G‑d spoke to Abram (Genesis 12:1)
There was once a person who was traveling from place to place, and he saw a palace in flames. Said he: “Can it be that there is no master to this palace?” So the owner of the palace looked out to him and said to him: “I am the master of the palace.” By the same token, because Abraham would go around saying, “Can it be that the world has no master?” G‑d looked out and said: “I am the owner, the master of the world.”
From the time that G‑d said to our father Abraham, “Go from your land,” and “Abraham went on, journeying southward,” there began the process of birurim—of extracting the sparks of holiness that are scattered throughout the universe and buried within the material existence.
By the decree of divine providence, a person wanders about in his travels to those places where the sparks that are to be extracted by him await their redemption. The Cause of All Causes brings about the many circumstances and pretexts that bring a person to those places where his personal mission in life is to be acted out.
(Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch)
“From your land”—from your will. (Eretz, the Hebrew word for land, is etymologically related to the word ratzon—will.) “From your birthplace”—from your emotional and behavioral self (which is the product of a person’s environment). “From your father’s house”—from your intellect. (In the terminology of Kabbalah, the intellect is referred to as the father within man, since it is the progenitor of and authority over his feelings and behavior patterns.)
(The Chassidic Masters)
Abraham would invite people into his home, give them to eat and to drink, show them love, and bring them close to G‑d, convert them and bring them under the wings of the Divine Presence. This is to teach us that whoever brings a person under the wings of the Divine Presence, it is considered as if he has created him, formed him and developed him.
No sooner was this mighty one weaned—and he was but a child—than his mind began to seek and wonder: How do the heavenly bodies circle without a moving force? Who turns them? They cannot move themselves! Immersed amongst the foolish idol-worshippers of Ur Casdim, he had no one to teach him anything: his father, mother and countrymen, and he amongst them, all worshipped idols. But his heart sought . . . until he comprehended the truth and understood the righteous path by his sound wisdom, and came to know that there is one G‑d . . . who created all, and that in all existence there is none other than Him. He came to know that the entire world erred . . .
At the age of forty, Abraham recognized his Creator. . . . He began to debate with the people of Ur Casdim and take them to task, saying: “This is not the way of truth that you are following.” He smashed the idols and began to teach the people that it is only fitting to serve the One G‑d. . . . When he began to defeat them with his arguments, the king wished to kill him; he was miraculously saved. He departed to Charan and continued to call in a great voice to the world, teaching them that there is One G‑d.
(Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idol Worship 1:3)
Other accounts give different numbers for the age at which Abraham discovered the truth of the One G‑d. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) states that Abraham recognized his Creator at age three; other sources cite the ages 4, 48 and 50. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that these sources are not in conflict, but rather relate to the various levels of recognition and understanding achieved by Abraham. (Indeed, Maimonides, who places Abraham’s moment of truth at 40, “the age of understanding,” also tells us that his quest began soon after he was weaned, when he was but a small child.)
Everything that happened to the Patriarchs is a signpost for their children. This is why the Torah elaborates its account of their journeys, their well-digging and the other events [of their lives]. . . . These all come as an instruction for the future: for when something happens to one of the three Patriarchs, one understands from it what is decreed to occur to his descendants.
The Torah itself attests that the Canaanites than ruled the Promised Land. Yet G‑d granted it to Abraham, pledging, “To your offspring I shall give this land”; later in our Parshah (15:18), G‑d goes a step further, saying, “To your offspring I have given this land”—already given, in the past tense.
Therein lies a lesson for all generations of Jews. Although we may find ourselves in galut, under the dominion of nations more powerful than us, this does not in the least affect our ownership of the Holy Land. The land of Israel is ours by divine bequest, and no force on earth can take it from us.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
Said Reish Lakish: Read not “and he called (vayikra),” but “and he made others call (vayakrei)).” This is to teach us that Abraham caused G‑d’s name to be spoken in the mouths of all passersby. How so? After they ate and drank [in his home], they wanted to bless him. Said he to them: “Have you eaten of mine? Your food has been provided by the G‑d of the world! Thank, praise and bless He who spoke the world into being!”
