Chapter 12

1 Go: Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch once said: From the very moment that God instructed Abram to leave his homeland and set out on his journey, the cosmic process of refinement began. Sparks of Divine consciousness lay embedded in the physical world, awaiting their redemption. Saintly individuals, who possess "clear" vision, can perceive on their own just where the captive sparks they are meant to refine are located and go there on their own. The rest of us are led by Divine providence to places or situations in which the sparks we are meant to liberate await us.1

Go: Literally, this command reads, "Go to you."2 This instruction to Abram is also an instruction for every individual: "Go to you"—return and connect to the real you, to your essence and spiritual root.

Only a small part of the soul enters the body and enlivens it. The greater part of the soul, its root, remains above, transcending the limitations of the physical world and experiencing Divinity as clearly and naturally as we experience materiality. During our stay in this world, our challenge is to connect the earthly dimension of our soul (whose physical perception has blinded it to Divinity) with its transcendent root. "The more we connect with our root, the more we, too, will be able to see Divinity."3 Thus, the Torah tells us:

Go to yourself: return to your inner core, by going—

From your land: that is, by transcending your earthly desires,

From your birthplace: by overcoming your natural habits and inclinations, and

From your father's house: by transcending the intellectual limitations of your animating soul (since the intellect "fathers" ideas and, eventually, emotions as well).

"Leaving our birthplace" (overcoming our natural habits and inclinations) means first and foremost overcoming negative inclinations, such as anger and jealousy.4 But beyond this, we must also "overcome" our good inclinations, such as the desire to give charity; we must do good deeds because this is God's command and not only because our natural inclination to do good drives us to. Only then can we be sure that we are transcending our earthly selves and connecting with the higher dimension of our soul.5

From your the land: Land, which is constantly trampled underfoot, symbolizes lowliness. There is a healthy, holy type of lowliness, which encourages us to fulfill God's will, and there is an unhealthy, negative type of lowliness, which prevents us from fulfilling our Divine mission. Healthy lowliness is the humility we feel when we realize that we are standing in God's presence at all times. Unhealthy lowliness is the slavish submission to our animalistic cravings for the lowly, physical aspects of life, such as food. We, as human beings, the apex of creation, should rightfully rule over the animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms; when we allow them to wield power over us, we succumb to the ultimate in self-degradation. This unhealthy lowliness is actually a product of unhealthy haughtiness: our inflated sense of self-worth convinces us that we deserve whatever form of indulgence we can enjoy without consequences.

The Torah therefore instructs us: "Go from your land," i.e., from unhealthy lowliness, "to the land that I will show you," to the healthy lowliness that stems from Divine awareness.6

Go…that I will show you: Just as, in order to spread the message of God to all humanity, it became necessary to isolate a unique nation from all others and dedicate it as God's messengers, it also became necessary to isolate a unique homeland for that nation from all other countries and designate it as the stage from which God's nation would deliver His message to the world.

Inasmuch as the purpose of creation was to reveal Divinity in a realm innately not conducive to such a revelation, the Land of Israel had to parallel this dynamic. Therefore, even though God designated it as the Jewish homeland as soon as it was created, He first gave it to pagan nations, intending that the Jewish people later conquer it from them.

When the Jewish people conquered the Land of Israel, they changed its spiritual nature and it thereby became forever the "Jewish" land. Even during their exiles, the Land of Israel remains the Jewish people's land.7

* * *

God's command to Abraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our own insulated lives and venture out to the world-at-large in order to transform it into a Godly place. Naturally we would rather remain apart from the world, instead sequestering ourselves in our cocoon of prayer and Torah study. God therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realized and our true, best selves will be manifest; this never could have happened had we stayed focused solely on our own self-improvement.

With this explanation in mind, God's words can now be read, "Go…that I may show [the world the real] you."8


[1] Go from your land and from your birthplace: go away from your father's house, to the land that I will show you: Metaphorically, this command is given to every soul about to be born, which must then descend from its source in the heavenly spheres through progressively lower gradations, gaining more definition, self-awareness, and distance from God at each step, until it reaches the physical plane. Its next step is to begin the process of ascent, traveling back in the opposite direction to transcend the shortsighted perspective of the body. Finally, it must then transcend even its own holy inclinations. This verse can thus be explained as follows:

Go: Descend from the highest levels—

From your land: The word for "land" (eretz) is related to the word for "will" or "desire" (ratzon). "Land" therefore alludes to God's will, which is identified with the sefirah of keter. The soul is thus told to take leave of its lofty roots (keter) and descend to the next level, chochmah.

From your birthplace: Divine insight (chochmah) is called "father," since chochmah "fathers" and gives birth to ideas. The soul must leave this level as well and descend even further, into the realm of understanding (binah).

Your father's house: Binah is the womb where the seed of chochmah is developed and expanded, which is why it is called "your father's house." The soul must descend even further—

To the land, i.e., to the physical world: This is the ultimate, most difficult descent, yet through it the soul arrives in this world, which is the "land"—

That I will show you: The non-descriptive "I" refers to God's essence, which is likewise beyond description. God promises the soul that in the merit of descending into this world and fulfilling the commandments, it will be shown the "I" of God, enabling it to cleave to God's essence.

Once the soul enters this world and becomes garbed in a human body, it is commanded and given the strength to—

Go: this time in the opposite direction, from the lowest sphere to the highest—

From your land: "Land," as we have explained above, alludes to will and desire. Firstly, the soul must transcend the animalistic desires of the body. It is then told to go—

From your birthplace: i.e., to transcend the assumptions and limited perspective of the intellect and emotions of the ego. It must then go—

From your father's house: i.e., to transcend those behavioral habits that it acquired and became accustomed to due to a faulty education and less-than-perfect environment. It must go beyond all of these limitations—

To the land that I will show you: to a holy place, such as a synagogue or place of Torah study, where the desires of the Divine soul dominate and prevail.

Only after we have successfully transcended the limitations of the body's animating soul can we then proceed to the next task, that of transcending even the inclinations of the Divine soul, its own ratzon (land), chochmah (birthplace), and binah (father's house), and reach a level that is beyond reason, "the land that I will show you," a place where the soul does not merely comprehend Divinity but actually sees it.9

From another perspective:

From your land: from the coarseness of the netzach, hod, and yesod of the animating soul;

From your birthplace: from the habits of the animating soul, its chesed, gevurah, and tiferet;

From your fathers' house: from the chochmah, binah and da'at of the animating soul.10

[4] Abram was in his seventy-fifth year: As mentioned in the Overview, Abram had already reached great spiritual heights long before God spoke to him: At the age of three, he recognized God's existence11 and began fulfilling all the commandments of the Torah that would later be given to the Jewish people.12 As he grew older, his perception of God reached even greater heights.13 He engaged in acts of kindness and taught others about God's existence.

By refining himself and the world, Abram perfected all seven of his emotional attributes. This is alluded to by the number seventy-five: Seventy refers to the seven midot after they have reached their full development, each having been expanded into a full array of ten sub-attributes, i.e., the three sefirot of the intellect and the seven midot. The perfection of the emotions in multiples of ten signifies that Abram's three attributes of intellect did not remain detached from his emotions, but rather permeated them and influenced them. As a rule, that which we know and that which we feel remain two distinct domains. For example, we might know that God is the only true existence, but that knowledge does not necessarily influence how we feel about life—for example, what attracts us or repulses us. The mind and heart function as if linked only by a narrow passageway (the throat) that prevents the insight of the mind from engendering emotional reactions in the heart.

The number five alludes to the five states of loving-kindness (chasadim) that deepen the penetration of the intellect into the emotions, helping them mature properly.

