Role of this parasha
The entire parasha is devoted
to Avraham Avinu, Our Father Avraham, who strives to create
a new type of man and a new relationship between men and
the Creator. It is important to remember the plan of the
two preceding parashiot (the initial creation and the
need to improve the creation after it became violent,
dispersed and removed from the goodness of the Creator).
Noah began the task and Avram will continue it; this is
what we are going to study and everything that we will
learn is a guide for living.
Three elements play an essential
part in this parasha:
" the task of going "towards oneself,"
" the importance of the triple circumcision, which
involves two successive acts,
" the role of the land (which alternates between
Canaan and Israel).
Themes of the Parasha
The parasha begins with God
asking Avram to leave three things: his country, his birthplace
and the house of his father. Then it recounts his arrival
in the land of Canaan, the declaration of the name of
Hashem, the famine, his descent into Egypt, Sara's abduction
and the blessing which follows it, the return, the separation
from Lot, the abduction of Lot, his rescue by Avram, God's
promise of future blessings for Avram during the covenant
and the sacrifice of pieces, God's announcement of an
exile in Egypt and then possession of the land, Sara's
infertility, the birth of Ishmael, the change of name
to Avraham, the circumcision of Avraham and Ishmael, the
declaration of Isaac's birth.
It is clear that there are many themes in this parasha
and each one could be the basis of important commentaries.
I have limited this commentary to one point and one verse
in order to show the depth of each phrase of the text.
Avraham's place in the
At the end of the parasha,
Avraham is 99 years old. He is the 10th generation after
Noah, and the 20th after Adam (Moshe's birth marks the
26th generation). Avraham was born in the year 1948 after
" He was 48 when the nations on earth were exiled
and 58 at the death of Noah (commentary of Ibn Ezra on
Bereshit 6, 9). Because the generations that followed
Noah lived a long time, Avram was the contemporary of
Shem, the son of Noah and of Ever, the 4th generation
after Noah; he taught in the yeshiva where his grandson
Yaakov studies for 14 years (read Rashi on Bereshit 28,
9 in order to understand these calculations).
" He was 52 years old and his wife 42 when they taught
those around them in order to bring them closer to the
real God, which is considered by Tractate Avodah Zarah
(9) to mark the beginning of the teaching of the Torah.
" Avraham was 100 years old at the birth of Yitzhak
and 160 at the birth of Yaakov.
" He lost his wife Sara at the age of 137 after the
akeda (the sacrifice of Yitzhak when Isaac was 37 years
old; see Rashi on Bereshit 25, 20). He learns then of
the birth of Rivka, who will become Yitzhak's wife (see
Rashi on Bereshit 22, 20). Sara was 90 years old when
she gave birth to Yitzhak.
" Avraham died at the age of 175 years, when Yitzhak
was 75 years old and Yaakov 15; they were able to live
and study with him for 15 years.
The sources for all these
dates are in Hebrew and are found in Rashi and in the
book Seder Olam Rabbah. The Shla's explanation of the
meaning of many events in the Bible is based on the ages
of Avraham and Sarah.
The Rhythm of Life
Why the need for all these
calculations? A more precise question would be: why does
the Torah teach us all of this? The answer is in order
to show us that Hashem's plan, which follows the path
of goodness and righteousness, progresses very slowly
and often encounters insurmountable obstacles; this is
the criteria for an authentic life.
It is the characteristic of Avraham and of his descendants
that they were capable of confronting the worst travails
with steadiness and devotion, ignoring external pressures
and the good counsel of others that were based on values
and achievements other than those of Hashem.
Judaism is not spirituality; it is a path of life involving
practical choices. Even more, it is a path that is riddled
with trials. A butterfly and an ear of corn only emerge
when the cocoon-sheath is dead.
The Commandment and Injunction
of this Parasha
It is important to note that
there are "only" three mitzvot in the whole
book of Bereshit: Parashat Bereshit: Be fruitful and multiply
Parashat Lekh lekha: Circumcision, mila (17, 10) which
is repeated in parasha
Tazria (Vayikra 12, 13);
Parashat Vayishlakh: the prohibition against eating "the
hollow of the thigh" (32, 33).
These three mitzvot are essential for the process of recreation.
What is the link therefore
between Avraham's trials, the condition for recreating
the world and the act of circumcision.
Lekh lekha and the circumcision
The title of the parasha "Lekh
lekha" (verse 12, 1) means in Hebrew "go"
but the true grammatical meaning is "go towards yourself,
go for yourself," as noted by Rashi. Thus to the
proposed geographical move one finds added a personal
move of inner dimensions.
