that is typically asked at the beginning of our Sidrah, this one completely text-based, regards the strange, backwards order of locations which Hashem commands Avraham to leave towards Cana’an; He first says to leave his land, then his birthplace, and finally, his house. Obviously, when we picture the sequence of events, one would have to first leave his house, before leaving his birthplace or neighborhood, before finally leaving the larger land. Why does Hashem speak in this backwards sort of way?
The journey of Avraham Avinu, as it is presented in the Torah, represents our fundamental life mission. He is our first spiritual forefather after all, and as such, the Ramban explains that the B’nei Yisrael’s spiritual legacy is necessarily modeled after his life, in accordance with a natural spiritual order which the Ramban refers to as “Ma’aseh Avos Siman LaBanim”-“the events of the fathers are a sign for the children.” With that said, we have to understand the travels of our forefathers, as they’re portrayed in Sefer Bereishis, as the headquarters for “the events of our forefathers.” Whatever we’re told in Lech Lecha, Vayeira, and so on, represents that which the Torah saw as the primary “signs” for us, “the children,” to take with us each day.
As far as our first question is concerned, why the narrative of the fiery furnace is not explicitly recorded in the Torah, a bunch of well-known answers have been suggested. Whichever route one takes to resolving this issue though, the answer has to start from this understanding that as important as the Torah’s “deleted scenes” might be—and they were important, otherwise Chazzal would not teach them—they were just not what the Divine Narrator saw as being the primary message which He wanted the “children” to take away. Yes, there is what to learn from them certainly, but they are apparently not the most fundamental “signs” for our agenda.
What is still difficult to understand though is how we could suggest that Avraham’s Mesiras Nefesh (self-sacrifice), his willingness to die Al Kiddush Hashem (for the sake of sanctifying Hashem’s Name) is not a fundamental sign for us. In truth, this concept seems like a pillar of our faith, not just a trivial wrinkle in our culture. We’ll have to keep this question in mind while we look at what the Torah, in fact, decided to tell us, while this story was sidelined.
That brings us to the opening text in Lech Lecha. Why does Hashem speak in this unintuitive fashion, instructing that Avraham leave, first from his land, then birthplace, then father’s house?
This question too has some famous answers, perhaps the most prominent among them suggested by the Malbim (and other commentators in different variation). The Malbim suggests that the entire purpose of Avraham’s journey away from home was so that he could part ways with the mentalities and influences he has grown up with. As a person is influenced by his native land, community, and home, each on different levels, in order to wean oneself from the mindsets that has been ingrained in him in each place, one has to do so gradually, beginning with the weaker and more distant influences until reaching the influences literally closest to home. In this light, explains the Malbim, the words “Lech Lecha,” can be rendered, perhaps in their most literal sense, “go,” not for yourself, but rather, “to yourself,” as the further away one gets from the outside influences that has infiltrated one’s soul, the closer one gets to his essential self, the part of himself that connects to his eternality, his relationship with G-d.
In a similar vein, R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that each of the locations—land, birthplace, father’s home—represents shells or outer layers which Avraham was being charged to peel away, one by one, so that he can reach that essential self. Naturally then, Avraham would have to start with the outermost layer and work his way inward.
The novelty of this layer theory is that it is not so intuitive. That is because we tend to think that since we and our personalities are crafted by our environment, the things and people we’ve grown up with, and our communities, that our essence is comprised of these influences, that who we’ve become through those influences is exactly who we really are. And to some extent, that is undeniable. Where we’ve been says a lot about who we are. But, what the Torah is telling us, explains these commentators, is that really, each of these components of our lives are really just layers that have covered up our essential selves, and that if we peel everything away—whether our homes, our social circles, our temptations, and everything else, there is actually a pure, unadulterated, and most fundamental part of ourselves, a spiritual self that yearns for the Creator and His Will.
The outer layers, as we’re understanding them, can fool us into thinking that they are who we really are, that if I crave X or have the tendency to do Y, then that is just who I am, and that if I have character trait A and attribute B, then that’s what makes me special and unique, and that is who I am. And apparently, it’s not. Yes, apparently, we’re all charged to recognize these layers—our upbringing, our cravings, our traits, and our entire material lives—and peel away what doesn’t belong, sculpting and refining our characters, refining our attributes, so that we can return to our essential selves.
So, for example, while there are many personality traits that we see as being intrinsically positive, perhaps some intrinsically negative, this concept of character refinement seems to suggest that most traits and attributes are neutral, and our goal is just to chip away whatever there is too much of, whatever is extra, so that we can strike the proper, balance that is our spiritual equilibrium.
