Originally published November 2011.

Avraham’s Walking – Walking in the Way of Hashem is Really Teaching

In the Midrash Rabbah at the beginning of parshas Lech Lecha there are two consecutive midrashim that plum to the essence of the culmination of Avraham’s search for the truths of life. The first Midrash mentions that Hashem’s telling Avraham “lech lecha” is related to the verse “Shim’i bas U’ri Hati Oznech utishkchi Amech Ubeis Avich” and then the midrash relates the following analogy : A person was wandering after a time he saw a palace that was ablaze.  He asked himself “can it be that there is no owner of the palace”? Just then, the owner peeked out and said, “I am the owner.” So too Avraham looked at this world he saw the design and beauty of the world and concluded that there must be a master of the universe however he was bothered that evil and iniquitty reigned in the world and was thus confused. At that point Hashem revealed Himself and said I am the master of the universe and I am allowing this evil and iniquitty to reign. You now go and serve me in the world and I will thus teach others through you how to straighten themselves and remove evil and iniquitty from the world.  The next verse in psalms there says “And the king will desire your glorification”. The second midrash relates to a different facet of Avraham’s search in the following way : As pleasant as fragrance smells, so too let your name be this way. Avraham was like a bottle of perfume lying in a corner, but a person picked up the jug and carried it with him and the smell spread.

A number of questions arise from these midrashim. Is Avraham walking for himself or for the benefit of others? From the first midrash it would seem he is walkng for himself yet others will benefit from it. In the second midrash it is clear he is walking solely for the benefit of others? To further illustrate this difficulty the verse writes “Lech lecha” which means walk for yourself but in the end it says “V’heyeh bracha” which means and you will become a source of bracha to others. In addition knowing what we do know about Avraham’s character it would seem out of place for him to do anything strictly for himself. Avraham is to us the paradym of selflessness in his endless abounding kindness to others. A second question that arises from these midrashim is the following.  Does Avraham’s walking have anything to do with the land of Israel, from the midrashim it doesn’t seem to have any direct connection? To further illustrate this second problem if we examine the verses it also is not directly connected because Hashem tells him to “walk … to the land that I will show you”.

After a closer look it seems the Torah is communicating to us a very challenging definition of Avraham’s function in this world. Avraham is a “walker” he “walks through this world” in some way for himself but ultimately for the sake of others to an unspecified place or in other words the point is to walk without a clear destination in mind but rather to walk the way G-d leads you. What does this definition mean and what is the significance of this definition for us the offspring of Avraham Avinu. When we say “matai yagiyu masai lmaseh avosai” [when will my ways reach the greatness of the ways of my forefathers] is this concept not included as well??

Hashem tells Avraham to walk to the land He will show him. The passuk then enumerates 3 “promises” that Hashem makes to Avraham to reassure him that this “journey” will not be detrimental to his overall wellbeing. Firstly “I will make you into a great nation”, secondly I will bless you, and finally I will make your name great”. Chazal point out that each one of these promises is coning to reassure Avraham about one of the difficulties he will incure ion his journey. When one is travelling it mitigates his ability to procreate thus “a great nation”, travelling also reduces a persons net worth thus “I will bless you”, finally travelling reduces the renound of a person thus “I will make your name great”

Another challenging point in the beginning of the parsha is that Hashem enjoins Avraham to leave his land, his birth place, and his fathers house. If the verse is referring to “geographical movement” than the order is certainly distorted. From here the mefarshim all point out that Avraham is being asked to grow beyond the limitations of his surroundings in addition to leaving them geographically. Therefore the Torah writes the natural order of growth in acheiving independence from these entities. The easiest limitations to overcome are those imposed by his nationality. These tend ot be the most superficial and thus the most easily overcome. Next in the growth continuim come the limitations of ones birth place or regional identity. These are aspects of more specific culturing that provide uniqueness among the national identtity and are thus more internal to a person’s need for a sense of uniqueness, thus they are slightly more difficult to overcome. Finally there is the step of overcoming one’s own familial identity and uniqueness. This is by far the most internal to a person and thus the most difficult to overcome. from the inseption of our lives our parents and extended family are the rolemodels who help us to form and shape our unique character and perspective on the world. Why does Hashem want Avraham to leave all of this culturing and identity brehind and waht is he replacing it with? What is Avraham supposed to supplant inside of himself as a substitute for his national, regional, and familial identity?

