Parshat Lech Lecha begins in what seems to be the middle - the middle of Avraham's life, the middle of some ongoing dialogue or relationship between Avraham and God, the middle of a paradigm shift, the middle of Terah's failed voyage to Canaan. The gap in the biographical information leaves us at a loss to understand why Avraham has been chosen.1 This dearth of detail becomes even more curious when we compare it to last week's parsha: Despite everything we don't know about Noach, at a very minimum we are told that he was a righteous man who walked with God. He was set apart from his generation by a certain moral uniqueness. What do we know about Avraham? Avraham was introduced at the end of Parshat Noach in almost laconic terms: Terah, son of Nahor, takes Lot, his grandson by his deceased son, as well as Avram, one of his two surviving sons, and Avram's wife Sarai, and sets out for Canaan. He makes it as far as Charan, and the narrative stops there. We know nothing of the moral fiber of this family, no personal details about any of the characters. In fact, the commentaries suggest that Terach's son Nahor was only a half-brother to Avraham and Nahor, and that Sarai was actually a sister to Lot and Milka. In short, the opening statement of our present parsha takes us by surprise:
And God said to Avram, "Go forth from your land and your birthplace and from the house of your father to the land that I will show you; and I will make you into a great nation and I will bless ayou and I will magnify your name and you will be a blessing. And I will bless those that bless you and curse those who curse you, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because of you. (Bereishit 12:1-4)
Avram merits direct communication, intimate personal involvement with God. He is given a direct commandment, and promised almost unimaginable reward. We have no inkling as to the events that precipitate this commandment.
If the text of our parsha leaves us with questions, we may turn to the Haftarah reading chosen by our sages to fill in the gaps. Yet here, too, there is a dearth of detail. The Haftarah reading for this portion is a section taken from the Book of Yishaiyahu, 40: 26-41 through 41: 16. This reading speaks, in general, about the nature of the People of Israel as God's chosen nation. There is only one reference to Avraham in the section:
You are Yisrael, my servant Yaakov whom I have chosen, descendents of Avraham who loved Me.
We are left to surmise from this verse that the "chosenness" of The People of Israel is a result of the chosenness of Yaakov, which is a result of Avraham's love of God. Clearly, this is a very central tenet of our faith, a pillar of our national identity; where, then, can we find Avraham's love of God in the text of the Torah?
Rashi analyzes the text of the Haftarah for clues:
Avraham finds God not through fear or rebuke, nor through the teachings of his father, but through love. Avraham comes to a unique and solitary understanding of God, Creator and Sustainer of the Universe, as the source and essence of love. As this parsha unfolds, each episode of Avraham's life story must be seen through the prism of Avraham's discovery of God.
Other commentaries expand Rashi's comment in order to bring into focus the details of Avraham's life.
And the attribute of hesed is the mystery of love, as we shall see; and once Avraham merited the attribute of hesed he entered this love, and in this regard the verse refers to 'Avraham who loved Me. (Sh"la Hakodesh Bereishit Vayera Torah Ohr 3)
The love which Avraham discovers, the attribute of God as a loving and sustaining Creator, is manifest in God's attribute of hesed, and this becomes the defining attribute of Avraham's relationship with God and with his fellow men for the rest of his life.