Perhaps the above has something to do with the concept described in Kabbalah (mysticism) as Kelipos, literally, shells or outer skin of spiritual impurity, which we are supposed to peel away. Without making things too complicated, we might suggest that these Kelipos are really just the different influences that make up who we think we are, when in reality, the best and purest part of ourselves, the truest and only real part of ourselves, wants us to reconnect to our Creator.
Going with this layer theory, it is quite telling that Hashem directed Avraham on this mission that He intends for not only Avraham, but his progeny who are inherently connected to the monotheistic revolution. If we look at Avraham’s life, he is constantly charged to recognize and peel away layers, for example, when he comes to the reality that he must part ways with his nephew Lot. And sometimes, he comes into contact with new layers, which again, he must recognize and peel away, for example, when he sends away Yishmael after years of thinking that Yishmael would inherit him.
Even towards the end of our Sidrah, we’re taught such an extent to these layers. It’s not just leaving his land or his house, or his family, but he actually has to peel away physical layers on his own body through Bris Milah. And it was only when he “walked before” G-d with this covenant that he would truly become Tamim, complete [17:1]. This fact alone proves that at least from our physical inception, we are spiritually incomplete. Our bodies need to be refined because we are born with layers, with blockage.
And if we think that our physical bodies are the deepest layer, the Sefer HaChinuch [Mitzvah #2] says explicitly that Bris Milah is but a hint to the fact that man is incomplete and must refine his personality. The removal of the physical layer of foreskin is just the visual precedent for the higher goal of removing Orlas HaLeiv, the foreskin or blockage of our hearts [Devarim 30:6]. Apparently, while our essential selves are inherently pure, we are born with blockage, as the Torah stated in last week’s Sidrah [8:21], “…Ki Yeitzer Leiv HaAdam Ra Mi’Ne’urav…”-“…for the inclination of the heart of man is evil from its youth…” Apparently, Bris Milah is the beginning of the process of character refinement, where the removal of layers go so much deeper.
Perhaps we see the deepest level of Avraham’s character refinement in the following Sidrah when he sets out to perform the Akeidah, at which point Avraham is not merely removing a layer of skin and drawing his own blood, but he is about to slaughter his son. There, it is not just a physical body that he is affecting, but he is cutting away a layer of his own sanity and peace of mind. He is stripping his deepest inclination from his soul for his relationship with G-d.
If all of the above is true, why does the Torah not include perhaps the most essential form of self-sacrifice, the story of Avraham leaping into the fiery furnace for G-d?
So, while there are many answers to this question, we might suggest, in line with our understanding of the Torah’s goal for us, is that maybe, just maybe, it does not necessarily take character refinement to die for one’s beliefs, to let himself be killed for G-d. People of all backgrounds have been doing that for generations, even nonreligious. Is it a noble and extraordinarily holy thing to do? Of course. It is sometimes an imperative. Unfortunately, yes. And when it is, it is completely in line with Ratzon Hashem (Will of G-d). But, is it the main reason why we are here? Is that Hashem’s goal for us? Is it the peak of our existence in this world? If it was, perhaps Hashem could’ve done Avraham the biggest favor and just allowed him to die Al Kiddush Hashem, and Avraham could’ve gone straight to Olam HaBa (the World to Come).
But that is, in fact, not what Hashem does. Instead, He proceeds to test Avraham, trial after trial, hardship after hardship, pushing him to his very limit—and all for what? Why do that to him if he has just demonstrated that he is in it for G-d? And the answer might be that the essential goal which Hashem wants man to achieve is complete character refinement, which takes not just a moment of inspiration and self-sacrifice, but a lifetime of peeling and peeling away at the layers, and coming close to Hashem—not through our deaths, but through our actual lives and existence in Olam HaZeh (This World). It is not when Avraham accepts his death that he has truly reached his spiritual peak, but when he accepts life, a life of living each day with the knowledge that he killed—or least almost killed—his son for G-d, a life, not given up, but devoted to Hashem.
If that’s the case, of course Avraham was not finished with his life mission at the scene of the fiery furnace, and of course, the leap to the fiery furnace is not the ideal direction which the Torah wants us to go in, so long as it’s not spiritually imperative.
In the end of the day, life doesn’t always situate us at the edge of a furnace with the choice to take the leap for G-d, and in truth, we really don’t want that option—G-d doesn’t want it. The direction of the Avos which Torah presented us, the primary mission statement which we’re given the opportunity for every single day of our existence is “Lech Lecha…”—to peel away the layers of spiritual blockage and thereby go forth toward our most essential selves, to live a life devoted to Hashem.
May we all be Zocheh to peel away all of those layers, to find our essential selves, devote every day of our living existence to Hashem, and Hashem should strip way the layers of spiritual blockage in this world, revealing His essential Self with the ultimate redemption in the times of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