When Abram's emotional maturation was completed—as alluded to by his age at the time, 75—he was able to leave Charan. The numerical value of the word Charan (258) is the same as that of the word for "throat" (garon), the narrow passageway mentioned above; Abram's departure from Charan thus alludes to his successful "unclogging" of the bottleneck of the throat, which allowed his intellect to fully mature his emotions.14


[2] I will make your name great: God did not have to promise Abram renown in order to entice him to obey His instructions.15 Abram was a selfless man who considered himself as lowly as dust and ashes,16 utterly unconcerned about his personal fame and glory. Furthermore, he is described by Maimonides as someone who served God without any care for reward, physical or spiritual, who "followed the truth because it is the truth."17

Rather, since Abram viewed himself as a mere conduit for God's will, he knew that his own renown was essentially God's renown; the more famous he would become, the more it would indicate that he was succeeding in his mission of spreading Divine consciousness throughout the world.18

[3] I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse: In the first part of this blessing, God mentions His own blessing before those of others—"I will bless those who bless you"—whereas in the second part, the sequence is reversed: God mentions others' curses before mentioning His own—"he who curses you, I will curse." This means that God blesses those who are about to bless Abram even before they actually bless him, but He will curse Abram's enemies only after they have actually cursed him. In contrast, when Isaac bestowed a similar blessing upon his son, Jacob, he said:19 "He who blesses you shall be blessed."20

The reason for the difference between God's blessing to Abraham and Isaac's blessing to Jacob is that God is beyond time. He can therefore bless those who will (only afterwards) bless Abram even before they actually do so.21

[4] The followers they had persuaded to accept monotheism: Prior to the Giving of the Torah, the legal status of "Jew" did not formally exist. Therefore, Abram and Sarai could not "convert" their students and confer this legal status on them; they could only persuade them to espouse new beliefs.22

4-5 And Lot went with him…Abram took…his nephew Lot: Lot was ambivalent about Abraham's beliefs and mission, and this was evident when Abram left Charan. On the one hand, "Lot went with him," of his own accord, as he had in the past. On the other hand, Abram "took his nephew Lot" by the hand, so to speak, having to persuade him to join him. This ambivalence resolved itself later,23 when Lot and Abram parted ways.24

5 The followers they had persuaded to accept monotheism: Abram's love of God was so palpable that its intensity inspired others to abandon their idolatrous lifestyles and serve the one, true God. Like a large flame that attracts smaller sparks, Abram's fiery love for God attracted and awakened the sparks of Godly devotion dormant in these people.

It was for this very end that God made Abram and Sarai descend to Egypt: to inspire whatever individuals they could to cleave to their Godly source. Due to the lofty origin of their souls, Abram and Sarai were able to descend into Egypt, the most spiritually corrupt of environments, emerge unscathed, and even redeem these people from the depths of depravity. As is known,25 "The higher one's source, the lower he can descend."26

As descendants of Abram and Sarai, we are also called upon to "acquire souls in Charan": Inasmuch as the word Charan is related to the word for "anger," Charan is a metaphor for places that are indifferent or even hostile to holiness.27 Yet God sends the heirs of Abram and Sarai's legacy to "Charan" to seek out those who, for whatever reason, have become alienated from their roots and bring them under the wings of the Divine Presence, re-connecting them to God by involving them both in studying the Torah and fulfilling of the commandments.

By fulfilling this mission, we not only further the goal of making the world into a Godly place—since we bring Divine awareness even to a "Charan"—we also reap benefits. By selflessly working with others, we simultaneously learn from them, since "the wise learn from everyone they encounter."28 If we claim that there is nothing to be learned from a particular individual, we are merely revealing our own lack of wisdom.29

7 I will give this land to your offspring: The Midrash relates that as Abram traveled from land to land, he would observe the inhabitants of each locale. In every land, he saw them dissolutely eating, drinking, and reveling, and he said, "I pray that I will have no portion in this land." But when he arrived in the Land of Israel and saw its inhabitants working the land, he said, "I hope that my portion will be in this land." God then said to him, "I will give this land to your offspring."30

This anecdote underscores the Torah's view of the importance of working, especially in the Land of Israel. Similarly, God instructed the generation of Jews that was about to enter the Land of Israel to plant trees as soon as they arrived. In so doing, they imitated their Creator, whose initial action in the world was to plant a garden in Eden.31

The significance of planting is that it is an act that bears fruit, which in turn bears more fruit. It thus epitomizes our mandate for life: to continually plant the seeds of future growth.32

Abram built an altar there to God who had appeared to him: The verse following this one also relates that Abram built an altar to God, but it does not mention that God appeared to him. Accordingly, these two verses describe two different levels of perceiving God; this notion is also alluded to by the fact that the word for "he built" (yiven) can also mean "he understood." These two levels of perceiving God give rise to two distinct types of love for God.

In this verse, Abram builds an altar to the God who appeared to him, meaning that his love for God was inspired by his perception of God as the Creator, the aspect of God that is evident (i.e., that "appears") within the world. The love that we feel for God as our Creator is a love born out of self-love: we love the feeling of being alive and therefore love the source of that life-force.33

In the following verse, Abram meditates upon the God who does not appear to him, the aspect of God that transcends creation and which we recognize as being completely beyond our ken. Such meditation awakens a deeper love, which transcends self-love: a passionate love for God's essence and the desire to be totally absorbed within that essence.34

9 Moving steadily: Or, literally, "going and traveling." Allegorically, this refers to the spiritual process of "running and returning" (ratzo vashov),35 the two interdependent yet opposing thrusts that must constantly and successively occur in order for life to continue and for physical and spiritual growth to take place. For example, the Divine energy that animates the world from within naturally seeks to escape the confines of the finite world and cleave to its source. But as soon as it does so, it complies again with God's will and returns to its task of animating physical reality, only to seek once more to ascend to its source. Similarly, in its yearning to cling to its source, the soul leaves the body, but as soon as it does so it immediately returns to continue with its mission. This constant spiritual oscillation is reflected in the physical pulsation of the heart and lungs.

Our mission to unite heaven and earth must also comprise both "running and returning," separating ourselves periodically from the mundane world by losing ourselves in meditation, prayer, or Torah study, yet always returning to the world to fulfill our mission. Abram, too, served God in this way, "going and traveling," "running and returning."36

Toward the south: Metaphorically, the south signifies warmth and kindness. Accordingly, Abram's "moving steadily toward the south" meant that he was steadily intensifying his enthusiastic, warm love for God as well as increasing in acts of kindness to others. Ultimately, through his universal acts of kindness, he "replaced" the Divine attribute of kindness itself, which said to God, "My job has become superfluous—Abram has taken my place!"37

In truth, Abram did a better job than did the attribute of kindness: When the attribute of kindness shows kindness to the undeserving, it corrupts them further. When Abram, on the other hand, showed kindness to the undeserving, he was able to rehabilitate them and redirect their focus to God.38

11 I know you to be a woman of beautiful appearance: Metaphorically, man symbolizes the soul and woman symbolizes the body.39 The body's "beautiful appearance," in this context, means its capacity to elevate the soul to heights even loftier than those it enjoyed in heaven, before birth.

Inasmuch as Abram had always served God with complete selflessness, he never took notice of the body's "beautiful appearance," since he was completely immersed in serving God and never gave a thought to accruing spiritual benefits in the process.

However, when he was about to descend to Egypt, Abram had to prepare for the spiritual task he was going to undertake there, namely, disseminating Divine awareness. This entailed familiarizing himself somewhat with Egyptian ways, by all means a most unpleasant and dangerous task, considering that Egypt was the most depraved, immoral society of the time. Indeed, this submersion in the Egyptian psyche impaired Abram's own superior spiritual awareness: (a) he now became more aware of his wife's physical beauty,40 and (b) in the metaphoric sense, he became more aware in general of the body's "beautiful appearance," i.e., that the soul benefited from the body.41

If Abram suffered such spiritual descent when he merely approached Egypt, we are certainly liable to be adversely affected by the culture in which we actually live and work. Furthermore, Abram could rely on his lofty soul42 to keep him from falling too far. We, however, have no way of objectively estimating our ability to withstand the negative influence of our environment. If Abram suffered a descent to a lower level of holiness, we may suffer a descent to levels lower than holiness, eventually permitting ourselves unnecessary excesses or even outright violations of the Torah's laws.

We must therefore take measures, as Abram did, to ensure that we not be influenced negatively by our cultural environment; on the contrary, we should influence it and grow from doing so.43

13 They will try to curry my favor by giving me gifts: Abram was not interested in material wealth as an end in itself; he understood that the great wealth he had been promised by God was to be elevated and used for holy purposes, thus liberating the Divine sparks buried within it. He further realized that the key purpose of his descent into Egypt was to acquire this great wealth.44

Therefore, when he saw the opportunity to acquire wealth by claiming that Sarai was his sister, he took it as a Divine mandate to use the situation advantageously. According to the Zohar,45 Abram knew that the merit of Sarai's good deeds would protect her; he therefore did not hesitate to expose her to the apparent peril of being abducted into Pharaoh's house. Furthermore, Abram knew that wealth comes to a husband in the merit of his wife. He therefore saw that Sarai would be the conduit through which they would receive their wealth.

The Talmud46 similarly states that a husband should always be heedful of his wife's honor, since blessings rest on the home on her account.47


[13] Say you are my sister: Abraham assumed that despite their depravity, the Egyptians would prefer the one-time sin of murder to the repeated sin of adultery. Killing Abraham would render Sarah permissible to them.48 He therefore asked Sarah to pose as his sister.49


[12] When the Egyptians see you: The sinful lecherousness of the Egyptians caused the Divine Presence to retreat from the sixth firmament to the seventh.50

[13] Say that you are my sister: Allegorically, Abram signifies the soul; Sarai, the body; and Egypt in general, and Pharaoh's palace in particular, the physical world. Allowing Sarai to be taken into Pharaoh's palace reflects the idea that we cannot expect to accomplish our Divine mission on earth by living an ascetic life, seeking to avoid contact with the physical world. Rather, our task is to sanctify the physical world by using physical things for holy purposes.

