Last week’s sidra and this week’s both feature God calling to Abraham in the words, “Lech-l’cha!” The literal meaning is “Go for yourself”. In classical English, the message is “Betake yourself”.
Rashi points out at the beginning of last week’s reading that the “l’cha” tells Abraham that if he goes where God wants him to, it will be for his benefit. The reason for this assurance may be that in both cases Abraham is being asked to do something so difficult that he is reluctant to obey. God understands his predicament and says,
“If you do as I command everything will turn out all right”.
In the first case the patriarch is being told to leave his home behind and set out on a destiny which might prove hard to bear. In the second case he is being told to take his son onto a mountain and make him into an offering – another impossible thing to ask of an elderly father who never thought he would live to have a son. By obeying God, everything might turn to ashes.
In both cases Abraham had the courage to overcome his trepidation and go ahead. God of course was right. In the end things turned out well, and the future was blessed.
GROVES OF MAMRE
Vayyera, the Torah reading for this Shabbat, begins with the verse,
“And God appeared to him (Abraham) in the groves of Mamre” (Gen. 18:1).
Mamre was an Amorite chieftain, an associate of Abraham and presumably the owner of the group of oaks near Hebron mentioned in this verse. Maybe the local inhabitants were tree worshippers (history certainly does record that it was a place of idolatrous worship) and were eventually persuaded by Abraham, who lived nearby, to accept the one true God.
On this basis it possible that the name Mamre is connected with a verb that has the meaning of exchanging, in this case exchanging idolatry for Judaism.
The groves of Mamre were a well known meeting place, where Abraham received various items of news that affected the future of the family and the destiny of the Israelite people – for example, the tidings brought to him by three angel messengers to announce that Sarah was pregnant.
According to the sages, Mamre, though himself uncircumcised, was Abraham’s confidant, and advised him to follow the command of God to circumcise the males of the family and household. Mamre’s view was that Abraham himself should lead the way. The household was more likely to be persuaded if the patriarch himself and his son Ishmael gave an example and underwent circumcision first.
The etymological source of name Mamre may be the verb “ra’ah”, to see, an allusion to the verse (Gen. 13:15),
“All the land which you see, to you shall I give it”.
Other Amorite rulers who were members of Abraham’s league of confederates were Aner and Eshkol who, with Mamre, helped him overcome the local kings who had captured Lot (Gen. 14).
TRIED TEN TIMES OVER
Ten times was Abraham tested by God, says our tradition (Avot chapter 5). Avot d’Rabbi Natan, lists the tests in chapter 33. Yet surely Abraham’s piety was evident: why was it necessary for him to demonstrate his faith so often? Lesser people don’t seem to have to prove themselves.
The sages say, however, that like a potter who tests not his worst but his best pieces of pottery, God tests his saints, since it is from them that He expects the most.
The first test was the call,
“Lech l’cha” – “get yourself out of your country, your birthplace, the house of your father, to the land which I will show you” (gen. 12:1-2).
Rashi wonders why the text literally says “go for yourself”; he replies that Abraham was being told that going would be for his benefit and his own good.
So in what way was this a test, if it would be to Abraham’s advantage?
The S’fat Emet answers that Abraham was sorry the move would bring him benefit: he much preferred to do God’s will without suspicion of ulterior motive. The test of faith was that he was challenged to show that what he did was really for its own sake and he would have done it in any case, even without promise of reward.
A later test is the “Akedah”, the Binding of Isaac:
“Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac,” says God; “Go for yourself to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a sacrifice” (Gen. 22:2).
Another “Lech l’cha”, but this time the going can not possibly be for Abraham’s benefit. Even to contemplate sacrificing his son – what advantage could that bring him? The thought outrages us. This time there can be no problems of ulterior motives. Abraham must act for God’s sake, or not at all.
We of course know that in the end Isaac is not sacrificed, not because of some co-incidence but because God steps in and stops Abraham, saying that what He wanted was not the death of the boy but a sign of the father’s faith. God never intended Abraham to complete the act, but Abraham did not know this. It is hard on him, but Abraham’s test is his preparedness to do even unthinkably hard things for the sake of his God.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com