Other commentaries interpret this verse differently, with an ear to the echoes of the word ahava as it appears later in the Torah. First, the Ramban's discussion of ahavat Hashem (love of God), as it appears in his commentary on the Ten Commandments:
"And I (God) will do hesed to those who love Me and to those who safeguard My commandments": ...Those who love God are they who forfeit their souls for Him, those who know and recognize God's singularity and sovereignty and reject any foreign power or deity, even if doing so puts them in mortal danger - they are calledohavei Hashem (lovers of God), for this is the love that is required of us by the verse "And you shall love the Almighty your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul." You are required to forfeit you soul and your life for His love, that you must not exchange love of God for any other (god), nor accept any other deity along with Him. In this regard Avraham is called "Avraham who loved Me," because he forfeited his life rather than worship other gods in Ur Kasdim. Other righteous people are called "those who safeguard His commandments", and other authorities have pointed out in many instances (see Rambam's Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin, beginning of Chapter 10) that this refers to those who serve God motivated only by love and not in the hope of receiving any reward (see Sifri Devarm 11:13). (Ramban Sh'mot 10:6)
The Ramban equates love of God with uncompromising monotheism. The Jew is commanded, notes the Rambam, to love God "with all your heart and all your soul," even to the point of martyrdom. This is the sort of love of God that Avraham had: his belief in the singularity and uniqueness of God was so absolute and exclusive that he was prepared to die rather than worship the pagan gods of Ur Kasdim. Ramban here refers to an incident that does not appear in the text of the Torah but which has become so ingrained in our collective consciousness that it is an axiom of our faith: Avraham was cast into the fiery furnace when he espoused monotheism and refused to renounce his belief in the Oneness of God.
The Ramban continues his analysis of the concept of ahavat Hashem (love of God), and his conclusion gives us pause:
And I found in the Mikhilta on this verse: 'To those that love Me' refers to Avraham and his kind; 'To those who safeguard My commandments' refers to the Prophets and the Elders. Rabbi Natan says, "To those who love Me and those who safeguard My commandments,' this refers to them that dwell in the Land of Israel and martyr themselves: 'Why are you being taken out to be killed?' 'Because I circumcised my son.' 'Why are you to be burned at the stake?' 'Because I studied Torah.' 'Why are you to be crucified?' 'Because I ate matza (on Pesach)'...And those who intimate that the first part of the verse refers to Avraham, and the second part to the Prophets (intimating that the latter sought reward for their service of God) are incorrect. Herein lies a mystery: Avraham forfeited his soul out of ahava, whereas the others were motivated by gevura.
Avraham was motivated by love - not by justice, not by truth, nor by any other attribute through which God relates to the world. The prophets and other righteous martyrs were motivated by these other aspects of God's uniqueness; Avraham alone related to God purely through ahava.
Elsewhere, the Ramban extrapolates from this unique relationship between Avraham and God:
And He chose you from all the nations to be uniquely beloved and to be his portion, because in all cases choice is a differentiation from from others, and He stated the reason: Because of God's love for you He chose you, for He saw that you are worthy of being loved and preferred you for this love more than all other nations. And He gave no reason for this choice, because the one chosen for love is most capable of suffering anything that may befall him because of that love. And Israel are more capable of suffering than all the other nations... (Ramban D'varim 7:7)
Just as Avraham was chosen because he was willing to go into the furnace for his belief, the Jewish People are chosen by God because they are capable or more inclined to suffer for their love and their belief. Avraham's love of God manifests itself in his willingness to go into the furnace, and this creates the chosenness. Over the ages, Avraham's descendents have proven again and again that they are willing to suffer for their love of God, to die for their belief.
Other commentaries see the manifestation of Avraham's ahavat Hashem not in martyrdom but in the conduct of his life: Avraham spent his life spreading the belief in One God, not because he was a seeker of truth but because his love of God was so great that he could not contain this information. In fact, the Rambam formulates this type of ahavat Hashem as the third in his list of positive commandments by which each and every Jew is obligated:
The third positive commandment: The Transcendent One has commanded that we love Him... And our sages have already taught that this commandment includes that we teach and call out to all other men to serve Him and to believe in Him; just as when you love another person you will constantly have him in mind and praise him to others, and seek to make others love him. This is analogous to love of God, for a person who truly loves God will attempt to enlighten others insofar as his own grasp of God has enlightened him, and he will surely try to persuade the non-believers and the unenlightened to see the truth as he has seen it. So it is written in the Sifri, 'And you shall love the Almighty your God, make him beloved upon others as did Avraham your Forefather, as it is written, "and the souls they made in Charan"' In other words, like Avraham, because of his love of God, as scripture testifies "Avraham who loved Me," sought to influence others because of the great understanding that he achieved, and because of his love of God called out to others to believe, so you should love God and thus bring others close to Him. (Sefer Hamitzvot Positive Commandment 3)
Avraham ohavi is reflected in Avraham's desire to teach the world about God, and the " souls they made in Charan" who went along on this epic journey were the intellectual and spiritual beneficiaries of Avraham's love of God. Ahavat Hashem poured from Avraham like a stream, washing over all those who came in contact with him. The huge influence Avraham had over the people of his generation is the manifestation of Avraham's love, and this is the Avraham we meet as Parshat Lech L'cha begins.
