Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, p. 57ff.

I. As mentioned on frequent occasions, it is doubtful that [any of] the names of the weekly Torah portions are cited in the Talmud.1 [In contrast, all of the names of the books of the Tanach are mentioned in that source.2 And similarly, the Mishnah3 and the Gemara4 refer to the names of almost all the tractates of the Talmud].5 Nevertheless, there is suffi­cient evidence to indicate that the names of the weekly portions are [rooted in our] Torah [heritage]. [Indeed,] for over a thousand years,6 it has been Jewish custom to use these names to refer to these portions.7

A conclusion can certainly be drawn from a comparison [to the following law]: With regard to [the establishment of a person’s identity so that] his name may be used on a legal document, there is an affirmed decision in Torah law that a name which a person has been known to use for 30 days, is his name.8 How much more so then, with regard to the names of the Torah portions which have been known to be used for over a thousand years, and have been used by the leaders and teachers of the Jewish people, must we con­clude that the association between these names and the weekly Torah portions is [not merely a factor of coinci­dence, but rather] stems from our Torah heritage.

Accordingly, one may conclude that the name which [our] Torah [heritage] has determined for a particular reading reflects the inner content of the entire reading.9 We are forced to accept this conclusion even if one will say that the names of the Torah readings were chosen [merely] because these are the first words of that passage.10 For in practice, (according to the Torah,) these are the names by which the entire Torah reading is called. {And with regard to the Torah, one cannot say that this is simply a matter of coincidence, for even with regard to worldly matters, there is nothing that happens solely by chance.11} Thus we must assume that the name of a Torah reading carries within it the inner message of the entire reading.12

This concept can be applied to this week’s Torah read­ing, Parshas Lech Lecha. All of the points which are later mentioned in the Torah reading — even the last verse — share the same message — Lech Lecha — “Go for yourself.”13

II. For a Jew (beginning from the first Jew, Avraham, [whose Divine service is described in] our Torah reading), halichah (Lech) — literally going, [in this context, progress] — indicates advancing towards the fundamental purpose of his creation which is [— in the Mishnah’s words14 —] “to serve My Creator,” i.e., to progress higher in his Divine service. Certainly, this applies with regard to the directive to be taken from the phrase Lech Lecha,15 which can be inter­preted [on the non-literal level of Derush] as “Go to yourself,”16 i.e., Avraham our Patriarch was commanded to proceed to the essence of his being, the very root of his soul. Certainly, progress of this nature points toward a very high ascent.

The above, however, raises a question: This concept appears to characterize the beginning of the Torah reading which relates that Avraham carried out [God’s] command:17 “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s home” and journeyed to Eretz Yisrael. And within Eretz Yisrael itself, he was “journeying steadily to the south,”18 i.e., proceeding in the direction of Jerusalem and the Beis HaMikdash.19 This reflects progress “from strength to strength,”20 advancing to higher levels of holi­ness.

Afterwards, however, the Torah reading relates:21 “There was a famine in the land, and Avram descended to Egypt,” recounting that Avraham had to leave Eretz Yisrael and descend to Egypt. How is it possible that this descent would be in harmony (— and indeed, be alluded to —) by the name Lech Lecha — which indicates a continuous advance to higher levels?

III. There is a further point: Not only was Avraham’s jour­ney to Egypt a descent, as the Torah states: “And Avram descended,” (i.e., a spiritual, [as well as a physical] descent), but the cause which motivated his descent — the famine — brought about an even greater concealment [of Godliness].

For when Avraham left his birthplace, God promised him:22 “I will make you a great nation. I will bless you and expand your renown.” And yet, when he came “to the land which I will show you,”23 a famine set in, and Avraham was forced to leave the land.

It is true that this was a test,24 and through overcoming this challenge (as the Midrash relates:25 “He did not become upset or protest”), he was able to reach a higher level.26 Nevertheless, the intent of Avraham’s journey was not merely to elevate his own self to a higher level. Instead, [his mission was outer-directed:] To cite an analogy employed by the Midrash:27 There was a vial of perfume kept in a cor­ner and its fragrance had not spread. By taking the vial and carrying it from place to place, its fragrance began to spread. So too, God told Avraham, “Journey from place to place, and your renown will increase within the world.”

Thus the intent of Avraham’s journey was that wherever he would journey, God’s name would become known and sanctified. This is the true meaning [of God’s promise that] Avraham’s renown would increase.28 For [Avraham’s iden­tity was subsumed to God to the extent that] his own renown was identified with God’s renown.

From this can be understood that when Avraham arrived in Eretz Yisrael, and immediately thereafter a famine broke out, God’s name was not sanctified. On the contrary, the gentile nations had the opportunity to complain that the famine came about because of the arrival of a Jew who served God. Thus this element of the narrative appears to run contrary to the entire intent of Lech Lecha.