Our tool in this process is the body. The body's natural tendency is to pursue material fulfillment and promote materialistic values, both of which are detrimental to Divine consciousness. However, the body can be trained to allow the soul to use it to elevate the physical world, and even more, to actively pursue spirituality itself, to love God on its own.

Since the soul is a "part" of God, its love for God is akin to the love of siblings for one another: calm and consistent. In contrast, the physical body is the antithesis of God, who "is not a body and has no bodily form."51 Therefore, when it learns to love God, its love is like the love between spouses: ardent and unpredictable.

Each type of love possesses its inherent advantages: the love between spouses is more passionate, but this is because the natural distance that separates them allows them to fuse into one being. Siblings can never achieve this unity, because the love between them is not ardent. On the other hand, the love between spouses is not innate and therefore can dissipate if not properly cultivated, whereas the love between siblings is not subject to change.

Similarly, the body's love for God can reach intense heights of passion that the soul can never know. Nonetheless, precisely because this passion is subject to the vicissitudes of life, the body must remain ever-conscious of the advantage of the soul's calm love for God in order to acquire the consistent devotion it needs to succeed in its mission.

Hence, we must allow the body to "enter Pharaoh's palace," but at the same time we must also instruct it to "say that you are my sister," that is, to stipulate that it also emulate the soul's consistent, calm, fraternal love for God. Only then can the body succeed in its mission: it will be able elevate the physical world without succumbing to its lures and, in the process, enable the soul to experience the ecstasy of its own passionate love of God, as well.52

17 At the word of Sarai: Sarah's resistance to Pharaoh's overtures gave her descendants, the Jewish women in Egypt, the spiritual fortitude to resist the lure of adultery even in the midst of the prurient Egyptian culture.53 The sages point out that these women's righteous behavior was one of the four merits in which the Exodus occurred.54

We too, can draw strength from the example of Sarah and the righteous Jewish women throughout history. No matter how depraved the society we live in, we possess the spiritual fortitude to resist its temptations, if only we choose to avail ourselves of it.55

Chapter 13

2 Abram was heavily laden with wealth: Abram's departure with great wealth presaged the wealth-laden exodus of the Jews from Egypt some 400 years later.56

3 He continued on his travels: "His" travels can also imply God's travels, meaning that it was God's plan that Abram travel to these particular places. Similarly, as mentioned above, God determines where we find ourselves at any given moment; if we are delayed or take a "wrong" turn, we should remember that it is all part of God's unalterable plan. We are left only with the free choice of whether to fulfill our mission in that place.57

To pay off debts he incurred: Here we see Abram's extraordinary generosity: Although he left Charan with great wealth, we are told that that when he went down to Egypt, he had to borrow money! This was because Abram distributed all his wealth among the needy during the years of famine, doing acts of kindness toward anyone he encountered. He even borrowed money to graciously and generously host his guests. Only after returning from Egypt "with great wealth" was he able to repay his debts.58


[5] Lot accompanied Abram: Lot's name alludes to his covert evil: the word lot is related to one of the synonyms for the word "curse" (lut).59 This evil was initially subsumed within Abram's holiness, like dross mixed in with the gold before it is purified—"Lot accompanied Abram." But like the dross that is separated out of the gold, Lot, too, became separated from Abram.

Lot personified the spiritual root of chochmah and binah of kelipah, which are personified, respectively, by Moab and Ammon. Moab means "from father," and "father" signifies chochmah. The letters that spell Ammon also spell the word for "pleasantness" or "delight" (noam), which allude to binah, since it is the presence of delight (Atik Yomin) in binah that induces the insight of chochmah to descend into binah.

Over the course of the ensuing generations, the residual sparks of holiness within these corrupt forms of chochmah and binah were purified into their parallel manifestations in the realm of holiness and were manifest as Ruth the Moabite and King Solomon's wife Naamah60 the Ammonite.61

[13] Now the people of Sodom were very wicked sinners against God: Their sinfulness caused the Divine Presence to retreat from the fifth firmament to the sixth.62

18 In Hebron: The name Hebron (Chevron) is related to the word for "connect" (chaber).63 The city of Hebron, both metaphorically and physically, expresses the unity of the Jewish people as well as their unity with God.64

This is why King David was crowned in Hebron.65 Of all Biblical figures, he most epitomized constant, absolute unity with God. Furthermore, King David is the ancestor of the Messiah, who will usher in an era in which we will all live with the constant awareness of our unity with God. For this reason, as well, King David was crowned in Hebron, the city of unity.

This is the deeper explanation of why Abram built his third altar in Hebron. He did not build this altar to thank God for anything in particular, nor to prevent some future calamity, but simply to express his oneness with God and his desire to glorify His Name.66

There he built a third altar to God: Abram's three altars express the three general levels in our relationship with God:67

Abram built his first altar to thank God for the promise of sustenance, children, and a land in which they could live. This corresponds to the first aspect of our relationship with God—observing His commandments—which gives life to the soul and sustains the soul's connection to the body.68

Abram built his second altar to atone for the sin of one of his future descendants. This altar corresponds to a higher way of relating to God, that of repentance. In order to rectify our relationship with God after having sinned, we must surpass our previous level of commitment (which was clearly insufficient since it did not prevent us from sinning). In order to obligate ourselves to this stronger level of commitment, we must deepen and intensify our relationship with God; we must uncover in ourselves a level of consciousness in which our relationship with God is more important to us than the enticement of whatever transgression we had succumbed to.

Abram built his third altar purely for the sake of glorifying God. This altar expressed yet a higher level of connection to God: that of our ability to abandon our sense of independent selfhood and fuse with Him. When we are one with God, we transcend our egos and fulfill our Divine mission with unadulterated devotion69 and without any material or spiritual ulterior motives.70

Accordingly, Abram's three altars were also precursors of the three Temples. God gave us the first Temple based on the premise that we would observe His commandments faithfully and completely. When we sinned, the first Temple was destroyed and subsequently replaced by the second Temple, which was based on the premise of repentance. The third Temple will be built in the messianic era, when our physical senses will be so refined that they will perceive Divinity as readily as they presently perceive physical matter.71 This perception will obliterate any sense of self, and we will naturally and instinctively conduct ourselves in complete accordance with God's will. We will embody the selfless commitment to God and Godliness expressed by Abram's third altar.

Although we have not yet attained this degree of perception, we can and should nonetheless recognize that it is the ultimate fulfillment of our Divine mission. This recognition will further inspire our yearning for the messianic era, thereby hastening its arrival.72


[18] There he built a third altar to God: Abram built three altars for three different reasons: he built the first one to thank God when he heard that he would finally be blessed with a son and that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan;73 he built the second to atone for a sin of one of his future descendants;74 he built the third solely as an expression of his love for God and commitment to Him.

The experiences of the patriarchs, especially Abram's, presaged that which would occur to their descendants, the future Jewish people.75 In this case, Abram's three offerings were the precursors for the three types of sacrifices that his descendants would later offer up in the Temple:76

· the peace-offering, whose purpose was to "inspire" God to provide sustenance for the world. To this end, part of the peace-offering's meat was eaten by humanity's representatives (the ones who brought the offering) and part was given to God's representatives (to be eaten by the priests and burnt on the altar).

· the sin-offering, whose purpose was to atone for sins. Since it was offered up for totally spiritual purposes, its meat was given only to be eaten by the priests and burnt on the altar.

· the ascent-offering, whose purpose was to express our unconditional love for God. In accordance with this purpose, its meat was left to be burnt entirely on the altar.

Abram's first altar, built in thanksgiving for what he would receive, was a precursor of the peace-offering, through which the world would receive sustenance. His second altar, built to atone for the sin of a future descendant, was a precursor of the sin-offering. And his third altar, which he built with no other motive than to glorify God, was a precursor of the ascent-offering, which expressed the Jewish people's unconditional love for God, which in turn reciprocally evoked God's love for the Jewish people.77

Chapter 14

12 They took Abram's nephew Lot: As we have seen, when God instructed Abram to leave Charan, He told him that he must transcend everything he previously knew and was, unconditionally committing himself to God. Implicit in this directive was God's expectation that Abram would impart his new awareness and devotion to those around him, just as he had always disseminated Divine consciousness wherever he went prior to this directive. And indeed, Abram was so successful in this mission that people came to consider God not just the God of heaven—known only to the celestial beings—but also the God of earth.78

Although Abram found many sympathetic listeners whom he won over to his way of thinking, he did not shy away from antipathetic or even hostile audiences as well. Even though many of these people continued to cling to their own beliefs and lifestyles despite Abram's efforts, Abram knew that the true test of his ability to fulfill his mission was to reach such people—even if he could only get them to concede a crucial point.

