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Lekh Lekha | Avraham the "Ivri"

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


Summarized by Rav Eliyahu Blumenzweig



"And I shall make you into a great nation" (Bereishit 12:2) - this is the source for the words "God of Avraham" in the opening berakha (blessing) of the Amida prayer.  "And I shall bless you" - this is the source for the words "God of Yitzchak."  "And I shall make your name great" - this is the source for "God of Yaakov."  Should we not, then, in closing the berakha, mention them all again?  The answer lies in the final clause of the promise to Avraham: "And you shall be a blessing" - they will conclude [their blessing] with your name, not with theirs [those of Yitzchak and Yaakov]. (Rashi, Bereishit 12:2)


            Both early and later commentaries have pointed out the peculiarity of Avraham's appearance on the stage of history without any prior introduction.  The Torah tells us nothing of the early years of his life, his righteousness, his activities or his personality.  It is as if he springs up suddenly out of nowhere, and God immediately promises him, "I shall make you into a great nation."


            It seems that this sudden appearance on the part of Avraham Avinu is characteristic of his essence.  He is a character created "ex-nihilo."  His origins, the home in which he grew up and the environment which surrounded him leave us surprised, astonished, amazed.  His entire society - including his father's household - are deeply immersed in the world of pagan gods, idols and icons.  How could a person from such a background achieve such closeness to God and reach such an elevated spiritual status?


            Whether we accept the midrash according to which "Avraham recognized his Creator at the age of three" or the opinion that he was forty at the time, this phenomenon is clearly an outstanding one, and represents the appearance of something entirely new.


            The modern study of the social sciences is based on the principle of causality.  Every phenomenon has its cause.  In every event we tend to see the mover and that which is moved.  Avraham Avinu proves that a different reality is possible.


            Avraham represents a great challenge for all of us.  The Rambam writes that a person must always strive upward, saying, "When will my actions equal those of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?"  Even if a person is incapable of reaching the spiritual levels attained by the forefathers, he must still strive and try - at the very least - to create his own path to serving God.  Avraham embodies the proof that it is possible to free oneself from the pressures of society and family and to swim against the current - with great strength.  That small grain which for a tiny moment out of eternity broke through the barriers of his family and his society, became the father of a whole nation.


            This is Avraham's essence.  They go their way - and he goes his.  The whole world stands on one side, and he on the other.  Therefore, according to the midrash, he is called "Avraham ha-Ivri" (Avraham the Hebrew).  [The source of the word 'ivri' is 'ever,' meaning 'over' or 'on the other side;' therefore we can interpret his name as "Avraham who stands opposite" - "the whole world stood on one side and he stood on the other."]  The father of the nation teaches us that it is within a person's power, if he but wills it, to beat his own path, to clear himself a way, to create his own current.  This character represents an enormous challenge, and presents a great demand of us.


            At the same time, it also serves as a source of comfort.  When a person is overcome with despair at the rushing, tumultuous streams facing him, he can take comfort in the knowledge that he can prevail - if only he wishes to act against them.  Perhaps he will not give rise to a new nation - "they will conclude with your name" - but he will find the strength needed for his struggle.



(Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat Parashat Lekh Lekha 5732.

Translated by Kaeren Fish.)



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