Parasha No3: Lékh lékha
"Go towards yourself"
Bereshit 12, 1 - 17, 27
by Rav Yehoshua Rahamim Dipur
The circumcision, the land of Israel and other nations.
vayyomér Hachém el avram lékh lékha
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
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, Saraâ€™s abduction and the
blessing which follows it, the return, the separation from Lot, the
abduction of Lot, his rescue by Avram, Godâ€™s promise of future
blessings for Avram during the covenant and the sacrifice of pieces,
Godâ€™s announcement of an exile in Egypt and then possession of
the land, Saraâ€™s infertility, the birth of Ishmael, the change
of name to Avraham, the circumcision of Avraham and Ishmael, the declaration
of Isaacâ€™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.
Avrahamâ€™s place in the creation
the end of the parasha, Avraham is 99 years old. He is the 10th
generation after Noah, and the 20th after Adam
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 Yitzhakâ€™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 Shlaâ€™s explanation of the meaning of many events in the Bible is based on the ages of Avraham and Sarah.
The Rhythm of Life
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 Hashemâ€™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
is important to note that there are “only” three
mitzvot in the whole book of Bereshit: Parashat Bereshit: Be fruitful
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 Avrahamâ€™s trials, the condition for recreating the world and the act of circumcision.
Lekh lekha and the circumcision
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
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 of self-knowledge?
(From the author)
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 Rashiâ€™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 manâ€™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.
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 manâ€™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 above.
3. Negative forces (the klipot, the husks which encircle, enclose and attack) thwart the development of life and happiness.
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. )
The 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 the peria,
• circumcision of the heart
• the circumcision involved in geographic and political disengagement.
These three levels are inseparable
We can now re-read Rashâ€™s commentary and understand why he felt it necessary to place these complex questions at the beginning of the Torah.
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 surround me).
• In this perspective, the problem of Israelâ€™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 Godâ€™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 and destruction
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 personal.
• 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 teaches us.
• 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.
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 Hashemâ€™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 manâ€™s freedom, and our power of destruction or construction is immense. Avrahamâ€™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). Rashiâ€™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 Creator?
--- why is the contract which guarantees this promise made on manâ€™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 Creator.
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 manâ€™s body and Israelâ€™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
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,” naase.
Example: respect and knowledge of oneâ€™s partners
can now examine, as traditional writings do, Avrahamâ€™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 you are.”
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 entire alphabet.
Humanity is a long way from the attitude of respect shown by Abraham
nearly 4,000 years ago:
--- it is not aware that our relationship with the Creator is reflected in our relations with others,
--- all over the world, menâ€™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 Avrahamâ€™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.
bring this about, the land of Israel must be the home of this process
of personal purification of all aspects
of manâ€™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 of Holies.
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 oneâ€™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 of heaven.
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 oneâ€™s relation with others, with oneâ€™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 1, 12).
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 adama (earth).
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).
says the Rav, Hakadosh Baruh Hu was obliged to remove these doubts
from Avrahamâ€™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 parentsâ€™ relationship (mimoladtekha),
- nor by your parentsâ€™ 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,
- Rashiâ€™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 personal reactions,
- 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 and Sarah?
- what punishment is attributed to a man who does not get circumcised and why?
Each person and every Jew still has to renew every day his or her total, personal combat:
in the face of the diverse propositions of the Sages, in the face of the wise, rich, and powerful,
in the face of our own wisdom, intelligence, wealth and power,
the child in us must be able to emerge,
without fear of the immensity, and without fear of our own selves,
in order to "fulfill our light".
Even more so, this is vital for the world.
I repeat what I said above: we all know that, if just one letter of a Torah scroll is in anyway damaged,
then the entire scroll is rendered invalid (pasul).
In the same way, the rebirth, every day, of the child within us is essential for all of us.
Jews regularly recite this phrase: “naar hayiti GAM zakanti …I was a child and I also acquired wisdom,”
which means that I am, simultaneously, at this very moment, a nascent child and a wise, mature person.
The challenge we must constantly meet is that of continued creativity.
In Latin languages, a child ("enfant" in French) stems from the Latin “in-fans” which means he who is incapable of speech and has no right to talk. In contrast, in Hebrew a child is called yeled (walad in Arabic), which means he who is constantly “nascent.”
May the child
in us be ever present this year and be nascent for ever.
Then the world will be reborn for the good of us all and all the nations of the world.
A world in which all humans are in the image of God.
God bless us! God bless every one!
Be strong and
Isaiah, ch 62, 1-7:
1. For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth.
Photo of the author
2. And the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory: and thou shalt be called by a new name, which the mouth of Hachem shall name.
3. Thou shalt also be a crown of glory in the hand of Hachem, and a royal diadem in the hand of thy God.
4. Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for Hachem delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.
5. For as a young man marrieth a virgin, so shall thy sons marry thee: and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride, so shall thy God rejoice over thee.
6. I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of Hachem, keep not silence,
7. And give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.