Torah Portion: Lech Lecha (Genesis 12 – 17)
Language of Tomorrow
How Can We Learn from our Mistakes
by Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
Tests are part of the essential fabric of life. They make us who we are. Through adversity and struggle we stretch ourselves to the limits of our abilities, and discover our true potential. In fact, the Torah and the prophetic writings are replete with great leaders who endured difficult tests and travails.
This week’s parsha begins with a test for Abraham, when God asks him to leave his home and his birthplace and his family to journey to an unknown destination — which was ultimately to be the Promised Land for the Jewish people. This was the second in a series of 10 extremely difficult trials that would test Abraham’s mettle and mould him into the father of the Jewish People. Among them were being commanded to circumcise himself at the age of 99; his wife Sarah’s abduction at the hands of Pharaoh; and, most powerfully of all, God’s command that he sacrifice his only son, Isaac. These were tests of his courage and conviction, of his commitment and stamina, of his faith in God’s justice and ultimate goodness.
Many other great leaders of the Torah faced similar ordeals. Joseph famously withstood many tests of his moral principles and integrity. Potiphar’s wife attempted — time and again — to seduce Joseph, and though he was an anonymous 17-year-old slave boy, far away from home, he did the right thing and warded off her advances, even though it eventually cost him his liberty. Languishing in the dungeons after Potiphar falsely accused him, and then later, as viceroy of Egypt — both challenging situations for different reasons — he maintained his faith and integrity, to the extent that our sages describe him as Yosef HaTazaddik — Joseph the Righteous.
King David was another leader who passed many tests of his faith in Hashem’s justice and compassion. He was pursued by his father-in-law, King Saul; and his own son led a military coup against him, which forced him to flee his palace. Yet, throughout, he remained faithful and devout.
Like Abraham, Joseph and King David, our lives are filled with episodes that challenge our faith in God, and their unwavering belief under extreme duress serves as inspiration to us all.
These tests do not have to be dramatic; they occur every single day of our lives. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, known as the Ramchal, explains in his classic work, Mesilat Yesharim, that everything in life is a test; that wealth and health and success can be tests because they can lead to arrogance and a sense of smug satisfaction with oneself. On other hand, poverty, illness and suffering can also be tests, because they can challenge us and cause us to be bitter and resentful. So every encounter in life can be a test in one way or another.
What is the purpose of a test, and what does it mean in the context of our relationship with God? Firstly, it is important to accept that we can never fully understand the rationale behind God’s workings in this world. The Talmud (Berachot 7a) describes how Moshe asked Hashem why some righteous people suffer and some wicked people prosper. God answered: “No man shall see Me and live,” (Shemot 33:20) which, on a simple level, means that human beings, constrained by the limitations of our minds, can never fully comprehend the depth of the Divine. Yet, despite these limitations, our sages help us understand the idea of tests and challenges in general terms.
Conventionally, the purpose of a test is to assess the abilities of the one being tested. When God is the examiner, however, this makes no sense: He knows everything. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what our capabilities are. What, then, is the purpose of being tested by God? Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, explains in his commentary on Bereishit that the tests we undergo during our lives aren’t for God’s benefit, they are for our benefit. They give us the opportunity to transform our inherent potential into actual spiritual achievements; by putting the emotional, spiritual and physical resources we were blessed with into action, we become self-actualised beings, and ensure we can be rewarded not only for our good intentions, but also for our good deeds. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz proves from Talmudic sources that God only gives us tests and challenges we are capable of overcoming. If we are successful, if we are able to rise to the challenges, we emerge stronger, more elevated and more meritorious.
In his commentary on Bereishit, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch says the Hebrew word for test, nisayon, is related to the word nassa, meaning to raise or to elevate, as well as the word nisiya, which means to travel or move forward. Every test, every challenge, is an opportunity to move forward, to grow, to become stronger and more elevated, through exercising the latent powers within our soul. Not only do challenges uncover hidden reserves, they can also be the impetus for creating new strengths, new reserves. Indeed, the human soul has miraculous capabilities beyond what we can rationally comprehend. We contain multitudes, untold depths. The Torah (Bereishit 1:27) tells us that human beings were created “in the image of God”; alone among the creations, we are imbued with a heavenly soul, a spark of the Divine.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 55:6) also relates the word nisayon to the Hebrew word nes, which means a banner or a flag. The miraculous, seemingly superhuman strength exhibited by people who withstand severe tests with faith and resolve is a flag, a signal to the world, hoisted high to inspire us all. When facing life’s challenges, the superhuman strength and courage of an Abraham or a Joseph or a King David can inspire us. We need to have faith in God to give us strength and guidance to withstand our tests and actualise our potential, but also have faith in ourselves — in the power of our God-given souls.