And he planted an eshel in Be'er Sheva and he called there in the name of God, Master of the Universe. (Bereishit 21:33)
Rav and Shmuel disagree: One said, this refers to an orchard. (Avraham) planted an orchard in order to bring fruits to guests at his table. The other said that this refers to an inn: (Avraham) opened an inn and guesthouse to offer passersby all types of fruit... "And he called, etc.:" Therough the agency of this eshel the Holy One's Name was known as Master of the entire Universe, for after they would eat and drink (Avraham) would say to them, 'Bless the One whose food you have eaten. Do you think that you have eaten food that belongs to me? You have eaten the food of He who spoke and created the world. (Rashi on Bereishit 21:33)
Kabbalistic sources interpret Avraham's acts of hesed in a similar vein:
The reason various Godly attributes are associated with the forefathers is because Avraham wished to resemble his Creator in the attribute of hesed. He wanted to perform acts of kindness for the people of his generation in order to draw them to worship God. With this intention he brought them to his home and gave them food and drink and drew their hearts to the service of God. This is absolute hesed that he did for them...And because this attribute is also called love, he was called "Avraham who loved me". And the Sefer HaBahir relates that the attribute of Hesed said to the Holy One, bleesed be He, 'Master of the Universe, all the days that Avraham lived there was no need for me to perform my task, for Avraham stood there in my place."(Sefer Maarekhet Elokit, Chapter 11)
The conduct and purpose of Avraham's life in Charan are built around acts ofhesed, but this hesed is of one piece with Avraham's love of God. Avraham acts as a messenger of God, carrying out the Will of God to bring hesed into the world. He builds his home and concentrates all of his efforts in order to invite guests into his home and share with them an appreciation for the God ofHesed. Avraham's love of God is so great that he cannot keep it to himself, and the enlightenment he shares with his guests - not the food or drink he offers them - is the greatest hesed of all.
The Rambam, and the Netziv after him, described ahavat Hashem in terms that may be most accessible to students of modern philosophy:
One who serves God out of love engages in Torah and Mitzvot and walks the paths of wisdom, not because of any worldly concern and not out of fear of the evil that may befall him, and not to inherit the benefits that will result, rather he does the truth because it is truth, and in the end good will result because of it. This is a very high level and not all wise men achieve it. This is the level of Forefather Avraham, of whom God said "who loved me," for he served God only out of love. This is the level that God commanded us through Moshe, for it says "You shall love the Almighty your God." And when a person loves God with the appropriate type of love, he will immediately fulfill all the commandments out of love. (Rambam, Mishne Torah, Laws of Teshuva, Chapter 10)
Avraham was the first, the prototypical seeker of truth. He sought out truth, and found that God, in His hesed, is the source of truth. He therefore sought to emulate God, not in the hope of any reward or advantage, but because he loved truth. This, according to the Rambam, is the highest level of service of God: to fulfill commandments and to live truth because it is truth.
The Netziv traces this train of thought in other episodes in the parsha:
And only out of love do I serve, ... By acting thus, Avraham demonstrated that he served only out of love and not for any reward. So it was in his words to the King of Sodom, for he did not seek any reward from the Holy One Blessed be He. "If I take anything that is yours:" If I seek no reward from God, I certainly seek no reward from you.(Ha'amek Davar on Bereishit 14:23)
When Avraham declines the reward offered to him by the King of Sodom, it is not because this money is tainted, or because Avraham hopes to receive a much greater reward from God. Avraham seeks no reward for doing what is right, for championing justice. He acts as he does simply out of ahavat Hashem.
