Lech Lecha 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Lech Lecha (Gen. 12:1-17:27)


The first two parshiot of Genesis tell the story of the creation of the world; with this, the third parsha, the story shifts to the beginnings of the Jewish people. Avram and Sarai (later to become Avraham and Sarah) travel from their home in the East, to Canaan in the west, then to Egypt and back to Canaan, having adventures and conflicts along the way. God strikes a dramatic and mystical covenant with Avram to give him land and descendants, and changes his name. Finally, (now) Abraham has a son with Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant; this causes family tensions.


“Avram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. . . God appeared to Avram and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land”- then he built an altar there to God Who had appeared to him. ” (Genesis 12:6-7)


At the beginning of Avram’s travels, he arrives in Canaan (what the land of Israel is called at this point in time) with his family and possessions, and again encounters the mysterious God who commanded him to leave his home and come to this foreign land. When God first appeared to Avram, in 12:1, God promised Avram to make of Avram a “great nation.” Only now, in his second encounter with the Divine, is this blessing connected to a specific land.


The Torah often uses very compact language to tell its narratives. In this case, we have a whole story in just two verses. Avram has traveled across whole countries; at the end of this part of the journey, God appears to him and elaborates on the Divine promise made in Avram’s homeland. In response to this spiritual experience, Avram builds an altar. Presumably, Avram is feeling a sense of awe, of gratitude, of reverence, and can only think of channeling or focussing these feelings into the form of worship that is familiar to him.

At this point we find a disagreement in the commentaries about Avram’s motivations in building the altar. Rashi says that Avram built the altar because of the promise of children and land- in other words, Avram was grateful for the specific content of God’s promise to him. This would be easy to understand- who wouldn’t be grateful for the promise of a wonderful future?

Ohr HaChaim offers a different understanding of Avram’s gratitude:

    The intent of the Torah is show us Avraham’s [sic] great love for his Creator. For when God appeared to him and promised him descendants and the giving of the Land, he did not consider this to be much, in comparison to his joy at the revealing of the Presence of the Blessed One. This is a fulfillment of the verse: “the fullness of joys is Your Presence.” (Psalm 16:11) This is why it says “then he built an altar there to God Who had appeared to him,” because he was so overjoyed at God’s appearance to him that he built the altar. (Translation mine, after consulting the translation by Eliyahu Munk.)

What I like about the Ohr HaChaim’s commentary is that it suggests that Avram’s spiritual greatness was not that he merited a Divine Covenant, but that he was able to love God for God’s own sake, not just to get something out of it. This kind of relationship with God is just like a profound relationship with a human being- one can love simply because one’s beloved is simply present, not because of any specific manifestation of that love.

For example, if my best friend gives me a birthday cake, I might embrace him in gratitude, but it’s not really gratitude for the cake, per se. Hopefully, I would be emotionally mature enough to experience the gratitude as a response to my friend’s caring, to the fact that my friend remembered me, that he or she was simply there, fully present in my life. The cake is just an outward manifestation of that caring, fully present relationship.

Perhaps one insight underlying the Ohr HaChaim’s midrash is the idea that a love dependent on outward manifestations can become fickle or unstable, whereas a love which emerges from within, which depends only on the presence of the beloved, can better survive the ups and downs of any relationship. If we “bless God only for the good,” we risk becoming spiritually alienated when life gets hard; if we can find an inner connection to the Source of all Being, we can stay spiritually centred through all our journeys. The Ohr HaChaim seems to be suggesting that Avram would have been just as happy if God appeared to him and promised him nothing at all; this is a spiritual love which can endure, just as Avram’s faith seems to have endured throughout all his tests and travels.

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