This concept is reflected in Abram's relationship with his wicked nephew, Lot:

We would have expected that Lot, Abram's kinsman and perennial travel companion, would have become Abram's foremost disciple. Yet not only did Lot eventually reject both Abram and God, he even went so far as to move to the city of Sodom, the paradigm of immorality and corruption. When their ways parted, Abram himself suggested that they part company, as well. Had Abram failed in influencing Lot? Did he lose all hope for him?

The answer is, no. We have seen Lot's ambivalence toward Abram's message, even when they first left Charan.79 Already at that point, and perhaps even prior to that, Lot's incipient wickedness was certainly not lost on Abram's astuteness. Yet Abram did not totally sever ties with Lot: even when he was left with no choice but to send him away, he assured him that he would always remain in close enough proximity to protect him if the need would arise, and when it did, Abram did not hesitate to risk his life to save him.

Abram's perseverance with Lot paid off: although Abram failed to reform him totally, Lot still maintained some of the praiseworthy practices Abram taught him. For example, we see that he observed the holiday of Passover and insisted on practicing hospitality, even when he knew that it was a capital offense.

Thus, the narrative of Abram's ongoing association with Lot demonstrates that he was able to imbue his willingness to sacrifice his life for the ideal of Divine goodness to his disciples, thus truly fulfilling God's mandate to "go from your land."80


[13] Og…came and told Abram: The Midrash relates that Og assumed that Abram would try to save Lot by going to war against the four kings and be killed in battle, allowing Og to then marry Sarai.81 The Midrash further relates that when Og came to Abram, it was Passover, and he found him eating matzo.

In telling us that Abram was eating matzo at the time of Og's arrival, the Midrash is explaining Og's certainty that Abram would irrationally place himself in such great danger by going to war against the four kings: matzo is "the bread of faith,"82 meaning that eating it endows us with supra-rational faith. Og, witnessing Abram eating "the bread of faith," perceived that it would cause Abram to act "beyond reason," risking his life to save Lot.83

20 [Abram then] gave him a tenth of everything: All three patriarchs voluntarily fulfilled all the Torah's commandments.84 When the Torah mentions specific cases in which a patriarch observed a certain commandment, it does so for two reasons: (1) to indicate how doing so expressed his unique way of serving God, and (2) to teach us how to perform these commandments the way the patriarchs did.

Tithing our wealth demonstrates that everything we possess belongs to God and must therefore be used for holy purposes. Generally, we seek to accrue wealth in order to improve our lives and the lives of our loved ones; if we have internalized the Torah's values, our motivation becomes generalized into the desire to make the world more Godly. Thus, such wealth is a priori directed towards higher ends than pure sensual indulgence.

Wealth that we do not earn, however, has no such implicit ontological direction; we are apt to relate to it much more indulgently. By tithing the spoils of war, which he received miraculously, Abraham demonstrated that the fact that all our possessions truly belong to God applies not only to that which we have produced with our own labor but to all our wealth.

Moreover, we are taught that God promises to pay us back many times over for giving Him our tithes, and in fact implores us to test Him in this.85 Since one of the purposes of this commandment is thus to show how God rewards those who fulfill His will, the Torah tells us how Abraham fulfilled it, for Abraham devoted himself to disseminating the knowledge of God's goodness and kindness throughout the world.86

Chapter 15

1 Your reward shall be very great: According to the rules of strict justice, finite acts of goodness should elicit a commensurately-finite reward. God, however, bestows upon us infinite reward for our fulfillment of the commandments. This is the meaning of "Your reward shall be very great."87

The reason for this is because, in this context, the Torah's commandments are characterized by two aspects: finite and infinite.88 On the one hand, each individual commandment refines one particular aspect of our animal nature;89 on the other hand, each individual commandment also expresses the will of the infinite God, and thus, fulfilling any one commandment connects us with infinity.

We therefore receive both finite and infinite reward, corresponding to the two aforementioned aspects of the commandments. Abram, however, performed the commandments before they were given by God. Because the latter, infinite aspect did not yet exist in his lifetime, he was afraid that his reward for fulfilling the commandments would be finite, meaning that he had already received this reward in the form of the beneficence he already enjoyed. God therefore assuaged his fears, reassuring him that He would grant him infinite reward as well—"your reward shall be very great."

Abram earned this reward by passing the many tests and trials God posed to him, most notedly the test at Ur, where he chose to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than serve idols.90 Through successfully overcoming these challenges, Abram connected to God's infinite essence and therefore merited infinite reward.91

3 What good is everything else you have given me: Abram, whose focus was always outward, giving to and teaching others, was not content with receiving a blessing that would merely ensure his personal well-being and good fortune while not also perpetuating his spiritual legacy.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi once wanted to bless one of his students with great wealth. But the student refused the blessing, explaining that material wealth would only distract him from studying Chassidic teachings and refining himself. When the Rebbe then wished to bless him with longevity, he replied: "But not with 'peasant' years, in which I will be unable to see or hear Godliness."92


[1] I am a shield for you: Abram embodied the Divine attribute of indiscriminate kindness and saw everyone as good and therefore worthy of receiving Divine sustenance.93 Thus, when God refers to Himself here as "a shield for Abram," it allegorically means that He saw the need to spread a "shield" over His own attribute of kindness to thereby sustain the world according to merit and not indiscriminately. Inasmuch as Abraham is also associated with the morning,94 the daily morning sunrise alludes to God's daily-renewed desire to conduct the world with His attribute of pure kindness. But God limits His own kindness, not allowing it to indiscriminately sustain everything. In this way, He allocates only enough sustenance to evil to allow it to survive, so it can eventually be transformed into holiness. Hence the verse: "God is a sun and a shield."95

This is why each morning, when Abram's attribute of kindness is reawakened, we refer to God in our prayers as the "Shield of Abraham," asking Him to limit His kindness for the world's own benefit. Only when evil does not receive indiscriminate sustenance can we eradicate it entirely from the world.96

[5] Pay no heed to your astrological calculations: As was mentioned above,97 God originally gave humanity the choice to override the natural mechanisms of predetermination and predestination that become manifest in the world via the celestial bodies. As history progressed and people increasingly opted to forgo any close relationship to God, they forfeited much of this free choice and thereby subjected themselves to natural, astrological influences. By reinstating humanity's original close relationship with God, Abram earned anew the ability to override predestination.

The uniquely close relationship with God that Abram bequeathed to his progeny similarly raises them above the natural order. Accordingly, we are taught that "there is no astrological sign that holds dominion over the Jewish people."98 This is not to say that we are not influenced by spiritual forces outside our normative consciousness; rather, what influences us99 is just the spiritual source of our own soul—the part of our soul whose intense awareness of God precludes it from entering our conscious mind. This aspect of the soul is its keter, which is termed "nothingness" because it transcends our normative consciousness. Thus, the phrase "there is no [אֵין] influence that holds dominion over the Jewish people" can be read: "Nothingness [אַיִן] is the influence that holds dominion over the Jewish people."100

5 Count the stars: The Jewish people, the descendants of Abram, are metaphorically compared to the stars that sparkle in the sky; their light is so bright that even those walking in the thick of night will not stumble. We are all "shining stars"; we all possess sufficient moral and spiritual fortitude to prevent those around us from stumbling and to exert a positive influence on them.101

8 By what sign can I know that I will inherit it: It seems incomprehensible that the saintly Abram would question God's promise by asking for a sign. And indeed, this is not really what his question meant. Rather, Abram knew that God's blessings do not necessarily manifest themselves in our physical world; they can be equally fulfilled on a spiritual plane. He was therefore concerned that God's promise to give the land to his offspring might occur only in a spiritual sense, in which case only spiritually-attuned people would be able to perceive and appreciate it. He therefore insisted on entering into a covenant made over a physical deed, which would ensure that the fulfillment of the promise would likewise manifest itself in physical reality.102

From another perspective, Abram's request for a sign can indeed be considered a lack of absolute faith on his part.103 Therefore, as we shall see,104 God's promise of the land in this passage differs from God's prior promises of the land.105 The earlier promises refer to Joshua's conquest of the land, whereas this promise refers to Ezra's conquest. This promise comes in the wake of Abram's "sin" of asking God for a sign, which is why it alludes to Ezra's conquest, which followed a period of sin and the subsequent Babylonian exile. (God therefore alludes to the Babylonian exile, and others, specifically in this promise and not in the earlier ones.106)107


[9] The three calves…the three goats…the three rams: Abraham was worried that his descendants would sin and thereby forfeit the privilege of inheriting the Promised Land. God therefore assured him that He would let them repent and that, once they repented, they would be able to atone for their sins by offering appropriate sacrifices. In this way, they would remain worthy of possessing the land. As will be detailed throughout the Torah, there are many types of sacrifices; what is unique about the nine types mentioned here is that they all effect atonement for the people as a whole:

The bull offered on Yom Kippur atones for the sins of the High Priest, thereby enabling him to perform the Yom Kippur rites and effect atonement for the people.