(Talmud, Sotah 10a)
When Abraham’s guests wished to bless him for his generosity, he would say to them: “Has the food you have eaten been provided by me? You should thank, praise and bless He who spoke the world into being!” If they refused, Abraham would demand payment for the food they had eaten. “How much do I owe you?” they would ask. “A jug of wine is one folarin,” Abraham would say; “a pound of meat, one folarin; a loaf of bread, one folarin.” When the guest would protest these exorbitant prices, Abraham would counter: “Who supplies you with wine in the middle of the desert? Who supplies you with meat in the desert? Who supplies you with bread in the desert?” When the guest would realize the predicament he was in, he would relent and proclaim: “Blessed be the G‑d of the world, from whose providence we have eaten.”
(Midrash Rabbah; Tosefot Shantz, Sotah 10a)
What value, we might ask, was there in such an unwilling proclamation, extracted under duress? Was this not a mere mouthing of words, devoid of any conviction as to the truth of the One G‑d or any desire to thank Him for His providence?
But Abraham had a vision of humanity which convinced him that every positive deed, word or thought does have value, no matter how superficial or hypocritical it might seem to a less discerning eye. When Abraham looked at his guests, he did not see pagans and idolaters; he saw creatures of G‑d, men and women who had been created in the divine image and who possessed a potential, inherent to the very essence of their being, to recognize their Creator and serve His will.
Most often, a kind word and a helping hand will bring to light this inner potential. At times, however, a soul might be so encrusted by negative influences and a corrupted character that a certain degree of pressure must be applied to quell its resistance to a G‑dly deed. (Of course, any use of such pressure must conform to the dictates of G‑d’s Torah, whose “ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its pathways are peace”—as in the case of Abraham’s legitimate demand for payment.)
Abraham understood that no human acknowledgment of G‑d can ever be hypocritical. On the contrary: a denial of G‑d is the ultimate hypocrisy, for it is at variance with the person’s quintessential being. When a creature of G‑d proclaims, “Blessed be the G‑d of the world from whose providence we have eaten,” nothing can be more consistent with his or her innermost self.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
How can it be that Abram has only now discovered that his wife is beautiful?
Rashi offers three explanations. First he cites what he calls a “Midrashic explanation” that Abram was indeed unaware of Sarai’s beauty because of their mutual modesty, and that it only now became known to him by happenstance. Rashi then cites a “second explanation,” that usually a person’s looks are ruined by the difficulties of life on the road, yet Sarah retained her beauty. Finally, Rashi concludes with “the simple meaning of the verse,” which is that Abram was saying: I have been long aware of your beauty, but now has come a time that it is cause for worry.
And where was Sarah? Abram had locked her in a chest. When he arrived at the gates of Egypt, the tax officers said to him: “What are you transporting in this chest?” Said he to them: “Barley.”
Said they to him: “You’re carrying wheat!”
Said he to them: “So charge me the tariff for wheat.”
“You’re carrying peppers!”
“Take the tariff for peppers.”
“You’re carrying gold!”
“Take the tariff for gold.”
“You’re carrying silks!”
“Take the tariff for silks.”
“You’re carrying pearls!”
“Take the tariff for pearls.”
Said they: If he didn’t have something truly precious, he would not accept whatever we ask for. At that moment they said to him: “You’re not moving from here until you open the chest and show us what’s inside.” As soon as he opened it, the entire land of Egypt glowed from Sarai’s radiance.
The cattle of our father Abraham would go about muzzled, while Lot’s cattle would go about unmuzzled.
Abraham’s herdsmen would say to them: Has it become permissible to steal?”
Lot’s herdsmen would respond: “G‑d has said to Abraham: ‘To your seed I shall give this land.’ But Abraham is an infertile mule without progeny; tomorrow he will die, and Lot, the son of his brother, will inherit him. So our animals are eating what is ours.”
But G‑d said to them: I have given the land to his seed only after the seven nations shall be uprooted from it. “The Canaanites and the Perizzites then dwelt in the land”—as of now, they have rights in the land.