It is by no coincidence that in the Hebrew language the word for walking “halicha” and the word for the law “halacha” come from the same root. when one conducts his life according to the will of Hashem he is growing and he is in a state of spiritual movement or growth. This process is only facilitated through the adherence to the halacha which is the will of G-d as it applies to each practical situation in life.

Walking is a Means of Acquisition in Jewish Law

The Gemara in Baba Basra teaches that walking on a parcel of land can be a means of acquiring it. In the parsha after Lot separates from Avraham Hashem tells Avraham to “get up and walk in the land, it’s length and its width, for to you I shall give it. It is perplexing to understand why Hashem only mentions this to Avraham at this point. Why not tell Avraham to do this from the first time he entered the land? The only thing that has transpired since then is that there was a famine in the land and Avraham had to sojourn in Mitzrayim for a time, until he could return. At that point Avraham and Lot part ways. The passuk says the reason for this separation is because Avraham saw that there was friction between his shepards and the shepards of Lot which was unnecessary and unfortunate. He thus encouraged lot to find his own portion in the land. The two parted on seemingly good terms. What than is the reason for this sudden revelation from hashem.

If we look deeper into the matter a possible rationale emerges. Why did Hashem bring Avraham all the way from Ur Casdim just to bring a famine to the land when he arrives? Doesn’t this seem cruel and unnecessary. Wasn’t Avraham a loyal enough follower? Our sages point out here that the famine was only in Israel no where else. It was clear to all those in the land that this famine was happening because Avraham had now come to dwell here. Hashem is now guiding the natural order in the land of Canaan specifically as He deems fit for his relationship with Avraham. This famine was to test Avraham’s trust in Hashem. Once he left the land without complaining he passed the test. Hashem then brings him back to the land and shortly therefafter friction develops between the shepards. Our sages teach us that the source of the friction was based on a halachik dispute.

The shepards of Lot claimed that since the land has now been given to Avraham and he has no heirs so the land will go to Lot through inheritance and it justified to take ownership of it from the current residents. Avraham’s shepards, on the other hand, took a different view. Hashem had not yet explicitely given him formal acquisition of the land and thus he could not push the current residents off the land. In addition, Avraham in his piety instructed his shepards to muzzle his sheep as to prevent them from grazing in the fields of the residents.

Why was Lot even tagging along in Avraham’s camp in the first place? He was part of the culture of Ur Casdim who were steeped in idol worship and who had lost all touch with hashem. the verse says that when Lot saw Avraham leave Ur Casdim he followed after him without consulting Avraham. what was Lot’s thought process? Did he see pragmatically that Hashem had done miracles with Avraham and that his only hope of prosperity and salvation would lie with Avarham’s future. Certainly all of the people in Ur casdim saw the flaws and weakness of idol worship but didn’t have a compelling reason to stop. Lot saw a pathway to a new and brighter future. Unlike Avraham his motivation in leaving Ur Casdim was motivated strictly by illusions of self aggrandizement. This unrefined motivation caused him to lose control of his desire for the pursuit of material success at the first oppurtunity for advantage. Once the two arrived back into the land Lot could no longer restrain his inner motivation and his “dreams” and he let the proverbial “cat out of the bag” and his shepards picked up on it and took a lose interpretation to the ownership of the land. With this they “parted ways” with Avraham whose entire motivation is to do the will of Hashem with no alterior motive. He can’t take posession of the land until Hashem tells him to do so. Hashem waited for Lot to show his true colors and thus for Avraham to separate from him until he formally gave the land to Avraham.

Many times in life we have seen people who are successful. They have made it. They have wealth and prosperity. they have comfort and security. Some times they even have a pseudo meaning or a pseudo religion, a way of life that they have arbitrarily deemed meaningful in order to assuage their reflex for spirituality and meaning. But ultimately what has driven them to this point, what has fueled them? Furthermore at the root of it what have they truly acquired in this world. is the material success everlasting or fleeting? Is the comfort and security real or illusory? Is their “way of life” ultimately satisfying? Avraham’s view of the world is such that the main “acquisition” one can have in this world is an intimate relatioship with the Almighty in every step of his life. With that all that he has is always satisfying and he is always secure. this relationship is as boundless and as eternal as the Almighty Himself in whom the relationship is rooted.

