There appears to be a contradiction between the name of this Sidra and its content. For “Lech Lecha,” as the Sicha will explain, means “Go to yourself”-Abraham’s movement towards the fulfillment of his task. But the Sidra describes a series of events which happened to Abraham, seeming to deflect him from his mission. The Rebbe resolves the contradiction by going in depth into the meaning of fulfillment, or “ascent,” for the Jew.
1. What’s in a Name?
Names are not accidents in Torah. We find in many places that the name of a person or a thing tells us about its nature. And the same is true of the Sidrot. The names they bear are a cue to their content, even though on the face of it they are simply taken from the first words of the Sidra and are there, as it were, by chance. For there is no such thing as pure chance in events, since everything happens by Divine Providence; certainly in matters of Torah.
We might think that the names of the Sidrot are a relatively late convention, since we are not certain that they are mentioned in the Talmud,1 while the names of the books of the Torah2 and of the divisions of the Mishnah3 are all detailed there. But there is a law relating to legal documents, that a name mentioned in one becomes a name recognized by Torah law if it has stood unchallenged for 30 days.4 A fortiori, since the names of the Sidrot have stood unchallenged for more than 1,000 years, and are mentioned by the Sages (Rashi,5 for example), they are recognized as such by Torah.
So we can sum up the inner content of the whole of this week’s Sidra by understanding the implications of its name: Lech Lecha.
2. Lech Lecha: Go To Yourself
This is usually translated as “Get thee out (from your country and your birthplace and your father’s house..)” But it literally means, “Go to yourself.” “Going” has the connotation in Torah of moving towards one’s ultimate purpose-of service towards one’s Creator. And this is strongly hinted at by the phrase, “Go to yourself”-meaning, towards your soul’s essence6 and your ultimate purpose, that for which you were created.
This was the command given to Abraham, and the first part of the narrative bears this out. For he was told to leave his heathen background and go to Israel. And within Israel he was “going and journeying to the South,” that is, towards Jerusalem. He was moving progressively towards an ever increasing degree of holiness. But then we suddenly find: “And there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt.” Why this sudden reversal of his spiritual journey, especially as the whole Sidra (as testified by its name) is supposed to contain an account of Abraham’s continual progress towards his fulfillment?
3. Ascent or Descent?
That it was a reversal seems clear. To go to Egypt was itself a spiritual descent-as the verse explicitly says, “And Abram went down to Egypt.” And the cause of his journey-”and there was a famine in the land”-also seems like the deliberate concealment of G-d’s blessing. The more so as G-d promised Abraham, “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great.” Is it not strange that when he reached the land that G-d had shown him, a famine forced him to leave?
A possible answer is that this was one of the trials which Abraham had to face to prove himself worthy of his mission (and the Midrash7 tells us when faced with this inexplicable hardship Abraham “was not angry and did not complain”).
But this will not suffice. For Abraham’s mission was not simply a personal one-it was his task to spread G-d’s name and gather adherents to His faith. The Midrash8 compares his many journeyings to the way a spice box must be shaken about, to spread its aroma to all corners of a room. So an explanation of his descent in terms of a personal pilgrimage will not do justice to the difficulty. Especially since its immediate effect was to endanger Abraham’s mission. It could not help the work of spreading G-d’s name for the arrival of a man of G-d to be followed by a bad omen of a national famine.
Worse is to follow, for when Abraham entered Egypt, Sarah, his wife, was taken by Pharaoh by force. And even though he did not so much as touch her,9 it was an evident descent from the spiritual course that seemed to be outlined for them.
And even before this, when they first approached Egypt, Abraham said to Sarah, “Now I know you are a woman of beautiful appearance.” Thereby he had already begun to see (though only relative to his own exalted standard) with “Egyptian” eyes; for previously he had not noticed this10 because of the spirituality of their modest relationship.
So how, in the face of so many contrary indications, can it be that the whole story of Lech Lecha is-as its name would seem to imply-one of Abraham’s continual ascent towards his destiny?
4. History Foreshadowed
We can work towards a resolution of these difficulties by understanding the inner meaning of the famous dictum, “The works of the Fathers are a sign for the children.” This does not mean simply that the fate of the Fathers is mirrored in the fate of their children. But more strongly, that what they do brings about what happens to their children.11 Their merit gives their children the strength to follow their example. And in Abraham’s wanderings, the subsequent history of the children of Israel was rehearsed and made possible.
Abraham’s journey down to Egypt foreshadows the future Egyptian Exile. “And Abram went up out of Egypt” presages the Israelites’ redemption. And just as Abraham left, “weighed down with cattle, silver and gold,” so too did the Israelites leave Egypt “with great wealth.”
Even that merit for which the Israelites were saved they owed to Sarah; for just as their women kept themselves from sinning with the Egyptians,12 so had Sarah protected herself from Pharaoh’s advances.
5. The End is Implicit in the Beginning
Understood in this light, we can see the end of Abraham’s journey to Egypt foreshadowed in its beginning. For its purpose was his eventual departure “weighed down with cattle, silver and gold,” expressing the way in which he was to transform the most secular and heathen things and press them into the service of G-d. This was indeed the purpose of the Israelites’ exile into Egypt, that G-d’s presence should be felt in this most intransigent of places. The final ascent was implicit in the descent.
There is, in Jewish learning, an image which captures this oblique directedness. The Babylonian Talmud, unlike the Jerusalem Talmud, never reaches its decisions directly but arrives at them through digressions and dialectics which shed, in their apparent meandering, more light than a direct path could. Indeed, when the two books are in disagreement, the Babylonian verdict is always followed.13
So too do the seeming digressions of Jewish history represent not a wandering from the path of destiny but a way of shedding the light of G-d on untouched corners of the world, as preparation for, and part of, their subsequent redemption.
Abraham’s removal to Egypt was not an interruption but an integral part of the command of “Lech Lecha”-to journey towards that self-fulfillment which is the service of G-d.
And as Abraham’s destiny was the later destiny of the children of Israel, so it is ours. Our exile, like his, is a preparation for (and therefore part of) redemption. And the redemption which follows brings us to a higher state than that which we could have reached without exile. “Greater will be the glory of this latter house (i.e., the Temple of the Messianic Age) than that of the former (the first Temple).”14
Exile, then, is an integral part of spiritual progress; it allows us to sanctify the whole world by our actions, and not simply a small corner of it.
Perhaps one will say: Where is this progress apparent? The world does not appear to be growing more holy: Precisely the opposite seems to be the case.
But this is a superficial judgment. The world does not move of its own accord. It is fashioned by Divine Providence.
What appears on the surface to be a decline is, however hidden, part of the continuous process of transformation which we work on the world whenever we dedicate our actions to Torah and G-d’s will. In other words, the world constantly becomes more elevated and refined. Nothing could illustrate this more clearly than the story of Abraham’s journeyings, seen first on the surface, and then in their true perspective.