This idea — of converting our potential into reality — is actually the fundamental purpose of our lives. The Torah calls the first human being Adam, which comes from the Hebrew word adama, meaning “earth” or “ground”. What is the connection between the two? The Maharal explains that humans are similar to the ground in one essential respect: they are both pure potential. Whether or not a piece of land will produce fruit depends on what is done with it. Even the most fertile piece of land will not produce fruit if it is left to lie fallow; it needs to be ploughed, fertilised and cultivated. So too, the human being is pure potential, and to live a fruitful, productive life requires great and continuous efforts. We come into this world as pure potential and, through the process of life, we actualise that potential. And it’s up to us; we have been given free choice to turn that potential into personal growth and mitzvot and spiritual greatness — or we can choose to squander it and simply let it lie dormant. Ultimately, it’s through the process of struggle and difficulty, even failure, that a person can transform their potential into greatness.
I’ll close with a remarkable letter written by Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner (Igrot Pachad Yitzchak 128) in response to a student who had written to him complaining of the tests and challenges he faced in his personal development: “… A failing that many of us experience is that when we focus on the lofty level of accomplishments of great people, we only focus on how they are complete in this or in that area. At the same time, we omit mention of the inner struggles that had previously raged within them. A listener would get the impression that these individuals came out of the land of their Creator in ideal form.
Everyone is awed at the purity of speech of the Chofetz Chaim, considering it a miraculous phenomenon. But who knows of the battles, struggles, and obstacles, the slumps and regressions that the Chofetz Chaim encountered in his war with the yetzer hara [evil inclination]? There are many such examples to which a discerning individual such as yourself can certainly apply the rule. The result of this misconception is that when an ambitious young man of spirit and enthusiasm meets obstacles, falls, and slumps, he imagines himself unworthy…
Know, however, my dear friend, that your soul is rooted not in the tranquillity of the yetzer tov [good inclination], but rather in the battle of the yetzer tov. The English expression, “Lose a battle and win the war” applies to this phenomenon… [King Solomon,] the wisest of all men, has said, “A righteous man falls seven times and rises again.” (Proverbs 24:16) Fools believe that the intent of this verse is to teach us something remarkable: the righteous man has fallen seven times and yet he resiliently rises. But the knowledgeable know that the source of the righteous person’s ability to rise again is precisely through his seven falls…
When you feel the turmoil of the yetzer hara within yourself, know that by experiencing that feeling you resemble great men far more than if you were to experience the feeling of deep peace, which you desire. In those very areas where you feel yourself failing most frequently — particularly in those areas — do you have the greatest potential for serving as an instrument of distinction for the honour of God… Had your letter told me about all your mitzvot and goods deeds, I would have said that I have received a good letter from you.
Now that your letter tells about the slumps and falls and obstacles, I can say that I have received a very good letter from you.”
The Fruit of Indulgence
by Rabbi Yissocher Frand
What exactly did the people of the Generation of the Flood (Dor Hamabul) do to deserve such a dreadful fate? The Torah is quite explicit on this point. “And the earth was degenerate before the Lord, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis, 6:11). They were corrupt, degenerate, violent. They reached the outer limits of perversion, affecting even the animals and the land itself. We can well understand when society becomes so depraved and incorrigible, it is time to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh start.
But the Midrash tells us something entirely different (Bereishis Rabbah 32:2). The men of the Generation of the Flood used to take two wives. One was designated to bear children, the other to keep her husband company. The first was forced to live in seclusion, in a state of virtual widowhood while her husband was still alive. The second was given medications that would make her barren. She would sit beside her husband, heavily made up, and entertain him. This is inferred from the verse in Iyov (24:21), “He encourages the barren woman that does not give birth, but he gives no benefit to the widow.” Rashi quotes this Midrash in Bereishis (4:19).