The Regional War and its Connection to Shoelaces

One of the more difficult sections in the thematic flow of the parsha is the regional war that develops between the four kings and the five kings. At one point Sdom and Ammorah are overrun in battle and the leaders have to flee. During the flight the kings of Sedom and Ammorah fall into clay pits. The remaining possessions of the two kingdoms are plundered at that point and the n the torah goes out of its way to say that Lot and his possessions were also captured. The Torah states that this happened “to Lot the one who dwelled in Sedom”. In other words, our sages point out that it was his decision to live in Sedom that caused his misfortune of being captured in the war. What is also noteworthy is the very fact that his capture is mentioned as a separate event. The implication of this verse is that the captors took him with a “separate intent” than the other plundering they did. What is the meaning of this teaching? Immediately following this sequence of events Avraham is told of Lot’s capture and feels obligated to get involved in the rescue of Lot from the hands of his captors. Hashem does amazing miracles for him and he is able to defeat massive armies alone with his faithful servant Eliezer.

Although Chazal teach us that one should never hide himself from his families needs and struggles “Mi’bsarcha al Tisaleim” it is fitting to ask here in this context if that was the depth of Avraham’s motivation in this daring and even dangerous rescue attempt. We see that our sages even point out numerous miracles that happened in order for Avraham to be successful. Certainly it is understood that the sages never meant that Mibsarcha al Tisaleim means you have and obligation to put yourself in a potentially life threatening situation to help a family member. Lot was also not exactly the easiest family member to justify putting oneself in danger for. There must be something else deeper going on over here.

Everyone in the region new of Avraham and they had learned from him what his message to the world was. Nevertheless he kept his distance from everyone and dwelt for the most part as a nomadic shepherd and stayed away from conflict as much as possible. lot on the other hand went down to Sedom and immediately started expressing his true opinions as to the nature of his presence in the land and that of Avraham. Lot maintained a facade of “kindness and generosity” which he picked up the outer trappings of while living in the house of Avraham. Under great  pressure and sacrifice he maintained this facade even though it cost him his sons in law and arguably his wife. In the end deep down though Lot maintained this as a facade in order to bring about a much broader vision he had for himself which was sovereignty in the entire land as the inheritor from Avraham. He allowed tidbits of his plan to seep out and this became known to all. In the throws of war and the battle for ultimate conquest in the region Lot was captured for the sole extent of dragging Avraham into the turmoil in the region and thus perhaps find him at a vulnerable point and kill him.

Avraham Avinu was tested at this point but what exactly was the test? As we have established above pure loyalty to family isn’t enough to justify putting one\s own life in jeapordy. Clearly Avraham saw this turn of events as Hashem telling him that the path I want you to take just now is to enter into the war and that Hashem will protect him and it will become clear to all that Hashem is with Avraham in all of his ways just as Avraham is with Hashem in all of His ways. Lot therefore in a very unliekly way was somewhat of a catalyst for bringing about the true “acquisition of the land of Canaan” to Avraham.

Perhaps in this light we can understand a little addendum at the end of the war when the king of Sedom comes and asks Avraham to return the captives he took from their legions in battle and “keep the booty” for himself. Avraham refuses to take “not a string or even a sandal strap”. At this point Avraham makes a very deep and reverbarting statement which is you take back everything because I don’t want to take from you not the slightest thing not even a string or a shoelace. Avraham explains his decision the following way : “If I take even one granual of booty or spoils of war from you then one day you are going to come back to me and say I (in my giving of gifts) have caused Avraham to become wealthy”. The Talmud1)Tractate Sotah 17a expounds that the string is referring to the blue string of the Tzitzis, and te strap is referring to the black strap of the Tefillin. These are the two MItzvot about which our sages say a person should ideally not walk more than four cubits without donning. The rationale for this warning is that these two mitzvot perhaps more than any others symbolize the imperative for a person to walk in this world while constantly in the Divine Presence.

“Walk Before Me and Be Complete” What Does Walking Have to Do With the Bris Milah and Name Changes?

