by Rabbi Baruch Melman
The Jewish People have often been termed "the wandering Jews." It is such a popular expression that a plant was even named in its honor. Abraham the Patriarch, Father of the Jewish People, was the first "wandering Jew," and we've been wandering ever since. What is it about the idea of separating - the essence of the meaning of being holy, of separating from the mundane and material, that makes it so central to the character and mission of the Jewish people? But the reuniting is then all the sweeter, embodied symbolically in the Challah and Kiddush that we bless on the Sabbath.
A common theme reverberating throughout Lech Lecha is that of leaving. Beginning first with G*d directing Avram to leave .... his land,.... his home, .... his birthplace, then proceeding to narrate the journey of Avram and company moving to Egypt to escape the effects of severe famine. Foreshadowing the travails of their descendants in Egypt in future generations, they fulfill the concept of ma'aseh avot siman lebanim- "the deeds of the antecedents are clues for the descendants." What the patriarchs and matriarchs experienced in a familial setting was reenacted later on in a proto-national setting. To wit, the commonality of famine, descent into Egypt, handsomeness of features shared by both Sarai ("yefat mareh at"- Gen 12:11) as well as Yosef ("yefei toar veefei mareh"- Gen 39:6), attempted but failed seduction, captivity, plague and hasty expulsion accompanied by a profusion of gifts and wealth."
"Take and go" (kach ve'lech) are two verbs which are shared in both narratives- kach velech in Gen: 12:19, and k'chu ve'lechu in Ex: 12:32. Interestingly, the experience of captivity in Egypt is embodied in the personage of Sarai, the representative of the future collective assemblage of all Israel. Hence the plural form alluding to the patriarchs takes on a feminine ending- avOT rather than avIM. Therefore AVOT this case is not gender specific, but rather is gender neutral, encompassing both the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs.
Their entourage now laden with wealth and riches, Avram and Lot now find themselves miserable in their crowded quarters. Why should there be constant strife between them when they could easily part company and go their separate ways? Indeed, perhaps Avram felt he was now passing along G*d's sage advice for *him,* now onto his nephew, Lot, as a ritualistic rite of passage to be perhaps incumbent now on all his descendents, whether adopted or biological.
"Maybe you should go away," he says to Lot. "We won't be fighting anymore. It's a big world out there. Plenty of land (Gen 13: 8,9)." Indeed, he found new wealth opportunities and expanded possibilities in the lush and luxuriant land near Sodom.
Next to go was Hagar's appreciation of Sarai, and her respect for her former mistress. Now pregnant with Avram's supposed heir, she lorded it over Sarai, and revealed her barely disguised contempt for her, even though it was at Sarai's insistence that she become pregnant through Avram. Sarai, in an effort to win back and reassert her primacy in the marriage, as well as her sense of well-being and pyschic repose, insists that Hagar now take leave. Hesitant at first, in the end Avram "listened to her voice," a phrase later repeated (vayishma lekol sarai/shma bekola) by G*d as a directive to heed Sarah's intuitive wisdom and judgment. Hagar subsequently returns, the marital union restored, though somewhat a bit fractured because of the dissonance between the clarity of Sarai's judgment and Avram's hesitancy and reluctance.
Note that Sarai insisted on Hagar's departure even before G*d later promises Avraham that she will give birth and bear the heir (Gen17:15,16). In her mind, apparently, without shalom bayit, or peace in the home, to provide a solid and stable environment, any child reared in that home, she intuited, would carry the scar of familial discord and pass it down through eternity. The sacred task of rebuilding mankind's connection with the Divine needed a solid foundation from which to be planted, to be nurtured and nourished, and then to grow and spread out and eventually redeem all humanity.
Indeed, in this quest for perfection, temimut (Gen 17:1), G*d commands Avraham to circumcize his flesh and that of his male descendants for all time as a symbol of that perfection. Ironically, the separation of the foreskin is a symbol of the newfound covenantal union between man and G*d. To become whole, therefore, one must become first a little separated. This is underscored with the Pact Between Halves (Gen15), where it is the splitting, or the separating of the animals, symbolic of the separating of man from his animal instinct, which leads to the promise of blessing and the continuity of his seed.