Now, we would certainly not argue that this sort of practice reflected the highest levels of spirituality. In fact, it was certainly an indication of a high level of self-indulgence. But was this such a terrible sin that virtually the entire human race had to be wiped out? Was this such an abysmal level of human corruption that the world had to be inundated and obliterated by the Flood?
The answer is that this Midrash is not providing a picture of antediluvian society in its final degenerate form. Rather, it is revealing to us the root cause of the precipitous decline of society. How does society fall so low that it is defined by pervasive degeneracy, theft and violence? By making the unchecked pursuit of personal pleasure the ultimate value.
Eat, drink and be merry. Have a good time. Enjoy yourself. Live for today. Self-indulgence. Gratification. When these are the values of society, when the moral compass goes haywire, the road leads straight down. Today, people may limit themselves to made-up, barren pleasure wives, but tomorrow they will inevitably expand their horizons. Eventually, they will turn their greedy eyes to unexplored illicit indulgences and all sorts of other acts of perversion and immorality. It is only a matter of time before it happens. The two-wife system led to the “degenerate world filled with violence” that triggered the Flood.
Unfortunately, we have a vivid illustration of this process in our own times. Look at what has happened in the past few decades. As soon as the society opened the door to permissiveness and self-indulgence, it went into a sharp downward spiral. Morality has become a thing of the past. Family life is disintegrating. Respect for authority and civic responsibility are just about nonexistent. Drugs and alcohol take over at a very young age. All that matters is a good time. People measure the value of their lives by the number of pleasure buttons they have managed to push.
This insight allows us to understand a rather puzzling passage in the Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 36:3). The Torah tells us (9:20) that after the Flood, “Noach, the man of the earth, profaned himself and planted a vineyard.” The Sages observe that Noach, who had originally been described (6:9) as “a righteous and perfect man in his generations,” was now described as a lowly “man of the earth.” In contrast, Moshe was originally described (2:19) as “an Egyptian man” and is eventually described (Devarim 33:2) as “a man of the Lord.” Moshe went up, while Noach went down. And all because he planted a vineyard.
What is so terrible about planting a vineyard? All right, it would have been better to plant some wheat or string beans to provide some basic levels of nourishment. Noach was probably off the mark in choosing to start with a vineyard. But how did Noach “profane himself”? Was planting a vineyard such a dreadful crime?
Indeed it was. By planting a vineyard before anything else, Noach showed that he had not fully learned the lesson of the Flood. He saw the end result of many long years of degeneracy — the perversion, the immorality, the violence– but he did not penetrate to the root causes. He failed to see the whole picture. He did not recognize that it had all begun with some supposedly harmless self-indulgence. He did not recognize that the vineyard, the self-indulgence of intoxicating wines, was the symbol for the downward spiral that led to the Flood.
If there was one thing he should not have done after such a Flood, it was to plant a vineyard.
Ark of Good Will
by Rabbi Nesanel Yoel Safran
Mr. Levy had just gotten home from work. He sat down in his favorite easy chair and started to go through the day’s mail. He was absorbed in his task when his two sons came barreling through the living room like a freight train.Dave, the younger of the two, was holding on to a red, white and blue basketball, and Rafi his older brother was in hot pursuit.
“Gimme that ball, it’s my turn to shoot!” Rafi yelled.
“No way! I’m up!” squealed his brother.
Mr. Levy didn’t pay too much attention to the goings on. He knew that ball games and the arguments about them were all part of growing up and that the boys would work it out by themselves if he let them. But, as the boys turned the corner into the dining room, their father heard Rafi call his brother by a really nasty name, and the younger boy, who had just lost the ball, responded with something even worse.
Mr. Levy raised his eyebrow. “Where did they learn that?” he thought.
Soon, however, the fight was over and the two boys were once again peacefully shooting hoops in the backyard.
A few minutes later, the back door swung open and the boys saw their father walking out with a bottle of soda and three glasses. “Let’s take a time out, guys,” he said.
The boys, thirsty from their tough one-on-one, gladly obliged. The three of them sat down at the patio table and enjoyed the refreshing drinks.