In the end of the parsha we see another reference to walking with regards to Avraham. The passuk says “hishalech lifanai vheyei tamim”. Avraham is meant to walk before Hashem and be complete. What does it mean to “be complete”? Also at the end of the Avraham makes a Bris, a covenant, and receives a new name. The Gemara in Nedarim teaches us that before this point his name was Avram (numerical value 243) and afterwards his name is Avraham (numerical value 248). Joining the covenant with Hashem gave him 5 more than he had before. The Gemara adds that this means he received 2 eyes, 2 ears, and 1 reproductive organ. This couldn’t mean that beforehand Avram was blemished to the extent that he didn’t have these limbs (don’t forget he had already given birth to Yishmael), but rather that he gained new potential that was not within his grasp before with these limbs. Through his new attained greatness of form he would now be able to effect the whole universe through the fulfillment of the 248 positive commandments. In addition Hashem explains to Avraham in the verse that the significance of his new name is that he will no longer be the father of Aram but the rather the father of a multitude of nations. The connection is clear that through attaining the complete human form of 248 he now has the ability to affect the entire universe and is thus the father of all nations in that all of the Blessing and Divine Input that will be eminated into the world will come through Avraham and from him it will spread to the whole world.

There is a long standing question as to what the rationale behind the mitzvah of Bris Milah is. The opinion of the Ramban and other kabbalists is that in fact the foreskin was originally not part of the human form. The first Adam was created already in the form of a circumcised person. After the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil he incorporated a branch of the evil in the world into himself. Subsequent generations were born with this foreskin as a result. It is no surprise that the specific area of the body where the blemish of being connected to the evil in the evil in the world manifests itself is in that area. Everything Hashem set up in the world works in balance. The greatest weakness has to be pitted against the greatest strength. The greatest potential for man to achieve their potential of clinging to Hashem is by being similar to Him and emulating His ways. The greatest expression of emulating Hashem is to give life itself to another being as He has done for us. Originally the verse says about the man and the woman that “they were both naked and yet they had no cause to be ashamed at all. The Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh points out that the verse is commonly mistranslated to mean “and they weren’t ashamed” but in fact a rigid look at the grammatical nuances shows that in fact the more correct reading is “they had no cause to be ashamed”. The reason they had no cause to be ashamed is because until they ate from the tree they had no association with the evil in the world at all. To them the entire human body was a pure vessel to be utilized solely for the service of Hashem. Only after they ate from the tree were they introduced to the urges and pulls of the animalistic side of man. Then and only then did they begin to see that part of themselves with any other association other than as a part of the body meant to serve Hashem. From that point on they were embarrassed that they had such associations and thus started to cover themselves.

This aspect of elevation with regards to the base physical urges and drives set man apart originally to be able to fulfill his special task and role in the world, to emulate Hashem and cling to His ways thus achieving whatever level of perfection possible for a human being. The crowning aspect of this emulation is to give life and meaning to another human being. It is in this area that man achieves his greatest point, when he succeeds at that. This of course doesn’t mean that he merely procreates, anyone can do that even animals, it means that he brings another life into this world and nurtures it and guides it, provides support and education until the child grows to complete independence and is able to achieve their special role in the world. This is quite a task. When man incorporated the branch of evil into himself this evil acquired its grip on the man therefore specifically in this area. The idea of Bris Milah is to cut off the foreskin thus mitigating the grip of the evil upon the person and to a certain extent returning the man to his original form, at least from the external point of view. The Torah tells us that there is an internal foreskin also on the heart. This can only be excised by the person himself through elevating himself through the service of Hashem.

Avraham Avinu achieved this level of purity. The Torah tells us that at the time of the famine Avraham and his wife Sarah were forced to go down to Egypt. The verse says that “then Avraham noticed that Sarah was a beautiful woman”. This verse is difficult to understand because there is an obligation to look at a woman before marrying her to make sure she is suitable, furthermore they had been married for years, how could it be that Avraham hadn’t noticed her beauty. To complicate matters the Gemara teaches us that Sarah was one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.  The answer is quite simple. Avraham had looked at his wife many times and noticed her, but only the way Avraham looks at people. Now that they are going down to Egypt he has to plan out a strategy for survival and he must look at Sarah the way that the Egyptians are going to look at her, something that was already unnatural for him to do.  At this point he says now I know that you are truly a beautiful woman.