The bull offered when the community innocently acts in accordance with an erroneous ruling of the high court, the calf whose neck must be broken when a murdered body is found, the goat offered on Yom Kippur, and the goat offered on each of the festivals are all communal sin offerings—that is, they atone for communal sins and are paid for by the community or their representatives.

The goat or lamb offered as a personal sin-offering, the ram offered when an individual has committed certain specific offenses, and the ram offered when an individual thinks he might have committed an offense punishable by excision, although not communal offerings, are designed to be offered up by any individual who inadvertently commits specific sins. Therefore, they too can be considered offerings that effect atonement for the entire Jewish people.108

This will indicate: In ancient times, a covenant was formalized by cutting something in two and having the parties to the covenant walk in between the severed halves. By so doing, they expressed the notion that they are both incomplete by themselves, just as an animal is complete only when its two halves are connected to each other. In the present case, God sent a smoking furnace and flaming torch as His "representatives" to pass through the halves after Abraham in order to seal the covenant.109

12 He was overwhelmed by a dark and ominous dread: literally, "a dread that was dark and ominous overwhelmed him." The Midrash comments that these four expressions allude to the four exiles of the Jewish people:

Dread: This refers to the Babylonian exile.

Dark: This refers to the Median exile.

Ominous: This refers to the Greek exile.

Overwhelmed: This refers to the Edomite exile.110

The Torah alludes to these exiles in addition to the Egyptian exile, since the latter is a general exile, the root of the other four exiles, and therefore encompasses them all.

Similarly, these four exiles correspond to the four letters of God's Name Havayah (י-ה-ו-ה). The Egyptian exile is alluded to in the crown of the letter yud, which appears at the beginning of the very first letter and therefore includes all the following letters.111

Prophetically foreboding the horrors of exile: On the one hand, God had just made an everlasting covenant with Abram, affirming His eternal and unlimited love for him. Yet at that very same moment, God simultaneously revealed to Abram the suffering and darkness of exile that his descendants would experience in the future. How can God's essential love for Abram and the Jewish people be reconciled with the horrors of exile that He discloses will later come upon them? And why did Abram, who had argued so poignantly and tenaciously on behalf of the wicked inhabitants of Sodom, calmly accept God's plans to exile his descendants? Even if they deserved to be exiled, couldn't Abram have convinced God to exonerate them, as he did in the case of his son Ishmael?

The answer lies in the fact that, in its inner meaning, exile does not express God's estrangement from the Jewish people but rather His essential love for them.

By way of metaphor: In the midst of teaching, a teacher may think of a new idea and turn his attention to it. The deeper and more compelling the idea, the more the teacher is engrossed by it. The student, not understanding the real reason behind his teacher's distraction, only sees that the teacher has become distanced from him. In fact, though, the disconcerting interruption is ultimately for the benefit of the student, since the teacher is concentrating deeply on the new idea and developing it in order to transmit it to the student. The seeming aloofness and estrangement stem purely from the teacher's love for the student and his desire for the student to benefit from the novel concept.

Similarly, from a superficial perspective, exile seems like a terrible reality. But exile's true purpose is to serve as a preparation for a greater revelation that will take place in the future redemption, a revelation that will shed light on the inner meaning of the suffering of exile.

This is why exile is mentioned specifically at the very moment of the sealing of the covenant expressing God's great love for the Jewish people. For in its purest form, exile, too, is an expression of God's infinite love.

Furthermore, this also explains why, during the destruction of the Temple, the cherubim on the Ark cover were embracing each other, an indication of God's love for the Jewish people,112 since ultimately, the destruction and subsequent exile are an expression of God's love.113

13 Foreigners in a land that is not theirs: The phrase "in a land that is not theirs" seems like a tautology: If they will be foreigners, isn't it obvious that the land in which they are to sojourn will not be theirs? Rather, God was intimating here to Abram that there was an additional, loftier purpose over and above whatever material benefits his descendants would reap in their exile. The Egyptians had intentionally misused the "sparks" of holiness latent in the great resources with which God had blessed them and their country. These sparks had thus become trapped and embedded within the depraved, materialistic civilization of Egypt. By serving the Egyptians and therefore earning as remuneration the vast wealth of the storehouses of Egypt, the Jewish people were to liberate these sparks and restore them to the realm of holiness.

In this vein, this verse can be interpreted allegorically, as follows:

Know for sure that your descendants will be foreigners in a land, but the reason is—

Not theirs, i.e., not solely for the purpose of refining them or cleansing them of their sins, but rather so that—

The people will enslave them: The Jews will "enslave" the Egyptians: they will assume dominion over all the sparks of holiness embedded within Egypt—

And oppress them: The Hebrew word for "to oppress" (inuy) can also be translated as "to impoverish." Hence: The Jews will impoverish Egypt by extracting all the sparks of holiness, taking them along with them, and departing with the "great wealth" which was imbedded in these sparks.

And so, too, is it regarding our current and final exile: its primary objective is not to atone for sin, but rather to enable us to redeem the holy sparks that were scattered around the world and which became embedded in physical reality. Sometimes it suffices for a single individual to be "exiled" to a given country; in such a case, God grants that solitary individual the capacity to elevate all the sparks of that locale, thus preparing it for the messianic age.114

Furthermore, Abram foresaw other positive byproducts of exile. For example, when Godliness is concealed from us, we value it and yearn for it intensely. Abram therefore chose to overlook the pain and suffering exile would entail in favor of its advantageous benefits.115

The people will enslave them: This statement seems to imply that all of Abram's descendants would be enslaved, but we shall see later that the tribe of Levi was not.116 However, the Levites did play a crucial role in the exile: as the spiritual leaders, they made sure the people remained loyal to their heritage, which in turn bolstered their morale and enabled them to endure the horrors of enslavement. Without this ongoing spiritual guidance and encouragement from the Levites, the people were liable to become hopelessly resigned to their misfortune and, as a result, opt to immerse themselves in the depravity of Egypt. This, of course, would have counteracted the whole purpose of the exile, which was to refine the people.117 God therefore made certain that one tribe, the Levites, remained unenslaved, enabling them to become the spiritual leaders.

Due to the pivotal role they played in successfully fulfilling the objective of the exile, the Levites are considered to have themselves undergone actual enslavement along with the rest of their brethren; they therefore were to receive its reward and benefits, as well.118


[13] The people will enslave them: If God Himself promised that the people would eventually be enslaved, it seems unjust that He subsequently punished the Egyptians for implementing His promise. Maimonides explains that God did not designate any one Egyptian to participate in the enslavement and persecution of the Jews; each individual Egyptian was free to refuse to do so, since God's plan could have equally been fulfilled through another person.119 By following their own evil inclinations and willingly oppressing the Jews, they became liable to punishment, even though they were the instruments God's will.120 Even Pharaoh, who was singled out by God as the only one who could have fulfilled his role in the Jews' oppression, was punished because he did so out of his own evil desire.

The truth is that everything that occurs to us is ordained by God. For example, if a person suffers harm, either at the hands of another or by a natural disaster, the victim must realize that, were it not God's will that he suffer harm, no harm would have befallen him. Yet the perpetrator is still guilty of a sin, since because of his evil motivation, he committed a punishable crime. Our sages therefore say that getting angry is tantamount to serving idols,121 since if we were truly to believe that all comes from God—and God, of course, does only what is good for us—we would not get angry.122

14 After that they will leave with great wealth: As we have seen,123 the primary purpose of the Egyptian exile was that the Jewish people extract the sparks of holiness that the Egyptians had misused and which thereby had become embedded within the fabric of the depraved Egyptian civilization;124 likewise, the primary purpose of the present exile is for us to redeem whatever sparks of holiness remain embedded within material reality.

The task of liberating these sparks is not merely a collective mission. We have each been assigned a unique connection to a particular spark that only we, and none other, can free from bondage. Divine providence leads us to our spark; if we redeem these sparks, we redeem ourselves from our personal, private exile, as well.