Thus it is essential to link
this central theme of the title with the single mitzva
of this parasha - the circumcision. This raises several
" what is the link between a geographical move and
an inner move towards oneself?
" why is the latter symbolized by the act of circumcision?
" why is the apparent loss of a part of oneself in
the act of circumcision a condition for the acquisition
In order to understand this, one needs to understand how
Judaism perceives these questions and life itself. The
Shla wrote extensively on these questions and his comments
are discussed below.
Further questions are raised
by the fact that the mitzva of circumcision is linked
to the promise of the conquest of the land of Canaan (Bereshit
" why is the possession of the land linked to the
fulfillment of the mitzva?
" why does the fulfillment of the mitzva entail the
possession of a land which is occupied by others and bears
their name (Canaan)?
The emphasis placed on these
questions by the Torah is a mark of their importance (contrary
to the way other religions blithely decided that the circumcision
could be dismissed in the Torah: the land of the Holy
One, Blessed be He, which He gave to His people, is also
under constant threat of being take over); it is clear
that these questions are still very relevant, as is Rashi's
commentary on the first verse of the Torah (see also Rashi
on Bereshit 1, 1 and on Joshua 5, 4). These are not "political"questions
but ones that involve anthropology and devotion to the
Torah. It is therefore important to understand these questions
and the links that connect the land with man's physical
body, and the land with mankind for all time.
The land of Israel, according
to the Shla
The connection between the
promise of the land and the seemingly illogical circumcision
can be fully understood only if one studies the divine
teachings concerning the land of Israel.
1. The divine and non-human
rules that govern the circumcision also govern everything
that relates to this particular land, which, unlike others,
does not depend on man's power or skills.
2. The land of Israel on this earth, writes the Shla,
is the counterpart of the land of Israel in the world
3. Negative forces (the klipot, the husks which encircle,
enclose and attack) thwart the development of life and
4. The role of Jews is to learn, through the Torah, the
path that allows man to slowly overcome the negative forces
that have infiltrated the forces of good in this world
since the creation.
5. The circumcision plays an essential role in this process.
(Additional personal comments:
1. The Jewish concept of the land of Israel which is constantly
subject to the forces described above, helps us to understand
why so many nations are constantly preoccupied with this
tiny piece of land;
2. the problem cannot be explained only in terms of political
"enemies" or political "peace," because
this ignores the historical recurrence of the problem
and its significance.
3. We, the students of the Sages, are also subject to
the pressures of political debates and we should therefore
make every effort to understand the age-old teachings
of the Sages irrespective of which school or region they
come from, and not to do the opposite, which would be
aligning oneself with a particular school or political
position in order to study the Torah. It is in order to
safeguard this age-old tradition that I use an anthropological
perspective rather than a political one.
4. The problem of how an autonomous Jewish state should
relate to other nations must always follow Jewish tradition,
on the following conditions: acknowledgment of the divine
plan as revealed in the Torah, commitment to a moral code
of behavior between Jews and towards other nations, commitment
to a life according to Torah, and Torah study. This is
not simply a question of national independence, power
or political accords.
5. The function of tradition in Judaism is not a narrow
"mystical" or "religious" concept
(these two terms usually have a purely political meaning)
but entails a much broader anthropological perspective.
land of Israel and the mila, according to the Shla
This model (of a holy place
surrounded by positive and negative forces that has its
parallel above) applies, in Jewish tradition, to the circumcision,
the mila, in the following way:
The Shla explains that, despite its earthly and celestial
greatness (or because of it), the land of Israel is surrounded
and imprisoned by husks (klipot) and only the perfectly
accomplished act of disengaging the foreskin by cutting
it, then folding (peria) the rest of the skin (orla) ensures
the disengagement of the land of Israel from the negative
pressures of these klipot. This liberation in Judaism
does not consist solely in a political and administrative
disengagement which "would return the land to us,
its true owners," but also entails the beneficial
use of this land by Jews for all creation and the special
role Jews play in this mission: this is the noble and
important role Jews have in relation to other nations.
We can now understand that
the one act of circumcision is in fact a triple act (involving
three simultaneous levels:
" circumcision of the body, in two phases, attaining
" circumcision of the heart
" the circumcision involved in geographic and political
These three levels are inseparable
We can now re-read Rash's
commentary and understand why he felt it necessary to
place these complex questions at the beginning of the
It is only when the two acts
of mila and of peria have been accomplished (with their
clear moral consequences) that
" man can attain the aim of creation which is to
resemble his creator and emerge in the image of God;
" Zion and Jerusalem can be united in the real world.