Avraham Also Stands in Prayer –  Walking and Standing in Avodas Hashem

וירא – we also see עמידה by אברהם.  יט:כז – והשכם אברהם ברכות כו – This is the source for שחרית. רמז – לך לך – Avraham walks וירא – עומד – תפילה standing. The great Rosh Hayeshiva of Velozhin Rav Chaim writes in his sefer Nefesh Hachayim that the form and status of malachim is that they are static powers in Hashems’ world. It is the man who has the Tzelem Elokim who is able to give these static powers ongoing vitality and renewal. Malachim do have a malah above men in purity of being and their present grasp of Hashem’s greatness is of a higher degree than man. The Gemara in Shabbos says “tna hodcha al hashamayim” the malachim wanted Hashem to give the Torah to them because they are pure and stable. Hashem ultimately gives the Torah to man despite and perhaps even because of his frailty. The inability to grow and change is ultimately not the ideal situation for man to be set in. To be in a situation of constant growth and development there must be the potential for failure as well. This potential to walk forward and progress through growth or to regress and return to expressing base instincts and drives is called free will.

The Rambam in the Guide for the Perplexed teaches that the usage of the word “to walk” in the Hebrew language doesn’t refer exclusively to the physical act of shifting the legs forward in sequence.  It also includes a connotation of growth and expansion.  We walk with legs but the idea is moving forward or backward in terms of our consciousness and ultimately our relationship to G-d. Even in common soliloquies we use the word walk in this way. “She walked out on him” is a manner of saying she ended the relationship. “From the moment you stepped into my life” means from the point at which we became aware of the potential for an ongoing relationship. When people overcome problems or blocks in their lives they refer to it as “moving on!”

עמידה – could mean stability, sure and strong. By no coincidence walking is in the legs. Leg – lowest part of the body.  Lowest part, hence in the legs you aren’t stable. You can regress.  Man’s instability is a חסרון so the lowest part of the body is the legs. Parting legs exposes ערוה – the ברית מילה. Walking doesn’t take any other thought to do, you don’t think about your legs moving. Bava Kamma “people don’t pay attention when they are walking on the way” therefore the  הלכה is if a  guy leaves something in the way, it’s his fault. Habit – הרגל – רגל הרגל – you don’t need שכל to operate it. We trip all the time walking in the street.  Why cause?  Man is unstable.

This World is a Walkway to the Next World

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos teaches us that this world is the hallway before the banquet room. We are walking through this world, our purpose is to prepare ourselves here for the world to come. Born, living, dying – is called walking to עוה”ב if you keep the תורה. The Mishnah in Avos teaches Know from where you come, to where you are going, and in front of whom you will stand to give judgement in the future. Even death is called walking but it means to the grave and to the future destination in the world to come. Learning Torah is also called walking, its clarifying the halacha. “When you walk it guides you, when you sleep it accompanies you, when you awake it is your discussion. Speak in them when when you sit in your house, when you walk on the way, when you lay down, when you rise up. Torah is going with us in every step of life and death. “If you will walk in my statutes”….

When you come to that understanding of עוה”ז, that’s Avraham’s cognizance. When עוה”ז is the end, then you’re at apikorsus. Avraham perceives order and build up.  Like the מדרש you see a palace. Palace = design, order, plan Things add up.  Nowhere are you there yet every day is a part of something. If you believe you are at your final destination, every day you think that it’s the end and nothing makes sense. Sefer Yetzirah – Avraham wrote it because he understands this השגה of Creation. That’s why the נבואה now is “walk” – because the person with this מהלך will reveal that this world is a path to Olam Habo. Avraham gives us עמידה שחרית. דרך ה’ ד:ה:ב – Davening Man has to be in עוה”ז.  This is a tremendous downfall, but it’s necessary to provide the opportunity to use higher than he was before, but still initially it’s a ירידה before the turnaround. There has to be a safeguard at the original ירידה, so הקב”ה arranged a תיקון for this. The תיקון is that before you do a day’s work you stand before G-d and ask for success.  Since you oriented beforehand with a standing that will prevent עוה”ז from overcoming you, that’s the תיקון of תפילה. תפילה – is the עמידה that within the הליכה that safeguards us walking in the way we should.  Avraham starts תפילה because he reveals that this world is a walkway to the world to come.

The Secret of the Letter “ה”

This is the secret of the “ה” in the both places.  Either place – Hashem formed this world with the letter  “ה” The letters also spell “with Avraham” meaning in the merit of Avraham has Hashem made the world. Avraham who earned the extra “ה” in his name by making himself complete and whole and by dedicating his entire being physical and spiritual to the fulfillment of Hashem’s will, it is in his merit that Hashem made the world.

References   [ + ]

1. Tractate Sotah 17a