IV. There is an additional factor. Avraham’s descent into Egypt caused Sarah to be taken into Pharaoh’s home. Al­though God protected [her] and nothing undesirable happened; (indeed, Pharaoh did not even touch her),29 the very fact that Sarah was taken into Pharaoh’s home reflects an awesome descent. (In particular, [this is true] for as is well known,30 [taking Sarah] enabled Pharaoh to receive nurture from the realm of holiness.)

Moreover, we see that Avraham’s very approach to Egypt brought about a descent within his own character, as reflected in [the fact that] at that time,31 [he told Sarah],32 “Now I know that you are an attractive woman.”

The Baal Shem Tov explains33 that statement as follows: Our Sages state:34 “The Patriarchs are the Divine chariot,” [i.e., just as a chariot has no will of its own and is no more than a vehicle to transport the person driving it, so, too, the Patriarchs had no thought of their personal identity; their intent was merely to publicize Godliness throughout the world]. Since Avraham was “a chariot” for God, and “his thoughts were always attached to the [sublime] root of thought,” it was not until [his descent to Egypt] that he real­ized that Sarah was an attractive woman. Certainly, he had seen her previously.35 Nevertheless, since his thought was always focused “beyond the limits of physical sight,” [her appearance did not make an impression upon him]. When, however, he approached Egypt, this made (albeit in a refined manner36) an impression upon him, and “he descended from his spiritual rung, [to the point where] thoughts [from the material frame of reference, stemming] from the destruction of the vessels”37 came to him. And as a result, he first realized that Sarah was an attractive woman.

Thus explanation is certainly necessary. How can all the above matters that are included within this Torah reading be referred to with the name Lech Lecha which, as above, connotes an ascent from strength to strength?

V. To clarify the above, we have to explain the inner mean­ing of our Sages’ statement: “The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants.” The intent is not merely that the deeds of the Patriarchs serve as an indicator; that what happened to the Patriarchs will happen to their descendants. Instead, the intent is that the deeds of the Patriarchs are a precipitator,38 setting in motion [the fac­tors] that cause the same pattern to recur for posterity.39

In this vein, the Zohar40 explains that Avraham’s descent into Egypt led to the exile in Egypt, and the fact that “Avra­ham ascended from Egypt,”41 brought about [the Jews’] ultimate exodus from that land. [The causality is of more than a general nature; the particulars also match.] Avraham left Egypt “heavily laden with herds, silver, and gold.”42 And as a result, it was promised that when the Jews would leave Egypt, they “would depart with great wealth.”43

[Similarly,] the spiritual factor that led to the Exodus also had its roots in our ancestors’ conduct. It is explained44 that the Jews were redeemed from Egypt because the women guarded themselves from immorality. This merit stemmed from Sarah’s conduct when, despite the fact that she was taken to Pharaoh’s palace, she perverted immoral conduct. This granted her descendants the potential to pro­tect themselves against lewdness. Although they lived in Egypt, a depraved land, the Egyptians were unable to exer­cise any control over the Jewish women, just as Pharaoh was not able to even touch Sarah.45

VI. On this basis, we can explain how the inner intent of Avraham’s descent to Egypt is alluded to in Parshas Lech Lecha. For the ultimate purpose of Avraham’s descent into Egypt was to ascend “heavily laden with herds, silver, and gold,”46 just as the exile into Egypt was intended so that47 “they would depart with great wealth,” having elevated the sparks of holiness of that land. Thus the descent was the first phase of the ascent.

To site a parallel: The analysis of a subject in the Babylo­nian Talmud48 begins with questions and dialectic inquiry which on the surface veil and conceal the Torah’s insights49 (in contrast to the Jerusalem Talmud which follows the pat­tern of direct light50). Nevertheless, the didactic process and the many questions raised enable us to penetrate to the depths of the halachah to a far greater extent than is possible through the study of the Jerusalem Talmud. For this reason, whenever there is a difference of opinion between the Baby­lonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, the halachah follows the Babylonian Talmud.51

With regard to the veiling and concealment that exists within the Babylonian Talmud, it is obvious that the study of the questions is part of the clarification of Torah law that comes about as a result. Similarly, with regard to Avraham’s descent into Egypt, since this descent was a necessary pre­paratory step to his ascent “heavily laden with herds...,” it also must be seen as one of the phases of that ascent.

This concept also applies to our people’s later descent into Egypt. Since the purpose and goal of the descent into Egypt is the ultimate ascent and exodus, the descent can be seen as a preparatory phase leading to that ascent.