This is the reason God promised Abram that his descendants would leave Egypt "with great wealth": their liberation depended on their success in extracting the wealth of Egypt.125

15 You will be buried in good old age: Metaphorically, this means that Abram would reach a state of spiritual awareness during his lifetime in which neither his body nor the world around him would obscure Divinity at all. He would thus achieve the transcendent consciousness of the afterlife during his physical life in this world.126

18 To your descendants I have given this land: In His earlier promises of the land,127 God used the future tense ("I will give this land") and did not define Abram's descendants' ownership of the land as an inheritance. Here, He uses the past tense ("I have given this land") and tells Abram that his descendants will inherit the land.128

This is because when God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, two major changes took place: (a) the land became the legal property of the Jewish people, and (b) it acquired an additional degree of holiness, which obligated its Jewish inhabitants to perform certain specific commandments with its produce (tithes, the sabbatical year, etc.). The first change took place the moment God gave the land to the people; the second effect occurred only when the people assumed control of the land.

Nonetheless, these changes only took effect in stages, as follows:

The first time the people assumed control of the land was when Joshua conquered it immediately after Moses' death, as God had commanded them to. But since they assumed control through conquest, the effect of their control—the land's additional degree of holiness—lasted only as long as the duration of the conquest itself. As soon as the land was reconquered, the effect of the conquest was nullified and the land lost its acquired holiness.

The second time the people assumed control of the land was when Ezra returned with the exiles from Babylonia. This was not a conquest; the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, voluntarily granted the Jews semi-autonomy within their empire. Therefore, the Jews assumed control of the land by simply settling it. This form of acquisition was not based on wresting ownership from anyone else; it therefore established Jewish ownership of the land as an actualization of God's original gift to them.

In other words, even though the land became the possession of the Jewish people as soon as God gave it to Abram's descendants, this premise for their ownership was not "activated" until they took possession of the land the second time. For this reason, the land's conquest by foreign powers after its second Jewish acquisition did not negate its acquired holiness, and the legal obligation to observe the commandments specific to the Holy Land remained in force despite foreign occupation.

God's first two promises refer to the first conquest of the Land of Israel by Joshua. His third promise, however, refers to the Jews' reacquisition of the land in the days of Ezra. This is why the first conquest is referred to as a future gift, and the second as an already-bequeathed gift and as an inheritance:129

Giving a gift is a voluntary act of generosity on the part of the giver; the recipient is not entitled to the gift, nor does he necessarily deserve it. An inheritance, on the other hand, always belonged, in potentia, to the recipient, as an irrevocable birthright. Therefore, since the second conquest actualized God's original bequest of the land to Abram's descendants—the future Jewish people—it is referred to as an inheritance. The first conquest, in contrast, was only a portent of the future redemption, at which point the Jewish people will assume control of the land by both inheritance and conquest.

In any case, although the Jewish people's ownership of the Land of Israel was only actualized gradually, in stages, it in fact dates back to the time when God gave it to Abram's descendants as an inheritance at the Covenant between the Halves. At that very moment in time, the Promised Land in its entirety became, and remains to this day, the inheritance of every single Jew, not subject to negotiation or trade. It is God's promise to Abraham—not treaties, military victories, or diplomatic machinations—that constitutes our claim to our land. When we articulate this fact unequivocally, the community of nations will acknowledge its truth, and we will be able to uncontestedly possess the land. This, in turn, will hasten the time when we will be granted full possession of the entire Promised Land—the messianic redemption.130


[21] In the messianic future, they will possess the first three lands: Allegorically, conquering the land of Canaan and transforming it into the Land of Israel means conquering the animalistic side of our personalities and reorienting it toward Godliness. Just as our godly souls comprise ten holy faculties, which derive from the ten sefirot, so, too, our animal souls comprise ten materially-oriented faculties. The latter ten faculties are reflected in the ten pagan nations whose territories were promised to Abraham.

The first three nations correspond to the three levels of the intellect; the other seven nations correspond to the seven emotions. The fact that we are to inherit the lands of the first three nations only in the messianic future indicates that, until that time, we will not be able to fully rectify our animal intellect; our main task in the meantime is to refine our animalistic emotions, training ourselves, for example, to love and fear God with the same intensity of feeling with which we naturally love material comforts and pleasures and fear physical pain and suffering.

This change in reality is reflected in the fact that, in his lifetime, King David played a seven-stringed harp, whereas we are taught that in the messianic future, King David will play a ten-stringed harp.131

We are further taught that whereas the territories of the latter seven nations were conquered by war, the territories of the first three nations will be acquired peacefully.132 This, too, reflects the difference in the way in which we refine our animal/material emotions vs. how we refine our animal/material intellects: the conquest of the emotions is a grueling struggle, requiring constant vigilance, since the emotions naturally resist change. The task of refining the intellect, in contrast, requires much less effort, since the intellect—even the animal intellect—is naturally more disposed to accepting change.

As we draw close to the advent of the messianic era, we have already begun to experience a foretaste of the new order at our doorstep; this is one of the reasons why the inner dimension of the Torah (Kabbalah and Chasidism) has become an essential ingredient of Torah study in our times.

The Ten Nations133


Edomites (Kadmonites)



















Chapter 16

1 An Egyptian maidservant: Hagar was a very righteous woman. Although she was the daughter of Pharaoh, one of the most powerful rulers of the time, she agreed to leave behind a life of royalty in the king's palace in favor of the holy environment of Abram's and Sarai's home.136 She is later on referred to as Keturah;137 this name is related to the word for incense (ketoret), meaning that her saintly behavior was as pleasing as the scent of incense.138

With this fact in mind, we may safely assume that Hagar tried valiantly to raise her son Ishmael in the paths of righteousness, as well. Knowing this, we can understand why (when God informed him that he was to have another son) Abram initially insisted that Ishmael was sufficiently righteous to inherit him.139

13 Called by name upon God who had spoken to her: Although Hagar was speaking with an angel and not with God, the Torah nevertheless refers to the angel as "God." The reason for this is that when an angel is engaged in a Divine mission, it is at that moment a completely selfless and transparent being, a pure conduit for God's will, possessing no separate identity of its own.

Even human beings can achieve this spiritual transparency. When Moses was conveying God's promise of reward for fulfilling the commandments, he was so oblivious to his own existence that he addressed the people in the first person, saying, "I will give you grass in the fields for your cattle."140 In Talmudic times, the students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said that the verse "Three times a year all your menfolk shall appear before the Master, God, the God of Israel"141 referred in their days to Rabbi Shimon;142 and the verse "God is in His holy Temple"143 was applied to Rabbi Yitzchak bar Lazar sitting in the synagogue of Caesaria.144 In each of these cases, the individuals had so completely nullified their own egos and transformed themselves into vehicles for God's will that His presence was manifest through them; those around them felt they were in God's presence rather than in the presence of these particular sages.145

Chapter 17

1 Walk in My ways: Abraham had been walking in God's ways for virtually his whole life. But the level of Divine living to which God wished to elevate him now was infinitely more exalted. Relatively, then, he would only now begin to truly walk in God's ways.

Furthermore, had Abraham not risen to the occasion and accepted God's formal covenant, it would have indicated that, retroactively, he had not really been walking in God's ways all these years, but had evidently been motivated by other concerns. Passing this test would prove that Abraham had indeed been walking in God's ways all along.

The lesson for us here is that we should never rest on our laurels; if our previous accomplishments are to be proven genuine, we should constantly strive to enhance the quality of our relationship and commitment to God.146

Be perfect: The word for "perfect" (tamim) has three meanings:

  • "without blemish,"147

  • "of extraordinary quality,"148 and

  • "possessing unquestioning faith149 and commitment to God under all circumstances."150

These three different meanings can be viewed as successive steps in our process of self-refinement: first, we need to eliminate our imperfections; next, we must develop our inborn talents and gifts; and finally, we must strive to apply this perfection to all aspects of our lives and to all situations we encounter.

To attain the first two levels of perfection, rational strategies will suffice, since it is reasonable to aspire to be free of blemish and even to attain an extra measure of completion that goes beyond being faultless. To achieve the third level, however, we must invoke supra-rational commitment, since there are often very compelling, rational excuses for not upholding our moral integrity in specific situations. It is for this very reason that consistency in moral behavior is such a highly-valued yet elusive commodity in life.

These three discrete definitions of the word tamim correspond to the three constituent parts of circumcision:

  • the removal of the stigma of being uncircumcised (which is considered a blemish);

  • the transformation of the individual into a circumcised person (which permanently enhances the person's spirituality); and

  • the act of circumcision itself (which, because it causes pain, requires faith and commitment in the face of challenge).

(These three constituent parts usually occur simultaneously, and therefore their distinction is only theoretical. However, there are some situations in which they may occur independently. For example: If a baby boy is born without a foreskin, in which case the first two conditions are automatically satisfied, he must still undergo a symbolic act of "circumcision"—by having a drop of blood drawn from the organ—to satisfy the third condition.)