Mr. Levy said, “Boys, I’m sorry to interrupt your game, but there’s something we have to talk about.” “What’s that?” huffed Rafi, still out of breath.
“Well, when you came through the house a little while ago, I heard you using the kind of language that I never taught you and that is not acceptable. Do you know what I’m referring to?”
The brothers blushed. Finally the older boy spoke up. “But Dad, that’s how all the kids on the block talk. It’s just part of the game.” His brother shook his head in agreement.
Mr. Levy straightened up in his chair. “Rafi, do you think it’s right to speak to each other like that? Do you think it makes somebody feel good to be called such a name?”
“No,” Rafi answered. “But everybody talks that way,” he added softly.
“Listen guys,” said Mr. Levy, “I know what it can be like out there. In fact, where I work there are also people who talk tough and don’t respect the people around them. Sometimes it’s hard for me not to behave like they do.”
“So what do you do, dad?” asked Dave.
“Well, I try to think about how nice it is at home, and how we all try so hard to treat each other with kindness and respect. When I do that, it helps me to stay strong and act decently even if the people around me aren’t.”
“So that’s what we’ll do too,” said Dave.
Mr. Levy put his hand on his son’s shoulder and said, “That’s a good idea, but … it will only work if we remember to speak to each other and treat each other properly when we are at home. Then, when we are out there we can take our home behavior with us.”
Mr. Levy picked up the ball that had rolled near the table. He handed it to Rafi and said, “Go on back to your game, guys. And remember, no matter where you are, you can still be on the ‘home team.’ ”
Q. Do you think that it’s right to call people mean names?
A. No, it hurts people’s feelings.
Q. How would you feel if your friends started calling you by a nasty name and then told you it was just a game?
A. Probably it would feel bad. It would hurt you just as much even if they said they were only playing.
Q. Why do you think some people behave nicely when they are at home, but when they go out, they act much differently?
A. Sometimes when people are at home they feel safe around their family who they know love them and accept them for who they are. They feel that they can “let down their guard” and behave in a gentle way. But when they are out in the world they act tough or cool because they think that’s what they must do to get by, or because that’s the way people around them are acting.
Q. Other people do the opposite — they act very politely outside of their home, but when they get home they don’t act so nicely. Why do you think that is?
A. It could be that these people feel like they have to make a good impression on “strangers” but with their families they can act however they want and not be rejected.
Q. Would you say that these are proper ways to behave? Why or why not?
A. While we can understand what might motivate this behavior, it’s really not proper. The Torah way is to be the best we can be in all situations. Our family certainly deserves no less courtesy than do strangers, even if they will love us anyway. And when we’re out in the world it’s time to take the good values and traits that we learned at home with us.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Do you think that a person can remain humane and ethically strong even if he finds himself in an environment where few others, or none, are behaving humanely? How?
A. A person in such a situation can turn himself into an “ark” and stay afloat by maintaining his values wherever he is. He can focus on the fact that he is his own person and there is no reason he must give in and take on the values of those around him if these values are counter to his.
Q. Do you sometimes act one way at home and another way outside the home? How do you act differently?
A. We all have, in a sense, two selves. There is the “mask” that we show to the world. This is based upon the impression we want to make on others or what we feel other people expect of us. We also have our “inner self,” the part of us that we keep to ourselves. This part of ourselves contains our deepest and most private feelings, hopes and fears. In a way, our inner self is the ultimate “ark.” We float around in a sea of masks, our own and those of others. Even when we have to “leave the ark” and deal with people that may be behaving in a way that is not proper, we can focus on our more godly inner self and let this knowledge steer us to act decently wherever we are. We can always remember who we are inside.
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QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Who is wise? One who learns from every man… Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations… Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot… Who is honorable? One who honors his fellows.”
—Ben Zoma, Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1
JOKE OF THE WEEK
An employee of the Maid of the Mist in Niagara Falls was trying to recruit a few more tourists to join their tour when he approached one fellow who was admiring the falls.
“Where are you from?” the employee asked.
“Israel,” responded the man.
“I bet you don’t have anything like this in Israel,” said the employee.
“No, but my cousin Itzik is a plumber in Rishon LeTzion. He could fix this.”
Joy Marcus, Mike Minoff, Leila Redlich, Mike Towerman, Bruce Waxman, Tziona Zeffren