For the week ending 9 November 2019 / 11 Heshvan 5780

Parshat Lech Lecha

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Ten generations have passed since Noach. Man has descended spiritually. In the year 1948 from Creation, Avram is born. By observing the world, Avram comes to recognize G-d’s existence, and thus merits G-d appearing to him. At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, G-d tells Avram to leave his land, his relatives and his father's house and travel to an unknown land where G-d will make him into a great nation. Avram leaves, taking with him his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, their servants, and those whom they converted to faith in G-d. When they reach the land of Canaan, G-d appears to Avram and tells him that this is the land that He will give to his descendants.

A famine ensues and Avram is forced to relocate to Egypt to find food. Realizing that his wife’s beauty would cause his death at the hand of the Egyptians, Avram asks her to say that she is his sister. Sarai is taken to Pharaoh, but G‑d afflicts Pharaoh and his court with severe plagues and she is released unmolested. Avram returns to Eretz Yisrael (Canaan) with much wealth given to him by the Egyptians. During a quarrel over grazing rights between their shepherds, Avram decides to part ways with his nephew Lot. Lot chooses to live in the rich but corrupt city of Sodom in the fertile plain of the Jordan. A war breaks out between the kings of the region and Sodom is defeated. Lot is taken captive. Together with a handful of his converts, Avram rescues Lot, miraculously overpowering vastly superior forces, but Avram demurs from accepting any of the spoils of the battle.

In a prophetic covenant, G-d reveals to Avram that his offspring will be exiled to a strange land where they will be oppressed for 400 years, after which they will emerge with great wealth and return to Eretz Yisrael, their irrevocable inheritance. Sarai is barren and gives Hagar, her Egyptian hand-maiden, to Avram in the hope that she will provide them with a child. Hagar becomes arrogant when she discovers that she is pregnant. Sarai deals harshly with her, and Hagar flees. On the instruction of an angel, Hagar returns to Avram and gives birth to Yishmael. The weekly portion concludes with G-d commanding Avram to circumcise himself and his offspring throughout the generations as a Divine covenant. G-d changes Avram’s name to Avraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Hashem promises Avraham a son, Yitzchak, despite Avraham being ninety-nine years old and Sarah ninety. On that day, Avraham circumcises himself, Yishmael and his entire household.


Maxing the Moxy

“Go for yourself” (12:1)

One of the dominant genes of the Sinclair family is auto-didactism. Hashem has blessed us that we seem to be able to ‘just pick things up’ as we go along. I never had a photography lesson in my life but I was able to put publish a book of fine art black and white photographs to some critical acclaim. (Mind you it’s just as well I didn’t choose to be a brain surgeon.)

One of my sons also has this ability. He opened a gourmet pizza shop called “La Piedra” here in Jerusalem, which has been featured in the national media and, Baruch Hashem, is packed out most nights. Someone asked him where in Italy he had apprenticed. I believe his greatest Italian learning experience was a guided tour of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He never had a formal lesson in cuisine in his life. He has a natural talent. He did a lot of research online and his commitment was total. He ended up importing an authentic stone oven from Italy. I asked him if he was nervous in the beginning about succeeding. He told me there was one moment where he was really scared. Just before he opened, he had everything in place — the oven, the menu, the logo, the décor — and then he suddenly realized he had put a dangerous amount of his own money and a lot of someone else’s money into something he didn’t actually know he could do. It’s one thing to whip up a great pizza in your mother’s kitchen, and another to actually run a restaurant, one of the hardest and most precarious livelihoods known to man. He said he’d never been so scared in his life. When he opened, business was slow at first. But that didn’t bother him because at that point he knew he could do the job, although just before he opened he was ‘sweating.’

The unknown is terrifying. As former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it, “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the things we don't know that we don't know.” An “unknown unknown” is the scariest part of any project. And, yet, without the moxy, or “chutzpah” as we call it in Hebrew/Yiddish, to move out of our comfort zone, we would achieve very little.

If unknown unknowns are scary in the physical world, how much more frightening are they in the realm of the soul. To think we could really be better and holier people is a daunting prospect. The Ba’alei Mussar (masters of ethical development) teach us that a person can never know the level beyond the very next step up the spiritual ladder. Only when that next step is taken is the one that is after that one revealed.

Avraham Avinu is called “HaIvri” (root of the word ‘Hebrew’), meaning “the one who crossed over.” Abraham rejected idolatry at a time when idolatry was as self-evident to his world as the laws of physics are to ours. He stepped outside conventional wisdom to the extent that he became a social pariah, derided as ‘mule’ espousing a barren cosmology that would lead nowhere.

The first words in this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, are usually translated as “Go for yourself.” But they can also be translated as “Go to yourself.” The essential life-journey is to break the barriers of the limits we place on ourselves and realize that our true life’s work lies in facing the “unknown unknown” of the soul.

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