Although all three patriarchs embodied all three meanings of tamim,151 each one also expressed a particular emphasis on one of its three meanings:

  • Abraham, having been born into a corrupt society and degenerate family, had to struggle to overcome these obstacles and to remove all the negative elements in his life.

  • Isaac, having been born into holiness, spent his life developing and deepening the holiness he received gratis from his parents.

  • Jacob was also born into holiness, but unlike Isaac, who never left the Holy Land, had to struggle to remain holy in the face of opposition and challenges.

In our own lives, we attain the first level of tamim (faultlessness) by severing ourselves from our attachment to physical desires ("removing the foreskin"),152 thereby liberating ourselves from the dictates of our animal instincts. We then proceed to attain the second level of tamim ("extraordinary quality") by developing our potentials and thereby ascending within the realm of goodness and holiness ("being circumcised"). Finally, we proceed to attain the third level of tamim by transcending our subservience to reason. On this level, we carry out God's will implicitly; we are not fazed by any obstacles or difficult circumstances, because we simply cannot imagine behaving otherwise.153

Now, I will give you control even over these organs: Like Abraham, many righteous individuals down through the generations were able to control their senses, as demonstrated in the following episode:

Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch once complained that he had become deaf in one ear. Upon investigation, it was discovered that while in the midst of delivering his Chassidic discourse on Shabbat, his concentration would be disturbed by idle conversations taking place in an adjoining room. Because of his total, selfless commitment to teaching, he had unknowingly removed his ability to hear from the ear that was closest to the distracting noise.154155

5 Your transformation will not detract at all from your previous status: This teaches us that, although, as heirs of Abraham, we are empowered and obligated to influence the entire world, we must simultaneously bear in mind that our primary obligation is to influence our immediate environs—to first be "the "father of Aram," and only then the "father of the world."156

The reish was retained in Abraham's name since, even after he became the "father of a multitude of nations," he remained chiefly the father of Aram.157

The practical lesson here is this: Although, as heirs of Abraham, we have the power and the obligation to positively influence the entire world, we must remember that our primary responsibility is to influence the immediate locale in which Divine providence has placed us—to be "the father of Aram," and only then "father of the world."158


[1] Walk in My ways: Until now, Abraham possessed the consciousness of the world of Atzilut. At this level, we are not aware of ourselves per se; we are aware only of ourselves as part of God, and we therefore identify totally with God. However, inasmuch as Abraham personified only one of God's attributes, that of chesed ("loving-kindness"), his consciousness was limited by this self-definition. To "become perfect" here means that God planned to grant Abraham infinite Divine consciousness, which transcends that of the world of Atzilut.

As we will explain further, this ascent of consciousness was necessary in order for Abraham to father Isaac.159

[5] Your name shall be Abraham: Spiritually, Abraham's original name, Abram, refers to the lofty level of Divine consciousness he was able to attain with his own, inborn abilities. The first syllable, ab, means "father," referring to chochmah, the flash of insight that fathers emotions and expression; the second syllable, ram, means "sublime" or "exalted," indicating that the reference is to "supernal chochmah," the supra-conscious chochmah of Arich Anpin. Ab-Ram thus refers to abstract insight, a level of perception too high to be applied to any situation or manifest in the world in any way.

The expansive shape of the added letter hei alludes to revelation; thus, the addition of the letter hei to Abram's name enabled him to articulate this sublime consciousness in a way that made it accessible, revealed, and relevant to everyone.

Yet Abraham's new name still retained the reish of the syllable ram; this indicates that even in its practical manifestation, nothing of his original, abstract Divine consciousness was lost. He did not need to dilute or compromise the intensity of his lofty perspective on life to be able to transmit it to the common folk.160


[10] Circumcise every male: Our present-day obligation to circumcise our sons does not stem from God's command to Abraham, but rather from God's command to Moses at Mount Sinai, like all the Torah's commandments—even those practiced by our forebears before the official Giving of the Torah.161 God's instructions to observe these commandments did not yet transform Abraham's family into the Jewish people—it only made them into a special subset of Noahides.162

Nevertheless, in the case of circumcision, we find even today that the act is very much associated with Abraham. In fact, after a circumcision is performed, the father of the baby recites a blessing that refers to circumcision as the commandment to bring our sons into the covenant that God made with Abraham. This is due to the uniqueness of the commandment of circumcision: although our obligation stems from God's command to Moses at Sinai, the nature of the commandment is identical to its nature as it was performed by Abraham. Unlike other commandments associated with pre-Sinai events,163 the connection of circumcision to Abraham is not merely one incidental aspect of the commandment; it is its very essence.

This explains why most of the detailed laws regarding circumcision are derived from the command given to Abraham,164 and not from the command as given to Moses at Mount Sinai.165

[12] When he is eight days old: In general, we become obligated to perform the Torah's commandments only when we reach legal maturity in Jewish law (the age of bar or bat mitzvah). This is because before the age of maturity, children do not understand the implication of their actions and therefore cannot be obligated to act a certain way nor held responsible when they do not. True, parents are required to train their young children to observe the commandments, but only in educational preparation for mandatory performance once reaching the age of legal maturity—and therefore only once they are old enough to be educated.

Circumcision is the only commandment performed on an infant. The reason for this is that one of the objectives of circumcision is to subdue our innate coarseness and hedonistic instinct.166 It is therefore applicable even to a young child, since even a newborn possesses an animalistic instinct167 that needs to be weakened and subdued.168

10 Circumcise every male: Circumcision was the first commandment given to the first Jew; it is likewise the first commandment performed in our times by every male Jew. This is because many elements of this commandment serve to shed light on our understanding of the other commandments:

a) Circumcision effects a physical change in the body. Similarly, the performance of every commandment affects the body physically, even though we may not be able to perceive it.

b) Although the primary benefit of circumcision is spiritual, it also has health benefits.169 Similarly, the primary benefit of all the commandments is spiritual, but they all have secondary health benefits, too.

c) Circumcision causes pain to the child, but he reacts by screaming because he does not understand the value of what is being done to him. Similarly, fulfilling other commandments at times entails toil and hardships, but the more we appreciate the lofty effect of the commandment, the more oblivious we become to any attendant discomfort or inconvenience.

d) The Jewish people accepted upon themselves the commandment of circumcision with joy; they actually gave up their lives for it in times of religious persecution.170 Similarly, we should fulfill all the commandments with joy and be willing to give up anything to do so.171

13 My covenant shall be in your flesh: God chose circumcision as the commandment that would prefigure the Giving of the Torah, since it is the only commandment that embodies the empirical synthesis of spirit and matter: the holy deed becomes one with the physical flesh. (This is also why circumcision is painful and why this pain is inexorably intertwined with the deed itself, which is also why the use of anesthesia is prohibited).172

It is not readily understood why experiencing pain should be a requisite of a Divine commandment, especially the first one to be given to Abraham. Furthermore, one would think that Abraham would have been so elated to be performing his first Divine commandment that he would have been oblivious to the pain.173 Yet he did experience pain,174 and even fell ill from it.175

The answer is that circumcision is a commandment that is meant to permeate the physical flesh of the human being, whose nature is to feel pain. So although Abraham could have remained oblivious to the pain, he chose not to, since otherwise his circumcision would not have effected a true union of spirit and matter.176

15 For Sarah, meaning 'princess' in general, is her name: Although both Abraham's and Sarah's names connote dominion over the nations, they each fulfilled their new roles in different ways. Abraham is called "a father of nations," whereas Sarah is called "a sovereign." Sovereigns remain aloof from their subjects and in fact wield their influence by virtue of this very aloofness; the majesty of their office and its absolute power inspires their subjects with awe and submission. A father, by contrast, is very much connected to and involved with his children; he serves as an authority figure, a role model, and an educator.

Abraham fulfilled his mandate to influence people via direct interaction with them, inducing them (either persuasively or, when that didn't work, coercively) to keep God's laws and behave ethically. Sarah, in contrast, fulfilled her mandate to influence others indirectly via personal example and by virtue of her awe-inspiring righteousness. This latter mode of influence was also employed by King Solomon, who affected the nations of the world—without ever leaving his palace—by virtue of the reputation of his wisdom, as exemplified in the episode with the Queen of Sheba.

When God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, in addition to the commandments which are incumbent on us as Jews, He also obligated us to teach non-Jews the specific laws incumbent upon them. Minimally, this means prevailing upon them to simply do what is required of them; optimally, this means convincing them to do so because God commanded them to do so through the Torah. Abraham's method of direct influence generally succeeds in convincing them to accept the laws incumbent upon them, but does not necessarily convince them that they are required to do so because God promulgated these laws at Mount Sinai. In contrast, Sarah's method of indirect influence so profoundly inspires non-Jews with the wisdom and holiness of the Torah and the Jewish people that they instinctively recognize the need to accept the Noahide code of laws because God commanded them to do so at Mount Sinai.