It is the separation of flesh from that very organ of regeneration and continuity of seed which therefore comes to symbolize that very covenant and the perfection of mankind, in that he is now worthy to walk before G*d. "Walk before Me and be perfect. I will make a covenant between Me and thee, and I will increase your numbers very much (Gen17:1,2)." In fact, later on, we are bidden to circumcize even our hearts to serve G*d. This means, in the deepest sense, ironically, that only through having a broken heart can one have a whole or perfect heart to serve G*d. The pride of arrogance blocks the heart from the Divine light and Divine love. A circumcized heart allows the Divine light to reenter.
But in the final analysis, it is not the initial leaving which brings blessing, but the subsequent return. When Hagar returns she is blessed with the birth of Ishmael who will have many descendants. Moreover, when Avram rescues Lot and returns all the captives and the lost booty to the king of Sodom he is blessed by Malchi-Tzedek, King of Salem, priest to G*d, the Most High. He "brings forth" bread and wine. And as bread and wine are brought forth to sanctify this moment of mankind's first recorded act of altruism, so too we use bread and wine to sanctify the Sabbath, which crowned Creation, G*d's enduring act of altruism for all time.
As Malchi-Tzedek acknowledges Avraham's crowning achievement for mankind's spiritual evolution, so too do we acknowledge that the Sabbath is similarly the greatest tool for humanity's continual evolution. Bread and wine are both the end products of a lengthy cooperative human process, the fruits of labor many rungs above the primitive hunter/gatherer phase of man's development. Avraham's act of conscious altruism is the pinnacle of a new age of moral evolution. And just as Avraham's act was not purely altruistic in that subsequently humanity was to benefit from the future Redeemer who would be born from his loins via Ruth the Moabitess and King David, so too, in celebrating the Sabbath, we not only give praise and bear testimony to G*d's creating the world, but we ourselves reap the specific benefits and blessings which inhere in its observance. As much as Avraham gives to G*d through Malchi-Tzedek, Priest to G*d Most High, a "ma'ASER mikall", a TENTH of all which he captured (Gen14:20), G*d is giving back to Avraham "me'OSHER mikall," from the WEALTH of everything. The subject of the sentence is purposely left ambiguous so as to indicate that the impact of the blessings flow in both directions.
To be become sePARATED, lehiPARED, can bring loneliness and make one feel afraid (PRD), but we learn from our parsha that a loving hand is guiding Avraham's great journey. The Talmud in Masechet Shabbat tells us that each day of the week has a partner- Sunday is paired with Monday, Tuesday with Wednesday, and Thursday with Friday. The Sabbath then asks, "what about me?" I don't want to be lonely! G*d tells the Sabbath that "the Jewish People will be your partner."
Avraham, the father of the Jewish people, is teaching us that the antidote to loneliness, separation and social anomie, is in helping others. Through giving of yourself to others, your own pain disappears. When Avraham ran to greet and feed the visiting angels his own pain from his recent circumcision disappeared! When he freed his nephew Lot from captivity he showed the world the redeeming power of altruism. When we bless our wine and our bread this Sabbath eve, after singing Shalom Aleichem at the table next to our Kiddush wine and Challah loaves, let us remember these gifts of Malchi-Tzedek, and how the initial travail of separation, through altruism, leads ultimately to the sweet reunion- of Avraham and Lot, of the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, and of our souls and G*d.
And as we bid adieu to the departing angels who guided our steps home from the synagogue and blessed our home with Sabbath peace, so too we bless them back. Tzetchem leShalom. Lech Lecha. Not, "maybe you should leave," but rather, "Go in Peace, my beautiful friends, my sweet angels."
Shabbat Shalom. Good Shabbos.
© 2000 - 2007 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman
These words of Torah are written in honor of the memory of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Yaakov Hakohen Melman, z"l.
Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective).
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