TWO LECH L’CHAS.
There are actually two Biblical commands that say “Lech L’cha”, one here (Gen. 12:1) and one next week (Gen. 22:2) when the Akedah is prefaced by God telling Abraham to take his son and “lech l’cha” (“Go for yourself!”) to the land of Moriah.
This Hebrew phrase, as Nachmanides points out, is a grammatical idiom, but the commentators read a special significance into it. Rashi, utilising a famous Midrashic comment, explains that the “l’cha” means “for your own benefit and good”. Literally the command is, “Go to yourself”: in other words, “Go, and follow your destiny” or “Go, and find out what you really are”.
In both cases, this week when God tells Abraham to go to a new country, and next week, when He tells him to ascend a mountain and be prepared to offer his son, the patriarch is confronted with a massive challenge. In effect, the question God puts to him is,
“Will you be able to handle a major life-changer?”
The second challenge is even greater than the first:
“Are you prepared to pay an impossible price for the sake of God?”
The theologian Ignaz Maybaum points out that the story of the Akedah is diametrically different to the central story of Christianity. Judaism does not expect the patriarch to actually make the sacrifice. What it tests is Abraham’s *willingness*.
THE RABBI’S LAMP.
My teacher Dr Isidore Epstein was once the rabbi in an English provincial town. After his day’s work was done he sat in his study, learning Torah by the light of his lamp. People who passed by the house couldn’t make sense of why the rabbi had his light on so late at night and when someone said, “He must be studying Torah”, they said, “Then that’s not the rabbi for us. Who wants a rabbi who still hasn’t finished his studies? We want one who knows it all already!”
A contrasting episode happened to Rabbi Joel Sirkes, known as the Bach, who was rabbi in an Eastern European town. He received such a small salary that he couldn’t afford oil for his lamp, so at night he sat in the dark reviewing his learning by heart. The congregants were disgusted to have a rabbi who apparently didn’t study at night so they dismissed him. He got a post in another town, but first he told the congregation something about this week’s sidra:
“Why did God punish Sodom and Gomorrah? Because they had the wrong order of priorities – instead of increasing their own knowledge and observance, all they could do was to find fault with their leaders!”
SHIELD OF ABRAHAM.
The first blessing of the Amidah concludes,
“Blessed are You, O Lord, ‘Magen Avraham’ – Shield of Abraham”.
The source of the phrase “Shield of Abraham” is this week’s sidra, where God says,
“Do not fear, Abram: ‘Anochi Magen Lach’ – I am your shield; your reward is very great” (Gen. 15:1).
Is there a reason why our patriarch was afraid and needed Divine reassurance?
Targum Yonatan suggests that Abraham said to himself,
“Perhaps I have been rewarded for my good deeds in this world and there will be nothing left for the World to Come”.
Did he have any particular good deed in mind? Maybe he was thinking of his efforts to save his nephew Lot from destruction by the kings of the region. What reward had he received? Success in his mission was already a great boon. God now promised to be his protection in the years ahead and enable him to accumulate further credit. But at a price – it all depended on his continuing to do good deeds, not for the sake of the reward but for the sake of Heaven.
In our own way we all face Abraham’s problem. Will our own good deeds bring us a Heavenly reward? The answer is once again “Yes, but… There will be a reward, but don’t make that your main consideration. Do what is right for its own sake, and let the reward come in its own way”.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.