And yet, although this school of thought seems to present an extremely intellectual approach, equating ahavat Hashem with the search for truth, in this same passage the Rambam describes ahavat Hashem in distinctly emotional terms: ahavat Hashem is an all-consuming emotional state which motivates and animates. It is lovesickness for God's proximity, intimacy, favor.
This leads us to an underlying question that remains unanswered: Is Avraham's discovery of God an expression or an outgrowth of Avraham's own particular personality? Is he able to relate to God as a God of love because he himself is a person imbued with this outlook? Or does Avraham become the person most identified with loving others because of his discovery of God and his desire to emulate and relate to God? This question becomes most poignant when we consider the akeida, the ultimate test of Avraham's hesed. It is with this test that the Torah throws a spotlight on the entire question of Avraham's personality, his relationship with God, and the very essence of God's hesed. Our dilemma is concentrated on the words of the angel who intervenes at the last moment and stops Avraham from sacrificing his son Yitzchak:
And an angel of God called out to him from heaven and said, "Avraham, Avraham." And he said, "I am here." And he said, "Do not put your hand to the boy and do not do anything to him, for now I know that you are God-fearing for you did not deny me your only son." (Bereishit 22:11-12)
Avraham relates to God as the source of all hesed. How, then, does he respond to the commandment to sacrifice his son, the object of all his hopes and prayers, the culmination of 100 years of waiting? At no point does Avraham argue, as he did on behalf of the people of Sodom. At no instant does he doubt God's hesed; at no time does he invoke justice. How are we to understand this?
Our first response seems to be supported by the text itself: Avraham responded with fear. Avraham's love of God was tested by fear of God, and he passed the test: the angel declared that Avraham had proven that he was God-fearing. In light of everything we have seen, this answer is somehow unsatisfying. Avraham did not respond with fear, nor is his legacy to us one of fear.
The Recanati offers a solution:
This raises a question, for we know that Avraham was God-loving, as it says "descendents of Avraham who loved me." How did he (i.e., the angel) not praise him for his great attribute of hesed and only praised his yir'a? We know that everything that Avraham did, he did out of ahava and the superiority of ahava over yir'a is like the superiority of light over darkness. Thus, we should take note of the kabbalistic teaching that there are two types of yir'a - internal and external. External yir'a is inferior to ahava but internal but internal yir'a is greatly superior to ahava. How is this so? Externalyir'a is the secret of all those who fear transgressing the word of the King, for fear that they will be caught and punished. Internalyir'a stems from comprehension of the true stature of the Creator... When a person reaches this understanding, they become afraid that they are unworthy to stand in the presence of the King. (Recanati on the Torah, Parshat Vayera)
The akeida is not a test designed to break Avraham's natural inclination tohesed. Out of love of God, Avraham proceeds: Even the akeida is ahavabecause ahava is doing truth because it is truth. What is the definition of truth? Whatever God says it is. God is truth, and His commandment is truth. Sacrificing Yitzchak is truth, a manifestation of love and not of fear. Avraham'sahavat Hashem brings him to the level that the Recanati describes as "internalyir'a": Avraham does not want to cause God any disappointment or separation. Avraham is full of love, both for God and for his own son Yitzchak. When God forces him to choose between these two loves, Avraham chooses the love of God, which necessarily assumes, and subsumes, all other love.
Ultimately, God does not force Avraham to consummate this choice, and the heavenly voice commands Avraham to desist. This, too, is seen by our sages as a test: Avraham does not fear punishment; he fears that he will be unworthy of God's presence. He is almost overcome by his desire to consummate his choice, to act upon his ahavat Hashem. His most concerted effort is in pulling back, stopping short of sacrifice. He overcomes his dread of separation from God; he forces himself to obey the commandment to desist, to override his inclination to give everything he has.
Avraham, motivated by his great love of God, dedicated his life to emulating God through hesed, and started a relationship which is replicated by his descendants to this very day. Our challenge is to emulate Avraham by finding our own love of God. We hope and pray that martyrdom will not be required of us, and that instead we can manifest our love of God through acts of hesed, through sharing our knowledge of God with others, by calling all of humanity to serve God - with love.