Political action in itself will never be sufficient.
The Shla adds, as do all the
Sages, that it is only through this mila at all levels
of being that man can attain the knowledge transmitted
by the Torah.
It is clear therefore that he who studies the Torah of
Hashem without undergoing this operation (in all its senses)
cannot acquire true knowledge of his Name and its presence
in every word of the Torah. Many Sages have commented
on the verse Mi Yaale Lanu Hashamayim, the initial letters
of which form the word mila and the last letters of which
form the divine 4-letter name: this signifies that it
is only through a perfectly accomplished mila that the
divine Name can be be known and attained.
The relationship between
the Jewish people and other nations
Just as the foreskin surrounds
the organ, other nations (positive and negative) surround
this land and the people chosen to play a role in it,
so the mountains of Esau and Amalek surround Jerusalem
(see Psalm 118, 10: kol goyim sevavumi, all the nations
" In this perspective, the problem of Israel's relationship
with other nations cannot be reduced to errors of history
when certain nations ran amok and persecuted the Jews.
" The solution of the problem cannot be limited to
friendly dialogue between rival ideological camps or to
policies of aggression.
" Friendship and dialogue with all of God's creatures,
are not to be questioned, just like derekh eretz (minimal,
mutual respect in human relations): indeed derekh eretz
has priority over all the Torah and precedes the Torah.
Vayikra rabba, 9, 3 and Tana de Be Eliahu rabba teach
us this: derekh eretz kadma la tora.
This clarification is very
important for no Jew should ever take advantage of his
right to the land of Israel in order to abuse or attack
members of other nations and only the circumcision of
these middot - that is of outer and inner features simultaneously
can give him the right to this land. Even then, ownership
of this land only has meaning if it is in the service
of Hashem and all nations.
If this is not done, the Sages
tell us, then this land will reject us every time; this
has been the teaching of the prophets of all generations.
If a Jew does not love his
land, does not recognize its divine qualities, treats
it like any other land and not as the dwelling place of
the creator and His sanctuary, and does not behave morally
according to the laws of the Torah, he becomes ipso facto
an usurper who is rejected by the land, then other nations
can claim and exert their rights: by annulling the circumcision
and the Torah, a Jew gives away his power to the klipa
that surrounds, pressures and menaces him. This theory
is not part of the modern political scene, but part of
traditional Jewish teaching and the extraordinary survival
of the Jewish people, their constant persecution and alternations
between exile and return are also explained in this way.
The difference between circumcision
Circumcision is an act of
reduction, but one that reduces external forces of destruction.
It should be made clear that this does not only involve
external dangers: forces of danger are also internal and
" Indeed the Torah shows us that Jews play a positive
role in history, but they can also often instigate a destructive
process that is harmful to themselves.
" The Sages also teach us that "the" main
characteristic of life without the Torah is self-destruction
when the nation disintegrates into sub-groups who do not
listen to each other, do not understand each other, and
hate each other.
This is a well documented, constant problem of the Jewish
people: it is
also the challenge of the Jewish people, as this parasha
" The Sages also write
that when the Jewish people enter a phase of self-destruction,
it is possible sometimes to halt it; at other times its
power is so great that it reaches catastrophic proportions
(annihilating in its path both good and bad) like a forest
fire that spreads inexorably. At such times one should
not disclaim responsibility by exclaiming "where
is God?" as is often done and make Him responsible
for the loss of control over our destiny.
" But at the same time,
other nations abuse their right to attack and take over
when our people have lost their way. Moreover, Amalek,
has sought, in all generations, to destroy Israel and
its Torah. The issue is very complex: this is why it is
important to study the traditional teachings, which analyze
in detail thousands of problems and strive not to simplify
or ignore any facet of a problem. One is right to talk
about Jewish intelligence, but this does not mean IQ:
it means a body of knowledge that has been collectively
acquired and is constantly being renewed.
" In the face of the
threats and dangers that arise when Jews lose their way,
in the face of what history has taught Jews, and having
received the gift of the Torah from God, it is clear that
Israel must take pains to be vigilant and study the Torah
of life in order to survive and overcome all these obstacles,
and deliver the rest of the world from errors that can
be fatal for all of us.
The prophets write: Hashem created the world so that we
would have the right to choose between good and evil and
take risks, but He did not authorize other nations to
abuse their power in order to destroy Israel: when they
do so, it is man who destroys, not Hashem, and Hashem's
anger will be vent on these nations, and Israel will feel
the miracle of His protection. But God does not take the
place of man's freedom, and our power of destruction or
construction is immense. Avraham's greatness is that he
understood, mastered and taught this while undergoing
the most terrible trials.