Similar principles apply with regard to the present exile (for the Egyptian exile is the source for all the subsequent exiles52). The intent of this exile is [to elevate the Jews and the world to a higher level], as indicated by our Sages’ state­ment:53 “The Holy One, blessed be He, did not exile Israel among the nations except for the purpose of having con­verts gathered to them.” [“Converts” here must be understood in an expanded sense, as referring to] the refinement of the sparks of holiness which exist within the exile. Through [this mission], the Jews are elevated to a spiritual level higher than that which existed at the time of the Beis HaMikdash, as indicated by the verse:54 “The glory of this later house will surpass that of the first.” Thus it is obvious that this descent is a part of the ascent which is drawing near.

VII. This [produces] a directive for us in our own Divine service. When a person considers the spiritual situation of the world at large, [he may be overwhelmed] by the day-to-day increase of spiritual darkness. As our Sages commented:55 “The [negative elements]56 of each day are greater than those of the preceding day.” This can lead to despair, causing a person to think: “How is it possible for me to muster the strength to endure the darkness and illu­minate the world with the light of the Torah and its mitzvos?”

In reply, he should understand that all of the descents, veils and concealments are merely external factors. When looking at the inner dynamic, one appreciates that, on the contrary, the world does not control its own destiny. It is being directed by God, and we can be certain that God’s intent is that everything that occurs in the world — even those elements which appear to be darkness and descent — is intended to lead to the world’s refinement and elevation. Thus this descent is really merely a preparatory step for — and itself a part of — that ultimate ascent. And thus from day to day, the world is reaching a higher level and becom­ing more refined, until eventually, it will reach its consummate fulfillment, when it will be realized that it is God’s dwelling.

VIII. There is, however, still a need for further clarification: It is true that “Man’s footsteps are established by God,”57 and that wherever a person goes — even though it appears that he is acting independently, because of his own desires — he is acting because of God’s desires. (And indeed, [God’s desire is the source] of his own desire. For these dimen­sions of man’s power of will are sensitive to God’s will.58)

This applies with regard to the ordinary, mundane aspects of a person’s conduct. The observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, by contrast, has been given over to a man’s free choice. He can do whatever he wants.59 He can even perform a sin which is the opposite of God’s will.

[These concepts also relate to our Torah reading. For] the Ramban60 interprets Avraham’s descent to Egypt as “a sin which he committed.” How can we explain that such an act is, from an inner perspective, an ascent? [By definition, a transgression is the opposite of God’s will.]

With regard to the exile of the Jewish people as a whole, an explanation can be offered: Although “because of our sins, we were exiled from our land,”61 the exile itself was brought about by God. (It is merely that the reason God brought about the exile was our sins.) And since everything which stems from God is certainly intended to bring the world to its ulti­mate purpose, it can be explained that the exile [is not merely a punishment]. Instead, the exile is structured in such a manner that (not only will it remove the blemish and the de­scent caused by sin,62 but) it will bring the Jews to a higher level than they experienced at the time of the Beis HaMik­dash. Hence, [exile] itself is part of the process of ascent.

With regard to Avraham’s descent into Egypt, however, the descent itself — at least according to the Ramban’s inter­pretation — was against God’s will. How then is it possible to consider it part of a process of ascent?

IX. On a previous occasion, it was explained at length that the “sins” which the Torah mentions with regard to right­eous men and in particular with regard to the Patriarchs cannot be understood as sins in the ordinary conception of the term. For perfect tzaddikim do not have an evil inclina­tion.63 And with regard to the Patriarchs, since as above, they served as “a chariot” for God’s will throughout their entire lifetime,64 evil — the source of all sin — had no place entirely in their makeup.

Instead, for them, sin, can be understood in an ex­tended context.65 [When Bat Sheva asked King David to keep his pledge to grant the kingship to her son Shlomo, she told him that otherwise, “I and my son Shlomo will be lacking.”66] Similarly, with regard to the righteous, sin, refers to a lack, a deficiency in Divine light; less Divine light is drawn down. To cite a parallel: In the spiri­tual realms, there is a continuous downward progression of light. On every level, there is less light than on the level that is above it.67 [Similarly, the Patriarch’s “sins” involved reducing the quan­tity of Divine light; all their actions, however, remained] in the realm of holiness.

The above explanations do not represent a contradiction to the teaching [shared by the Maggid of Mezeritch]68 on the verse:69 “And Avraham fell on his face and laughed and he said within his heart: ‘Will [a man who is] 100 years old father a child? Will Sarah who is 90 years old give birth?” [The Maggid explained:]

The meaning of the verse does not depart from its literal interpretation.70 If you will ask: How is it possible that Avraham could have doubts71 with regard to God’s promise? Know that this stems from the body.72 For even a holy body is flesh.