The influence of the Jewish people on the non-Jewish world will come to its ultimate fruition in the messianic era, when both modes of influence will operate in tandem: First, the Messiah will condition the entire world to serve God together177 through direct interaction with them. But at a later stage, when the world's utopian conditions will allow the Jewish people to pursue Divine wisdom and holiness in accordance with God's original plan for them, humanity in general will become profoundly inspired by the Jewish people's example, and, as Maimonides so eloquently puts it, "the sole pursuit of the entire world will be to know God."178

18 If only Ishmael would live in awe of You: Upon being informed of the impending birth of Isaac, who was to become the forefather of the Jewish nation, Abraham prayed to God that Ishmael rectify his ways and thus be deserving of that lofty role. Abraham's plea seems quite reasonable, considering that Ishmael had already been born and would be older than Isaac.179 Why indeed did God not heed Abraham's pleas that Ishmael becomes his primary heir?

We find two main differences in the early childhood years of Abraham's two sons. Firstly, Ishmael was born under natural circumstances, whereas Isaac's birth was entirely miraculous. Secondly, Ishmael was circumcised at thirteen, an age at which he was fully capable of comprehending the significance and implications of the act, whereas Isaac was circumcised as an infant, before his conscious mind could even grasp its importance.

Therein lies the primary difference between the two sons: Ishmael's birth and spiritual development followed a natural and logical order. His connection to God hinged on his own understanding. Isaac, who was conceived and born by Divine intervention, was circumcised at eight days of age, signifying that his eternal bond to God was immutable, transcending reason and nature.

God therefore chose Isaac be the forebear of the Jewish people. Isaac's early life encapsulates the unique bond between God and the Jewish people, a bond that is eternal and unalterable, not subject to the capriciousness of human nature or rationality.

Isaac's upbringing serves as the model for Jewish education. It demonstrates that a Jewish child should be raised from birth to live a Godly, spiritual life. We must not wait idly for the children to grow up, allowing them to develop their commitment to Judaism based on their own understanding. For as Isaac's life teaches us, the Jewish people's connection to God is entirely supra-natural and not bound by the limitations of human intellect.180

19 Ten tests: Abraham was (1) forced to hide for thirteen years from Nimrod, who sought to kill him; (2) thrown into a fiery furnace at Ur of the Kasdites for refusing to bow to an idol; (3) told by God to leave his native land; (4) confronted with a famine in the land to which God had instructed him to go; (5) subjected to his wife Sarai being abducted to Pharaoh's palace; (6) subjected to his nephew Lot being taken captive; (7) informed by God that his descendants would be enslaved and exiled; (8) commanded by God to circumcise himself and his sons; (9) instructed by God to banish Hagar and Ishmael; (10) commanded to sacrifice Isaac.181

These ten tests corresponded to Abraham's ten soul-powers. His success at passing all these tests demonstrated that Abraham was subservient to God not just selectively, but with all the powers of his soul.182

As the heirs of Abraham's legacy, we should also expect to be confronted with tests as a matter of course. But we should also rest assured that we have inherited the power to overcome them, as well.183


[20] He will beget twelve princes: When God expelled Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He told them that humanity would at some point be restored to its intended, idyllic spiritual level, and that this would entail the construction of a Temple that would channel the Divine presence into the world, just as the Garden of Eden had.

Inasmuch as the Temple was to serve as the "lightning rod" that would draw the Divine Presence into the world, it would have to be both a microcosm and a model of the world around it, reflecting the spiritual and physical makeup of the world in their rectified state. It would be the model of the ordered and stable holiness built out of the ruins of the shattered, chaotic world (Tohu) that remained in the wake of the primordial sin. The key to this rectification process is selflessness.

We are taught in Sefer Yetzirah that reality exists in three dimensions: time, space, and soul. (When we count space as three dimensions, as we normally do, time is counted as the fourth dimension and "soul" as the fifth.) In order to make the world into God's true home, we must rectify each of these dimensions, making them expressions of our selfless devotion to God rather than of our self-serving pursuits. This rectification process, for each of these dimensions, is indicated by the number twelve:

The all-encompassing unit of time is the year. In Hebrew, the word for "year" (shanah) is derived from the root which means "change," since the year is defined as the time it takes for all the seasonal and monthly changes to run their course before beginning again. Although we all have personal preferences for particular months and their associated moods, we can rise above these personal preferences by remaining true to our Divine mission consistently throughout the year.

There are three dimensions to physical space, which is typically represented by a cube. It takes twelve lines to draw a cube, just as the year has twelve months. Although space is normally the way we define ourselves and territorially separate ourselves from each other, the challenge of Torah-life is to rise above this divisive self-orientation and see the inner dimension which we all have in common and unites us all.

Similarly with regard to personality, Sefer Yetzirah defines twelve basic human senses which give rise to the basic personality types, which in turn give rise to twelve archetypal approaches of forging a relationship with God and fulfilling our purpose on earth. Our task here, too, is to learn how to function harmoniously with all types of people. Again, we can only do this if we rise above our personal, self-serving interests.

As such, the number twelve figured prominently in the operation of the Temple. There were twelve loaves of showbread, the High Priest's breastplate contained twelve gems, and the names of the twelve tribes were inscribed on the gems on his shoulders. When the Tabernacle (the precursor of the Temple) was dedicated, most of the offerings were twelve in number. The Midrash184 points out that this was in order that the twelve signs of the zodiac, the twelve months, the twelve tribes, and the twelve principle organs and limbs of the body all be reflected in the Tabernacle.

It was known among humanity, therefore, that the Temple would be built by a people whose progenitors consisted of a family-unit of twelve sons.

The Midrash tells us that God originally intended Adam himself to have twelve sons.185 Throughout the early generations of humanity, we see that major figures aspired to realize this goal: After Nachor, Abraham's brother, had eight sons by his wife Milkah, he took a concubine and had another four sons by her.186 Ishmael had twelve sons.187 Jacob's wives knew that he was destined to have exactly twelve sons, and that is why Leah prayed that her seventh child be a girl. Since Bilhah and Zilpah had already had two children each, she wanted her sister Rachel to have at least as many sons as they did. Later, when Jacob thought that Joseph had been killed, this led him to believe that he could no longer be the father of twelve sons who could found the Jewish people, and that therefore, having failed to fulfill his purpose in life, he would have to undergo Purgatory.188

The reason Jacob merited being the one to establish the nuclear family of the Jewish nation was that he personified and embodied the attribute of selflessness and therefore was able to instill selflessness in his children. When Jacob said to God, "I am no longer worthy due to all the kindness You have done for me,"189 it was because his selflessness made God's display of favor to him make him feel even more unworthy.190 He thus epitomized the selflessness that is both the key to rectifying reality and the defining attribute of the holy Temple.191

23 Abraham consulted with his allies: Why would Abraham have needed anyone's advice to follow God's command?192

Abraham wanted his circumcision to be more than a personal, isolated event. He wanted this event, which would mark the beginning of the Jewish nation, to resonate within the world around him. Abraham therefore "consulted" with the leaders of his time in order to involve them and to demonstrate that they approved of the circumcision.193

26 Abraham was circumcised: The use of the passive voice, "was circumcised," alludes to a deeper explanation as to why Abraham did not perform the commandment of circumcision until God commanded him to:

Firstly, God waited until Abraham was ninety-nine years old before formalizing His covenant with him in order to allow him to demonstrate his willingness to circumcise himself even at such an advanced age.194

From a more spiritual perspective, circumcision is the removal of the "foreskin of the heart," the layer of apathy, indifference, and haughtiness that gets in the way of our true connection with God. Spiritual circumcision occurs in two ways: (a) through our own efforts, as in the verse, "Circumcise the foreskin of your hearts";195 and (b) by an act on the part of God, as in the verse, "God will circumcise your heart."196 This latter aspect of circumcision, which will occur in its fullest sense only in the messianic age, obviously effects a much deeper and stronger transformation of our hearts.

These two types of spiritual circumcision are alluded to in the double expression used previously:197 "anyone born in your household or bought with your money shall surely be circumcised," which literally reads, "circumcise, yes, you shall circumcise." On the contextual level, this expression refers to the two aspects of circumcision: cutting off the foreskin and peeling back the mucous membrane after the cut is made. Allegorically, it refers to the two levels of spiritual circumcision.198

Abraham wanted to attain the second level of spiritual circumcision. He therefore waited for an explicit command from God since, had he not waited, he would have only attained the first level. The use of the passive voice in this verse alludes to the fact that Abraham did indeed merit that his heart be circumcised by God.199