The Shla summarizes all this
with this verse from the Song of Songs, where Israel is
referred to as surrounded by klipot: "she is a lily
among the thorns" (2, 2). Rashi's commentary on the
Song of Songs follows the same line of thought.
After having delineating the
basic structure underlying Jewish life, the Shla then
comments on these two essential questions:
--- why is this promise of the land so important for the
--- why is the contract which guarantees this promise
made on man's body rather than through another channel?
A dwelling place
In order to answer these questions,
one needs to understand that
--- the main aim of creation is to provide the Creator
with a "dwelling place" (name of the shekhina)
here on earth with us, as in the description of the Garden
of Eden when He strolls in the garden with Adam,
---- and He also wants to reside "within us"
(veshakhaneti betokham, and I will dwell among them, within
them, Shmot 25, 8).
It is now clear that the land
of Israel and man constitute the dwelling place of the
The circumcision defines the way in which man can become
the divine dwelling place: Sefer habbahir 168 says that
the eight extremities of the body (ketzavot) must be acknowledged
and this is the reason why the circumcision takes place
on the 8th day.
This dwelling place will thus be established in man through
a covenant marked by a "sign" (zion) that delineates
how he is to live his life internally and externally:
this is the circumcision.
This is the reason why it
was important for Avram to seek, through physical moves,
the center of equilibrium of creation (Jerusalem).
He finds it simultaneously -- in his body, through the
zion (sign) of circumcision and the symbol of the circumcision
renders his 248 organs holy (the name Avraham also corresponds
in gematria to 248) -- and in the place that is geographically
Zion or Jerusalem.
This amalgam of concepts which
explain the dwelling place of God in man in terms of space
and body, as is expressed perfectly by the repetition
lekh lekha, is the reason why this nation, which descends
from Avraham, is different to all other nations, is a
symbol of this perfection, is surrounded by warring nations,
and fights wars according to the moral code of Avraham.
Why the Jewish people are different
to other nations
This is the reason why man's
body and Israel's geographical location are linked in
the covenant, uniting "ownership" of oneself
and ownership of the land, and why the Jewish people are
different to others. Avraham will become the founder of
a new nation (to the extent that his descendants accept
the two phases of the circumcision, on the 8th day and
at all three levels, body, heart and geography). The descendants
of Ishmael rejected some of these conditions because they
did not accept the peria and do not practice circumcision
on the 8th day.
Positive effects of the mila
All this is so central to
the Torah that the creation itself of the heavens and
the earth was destined to be linked to this one man Avraham,
as is shown in behibaram, anagram for Avraham in the story
of the creation (2, 4).
Avraham puts the world right because his act of demarcation
ends the chaos in the world: God created the world, then
after the catastrophes following the sin of Adam - the
murder of Cain, the confusion of the Tower of Babel and
the flood - it is Avraham who "recreates" the
world in all its potential and capacity for good;
--- he is not just a new Adam,
--- he is a partner with God in the creation; it is of
him that the Creator said in advance "let us do,"
Example: respect and knowledge
of one's partners
We can now examine, as traditional
writings do, Avraham's relations with others and discover
that they are relationships of absolute integrity.
Let us take an example from this parasha; the dialogue
between Avraham and his wife, which is an example of sensitivity,
caution, absolute respect, consideration and autonomy
on both sides. He says to her:
hine na yadati hi isha yefat maree at
"behold, now, I know that a beautiful woman to see
The demarcation marks the
emergence of respect and the "you" in history
and in marital relations. Avraham says cautiously to his
wife: "you," I now know who you are, "at"
from aleph to tav (from A to Z), which can be formulated
as, "with respect I know you from the beginning to
the end and I respect every part of you and it is this
that I choose for the word "at" ("you")
which I will use from now on to address you." In
the same way as the circumcision demarcates the holiness
of the body of a Jew, so "at" demarcates the
Humanity is a long way from
the attitude of respect shown by Abraham nearly 4,000
--- it is not aware that our relationship with the Creator
is reflected in our relations with others,
--- all over the world, men's behavior towards women (which
best symbolizes inter-personal relations) is violent,
scornful, abusive, and exploitative on social, psychological
and sexual levels, and causes women untold suffering.
The aim of Avraham's fight
is not to further any one ideology, but to collaborate
with the Creator (by learning his way of making the world
right), so that man can be successful.