[That teaching cannot be interpreted to mean that the Patriarchs were capable of committing sins in a simple sense.] For the teaching itself speaks about “a holy body.” Hence, sin in a simple sense is not relevant, for in the realm of holiness, there is no conception of evil. Accordingly, the above teaching should be interpreted to mean that the Patri­archs performed these activities because of their bodies. And since their bodies were flesh, these actions were performed in a manner which (from a simple and superficial perspective) could be understood as a sin.73

X. On this basis, we can understand the reason why Avra­ham’s descent to Egypt can be considered as part of his eventual ascent. For from an inner standpoint, Avraham acted according to God’s will.

This explanation is, however, insufficient, for all the con­cepts related in the Torah are lessons for every Jew (even a person who has the potential to commit a sin in a literal sense). Accordingly, the fact that the Torah tells us about Avraham’s descent to Egypt — which can be inter­preted as a sin in a literal sense — in the Torah reading of Lech Lecha serves as a lesson for every Jew: When he commits a sin in a literal sense, the sin is against G‑d’s will. Nevertheless, he must realize that from an inner stand­point, (even at the time of the sin,) he is in the midst of a process of continuous ascent.

XI. To explain the above (at least in a concentrated manner): One of the fundamental principles of faith (even according to the legal tradition of Nigleh74) is that God is the only Master within the entire world. Aside from Him, no other entity has any dominion [or any independent author­ity]. For all the stars and the spheres75 — and even the angels — are merely “an ax in the hand of the chopper,”76 functioning only “according to the will and command of God.”77 Believing that there are certain entities that have the ability to function according to their independent will runs contrary to the faith in the oneness of God. (This applies even if one acknowledges that any activity performed by these entities is performed with power vested in them by God, but maintains that these entities have the choice whether to exercise this power or not.)78

This also applies with regard to every individual person. Everything that he does, even those matters which affect the Torah and its mitzvos (which with regard to them, he has been granted free choice) are dependent on God’s provi­dence79 and His will.80

There is, however, a fundamental difference [between the Divine providence that governs material concerns and the Divine providence that governs our observance]. With regard to the Divine will that relates to the external dimen­sions of the world, since it is (the external [dimensions of His] will), it therefore81 relates to the created beings in a [direct and] immediate manner which is felt within the created beings. As a consequence, it compels the created beings to carry out His will.82

God’s desire that relates to the Torah and its mitzvos, by contrast, is (the inner [dimensions of His] will. Thus as a consequence,83 it is) above the [framework of] creation.84 Hence it is not felt within a human being, and does not com­pel [his conduct].85 And so, every act of a person86 that relates to the Torah and its mitzvos is performed through his free choice.87

XII. Based on the above, it is clear that even the descents that the world at large and every individual person experi­ence and that come as a result of man’s deeds performed according to his own free will, are still dependent on God’s providence. Accordingly, [it is also evident] that they lead to a [positive] purpose. Hence even these descents can be seen as phases in [the accomplishment of] this purpose.

Unquestionably, the actual performance of a sin is against God’s will.88 Nevertheless, the descent — in the world and within the person — which comes as a conse­quence of the sin is not contrary to God’s will.89 And thus it is not a true descent, but rather a phase in the ascent which comes about through it.

XIII. [Based on the above, we can appreciate] the directive that results from the fact that Avraham’s descent into Egypt is related in Parshas Lech Lecha: Regardless of the nature of the situation in which a Jew is found, even if he is in a very lowly and degrading situation, and even if he himself was the one who brought himself to this abject state through his choice of evil, [he should have a positive perspective].

[Certainly,] because “he caused himself a loss,” “it is appropriate for him to cry and lament his sins and the evil which he brought upon his soul.”90 And yet, the person should not despair and think that all hope is lost for him. For since the situation to which he brought himself came about not only because of his own choice, but because of God’s providence, it will ultimately lead him (— through teshuvah —) to an extremely elevated rung.91 Through teshu­vah, he will be able to elevate even the sparks of holiness that are found within his willful transgressions and trans­form them into merits.92

The sins themselves cannot be elevated; on the contrary, “their destruction93 is their rectification.”94 With regard to the person’s own situation, however, he must realize that through the sin, he has been granted the opportunity (in an inner manner which is not openly revealed) to achieve an ascent. For he has the potential [to do teshuvah] — and [since] he has been assured that “no one will ever remain estranged from Him,”95 he will certainly make that potential actual. In doing so, he [will] elevate the sparks of holiness found within these purposeful sins, transforming them into merits which surpass the merits of the tzaddikim.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Chayei Sarah, 5713, 5725,
Chag HaShavuos 5721)