Just as the dust of the earth is from one end of the world to the other, so too will your children be scattered from one end of the world to the other. Just as the dust of the earth is made fertile only with water, so too the people of Israel are blessed only in the merit of the Torah, which is analogous to water. Just as dust erodes all metal utensils while it itself lasts forever, so is it with Israel: all idolatrous nations disintegrate, while they persist. Just as dust is trodden upon, so too your children are destined to be trodden upon by the nations.
In reward for Abraham’s saying, “Not a thread nor a shoestrap,” his children merited two mitzvot: the thread of blue [in the tzitzit] and the strap of the tefillin.
(Talmud, Sotah 17a)
When they rise, they will rise as high as the heavens; when they fall, they will fall as low as the dust.
Rashi explains that it was the custom in those times that two people who wished to pledge everlasting friendship and devotion to each other conducted a ceremony in which they passed together between the divided halves of a slaughtered animal, symbolizing that just as the two halves are in truth a single creature, so too their persons, though ostensibly two distinct beings, are henceforth to be regarded as a single entity. Thus, a “smoking furnace and flaming torch,” representing the Divine Presence, passed “between the parts” together with Abraham.
In addition, our sages explain the symbolism in the animals which G‑d told Abraham to take. On one level, they correspond with the various offerings brought by the Jewish people in the Holy Temple. On another level, they represent the galut of Israel in its various incarnations—the powers to which the Jewish people will be subject in the course of their history (Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome, etc.) The eagle which came to consume the carcasses but was shooed away represents Moshiach (the Messiah), who will be prevented from liberating the people of Israel until the time for the Redemption has come.
Galut is thus revealed to be not merely a punishment for the failings of the Jewish people, but an integral part of our destiny, foretold to the very first Jew at the forging of our covenant with G‑d.
The “four hundred years” refer to the period from the birth of Isaac (in the year 2048 from creation—1713 BCE) to the exodus from Egypt (in 2448), during which time Abraham’s descendants were “strangers in a land that is not theirs.” The actual sojourn in Egypt was for 210 years, of which the final eighty-six were a time when the children of Israel were enslaved and afflicted.
Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter. When Pharaoh saw what was wrought upon his house for Sarah’s sake, he took his daughter and gave her to her, saying: “Better that my daughter be a maid in this house, than a mistress in a different house.”
How many angels did she meet? Rabbi Yossi bar Chananiah said: Five; each time that it says “said,” it was another angel. The other sages say: Four; each time it says “an angel,” it was another angel.
Said Rabbi Chiya: See the difference between the earlier and later generations! Manoach said to his wife, “We shall surely die, for we have seen an angel” (Judges 13:22); but Hagar the maid of Sarah sees five angels one after the other, and is not afraid of them.” Said Rabbi Yitzchak: “The members of Abraham’s household were all prophets—she was used to seeing them.”
Abraham’s name change, in conjunction with his circumcision and his entry into a covenant with G‑d, marked a profound turning point in his life. Up until this point, the thrust of Abraham’s life was his spiritual relationship with G‑d; from this point on it was to be his role as a leader of the masses, a teacher of the divine truth to the “multitudes.” Thus the Hebrew letter hei was added to his name. Abram (Avram, in the Hebrew) is a compound of av ram, which means “exalted father”; Abraham stands for av hamon goyim—a father of multitudes of nations.
But according to this, his name should have been changed to Abham. Why was the letter reish, which stood for the ram (exalted) in his name, left in? There is no reish in the phrase “a father of multitudes of nations.”
Often, there is a tendency for teachers and leaders to water down their message to their constituents. For myself, they say, I must set the highest standards and strive to understand the most sublime truths. But it is foolish to expect the same of everyone else. If I speak of such matters and make such demands, I will only be perceived as out of touch with reality. Indeed, the rarefied insight and pious behavior I have attained will only be coarsened and debased by its communication to the masses.
Therein lies the lesson of the “irremovable reish” in Abraham’s name. G‑d added a hei, anointing him as a leader for the hamon (multitudes), but left the reish of “exalted” in. For the true mark of a teacher is one who can convey the most sublime truths to the most ordinary of minds, and the true mark of a leader is one who can inspire the loftiest aspirations in the most mundane of hearts. Such a teacher and leader was Abraham, and such is the quality of leadership he bequeathed to his heirs in their role as a light unto the nations.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)