To bring this about, the land
of Israel must be the home of this process of personal
purification of all aspects of man's body and behavior,
and this Zionism, that of the Zion of the Torah, must
be understood as representing a contract leading to the
Garden of Eden and Jerusalem whose center is the Holy
Man, like Avraham, must regard his body and that of others
with dignity, just like the two cherubs who faced each
other in the Holy of Holies.
Thus in Jewish tradition,
the land of Israel is not a land of refuge or a land like
any other land, or one in the image of other cultures.
Let us reflect on these concepts by asking some questions:
--- If the divine plan is so beautiful, why do we wish
to escape it? Why are we attracted to what other societies
offer? Why do we have a wish to destroy this sense of
holiness which is expressed in love of one's brother or
spouse, and in love between peoples, as desired by the
Creator? Why do we wish to leave the home of Jewish culture
and its moving force, in order to go and live elsewhere?
The Shla describes, 100 times
better than I do, the beauty of this land as a home and
the role of the circumcision in it; he uses Talmud texts
to emphasize the loss one experiences when one leaves
this land and adheres to other lands and other gods that
represent a different lifestyle to that of this patch
of land. Like many great Sages, the Shla had to flee from
his community and his family in order to.. reach (in all
senses) the land of Israel. He encountered here, like
many olim, torments, suffering and persecution. But he
had reached the sanctuary of life. Here he was able to
write what he lived and to express the congruence between
the texts and life itself. For this reason he called his
commentary on the prayer book: Shaar Hashamayim, the gate
There is no doubt that the
yisurim, the violence, aggression and suffering experienced
here, are part of the process of aliya.
But there is a harmony to
life here that Jews cannot find anywhere else, in one's
relation with others, with one's spouse, with the land,
between the sky and the earth, between this nation and
others, and between the body and the soul (this harmony
is expressed in the initials of these two words guf -
body- and neshama -soul- which together form the word
gan - garden of Eden).
Jews desire this harmony,
but there is "someone" who desires it even more
than them and wishes to delight in it with man, and that
is the Creator who always rules on and cares for this
land: eretz asher Hashem elokekha doresh ota tamid (Devarim
This union between different
levels of being and between beings in the land of Israel
is also seen in the absolute unity of relations between
man and man and between man and the land, which is expressed
in the common root of these two words: adam (man) and
Back to the first verse: Lekh Lekha
Rabbenu Yaakov Abuhatzera
(the great Jewish Moroccan scholar who struggled to reach
the land of Israel and who died on arrival at its gates,
just like Moshe after he left Egypt and reached the land
of Israel), demonstrates in Mahsof Halavan, his commentary
on the Torah, that the first verse of this parasha summarizes
all of this.
He writes that when Avraham
finally discovered the beauty of the land (of Israel)
as the centerpoint and received the encouraging call from
God to follow in this direction, he doubted of himself
(like all of us!).
He felt different and incomplete
at three levels:
" because he had grown up in a land and culture that
were impure by comparison,
" because he was the son of parents who did not enjoy
such a rich and pure relationship,
" because he understood that he came from a family
that adhered to other values (avodah zarah).
Thus, says the Rav, Hakadosh
Baruh Hu was obliged to remove these doubts from Avraham's
heart, by telling him:
--- go to your deepest self (lekh lekha),
--- and you will see that you are worthy in yourself (raouy
mi tzad atzmo),
--- and no exterior obstacle will impede you (shum menia
mi tza zulato).
This verse, therefore, tells
Avraham that he will not be impeded at any of the three
levels cited above:
--- nor by your country (meartzekha),
---nor by your parents'relationship (mimoladtekha),
--- nor by your parents'worship (mi beit avikha).
The Rav then uses a technical
demonstration, which I will not quote here, to show that
Avraham was then shown how every level of his being would
be filled with blessings for himself and for others.
the parasha, references cited
in this commentary,
Rashi's commentary on the parasha - to be read slowly
and reflected upon,
It is better to read a little on a deep level, rather
than to read a lot on a purely intellectual level.
After having studied the arguments
presented by the Shla in this commentary, make an effort
to formulate (best in written form):
--- the questions that present themselves for Jews,
--- the questions that present themselves for yourself;
allowing the commentaries and the text itself to evoke
--- discuss what emerges with someone who is capable of
truly listening, rather than simply theorizing.
--- describe the trials of Avraham, noting their role
in the path he has to follow,
--- describe the trials of Sarah, noting their role in
the path she has to follow,
--- what is the meaning of the change of names of Avraham
--- what punishment is attributed to a man who does not
get circumcised and why?