Tag Archives: Lech Lecha

Lech Lecha: Did You Hear the One About the Jewish Student and the Priest?

strangers-in-israelThe Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh. The Canaanites were then in the land.

Genesis 12:1-6 (JPS Tanakh)

Thus Abraham took his first steps on a journey that would result in the vast and astonishing progression of the Jewish people across the grand panorama of human history. Abraham the Hebrew “crossed over” not just a geographical boundary, but a spiritual one.

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I thought one of the missions of the Christian church was to provoke zealousness among the Jewish people, to inspire Jews to return to Torah, return to Judaism, return to being who God made them to be.

Although I don’t believe God would allow it, there is a tremendous and ongoing concern, especially in America, that the Jewish population will continually assimilate, and ultimately vanish from our national landscape. And while many Christians believe that the only hope for the Jewish people is to convert to Christianity no matter what, there are some Jewish believers who insist that only when the Jewish people repent and return to Torah that the Messiah will finally return, and all of God’s promises to Israel and the people of the nations who are called by His Name (Amos 9:11-12) will finally come to pass.

In this week’s Torah portion, Avraham (Abraham) makes his way to the land of Israel and begins the journey of the Jewish people through history. Along that path we have seen nations rise and fall and have survived them, even through massive persecution. There were 2 million Jews during the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. Demographers state that though there are approximately 14 million Jews identified worldwide, there are possibly 400 million halachic Jews (Jews whose mother’s were Jewish or converted according to Jewish law). Many Jews have fallen by the wayside of history. This week I share with you a story of one Jew who made his way back to identifying with the Almighty, the Jewish people and the Torah … albeit in a rather unusual way.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Lech Lecha

orthodox-talmud-studyRabbi Packouz goes on to tell the story of “Lance,” a young Jewish fellow who came from a family so assimilated that they sent him to a Catholic school to get the “best education.” One of Lance’s instructors, a Priest, found out that Lance was Jewish only by accident. Lance chose to write an essay about Rabbi Akiva for an assignment in the Priest’s class. Curious, the Priest asked Lance why he chose a great Jewish sage as the topic and Lance answered, “Because I’m Jewish.” This simple statement launched another journey into Judaism with some surprising twists:

The priest was surprised that he had a Jewish pupil and asked Lance if he had ever studied the Five Books of Moses with Rashi, the great commentator, or if he had ever learned the Mishna, part of the Talmud. When Lance told him “No,” the priest offered to teach him. For an hour a day after school, they learned together.

One day it occurred to Lance that Judaic studies were not the usual curriculum for the priesthood, so he asked his mentor, “How did you become so knowledgeable in Torah?”

The priest replied, “Before I entered the seminary, I traveled to Israel. While visiting the Western Wall a man asked me if I was Jewish. Curious as to why he asked, I answered ‘Yes.’ The man then asked me if I was interested in learning about my heritage. I figured it would be interesting, so I said, ‘Sure.’ He took me to a yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem and I was so impressed that I stayed for close to a year, never revealing that I wasn’t Jewish. I considered converting, but decided that it would be too difficult and too much of a shock to my family, so here I am.”

One Jewish young man who had grown up never knowing what it is to be Jewish and a Catholic priest who nearly converted to Judaism. What strange partners of God. A Priest encouraged his Jewish student, not to convert to Catholicism, but to become knowledgable in Torah and Mishnah. He encouraged “zealousness.”

Protestantism struggles with how to support the Jewish people but gets hung up on Jews who are not in the Church. They can’t always see that we can also “provoke zealousness” and that Messianic Judaism is the most likely vehicle for doing so. If Jesus is Jewish and the Messiah, then his Jewish followers will not abandon being Jewish and will not neglect Torah as his disciples.

Abraham took all that he had and, at the command of God, went to the Land of Promise in obedience. God put Lance and a Priest together and using a highly unlikely set of circumstances, sent one lost Jewish person on the correct path as well. According to Rabbi Packouz, Lance continued pursuing his Jewish studies and presumably became observant.

If you are a Christian, what does this tell you about what God wants you to do? If you are Jewish, where should you be going?

Good Shabbos.

Lech Lecha: The Course of My Spiritual Travels

abrahams-servantIn the course of one’s spiritual travels, a person encounters situations which can only be overcome with a struggle, and which may even cause one to fall. Nevertheless, since all phases of life’s journey are guided by Divine Providence, we must realize that the purpose of every experience is positive. Even when we fall, we are being given an opportunity to borrow an expression from our Sages (Cf. Makkos 8a.) to descend in order to ascend.

Why must a person face such challenges? Two reasons are given:

a) To bring out the power of one’s soul. As long as a person remains untested, he can “get by” without having to tap his core. When, by contrast, one faces a fundamental challenge, it becomes necessary to call upon one’s spiritual resources in order to succeed.

b) In the process of overcoming a challenge, a person recognizes and thus elevates the sparks of G-dliness contained therein. For all existence is maintained by G-d’s creative energy; that energy is hidden within the world’s material substance. As a result of this “hiddeness,” challenges arise. By overcoming these challenges, a human reveals the true G-dly nature of existence.

Avraham’s spiritual journey contained such challenges. Shortly after he entered Eretz Yisrael, he was forced to descend to Egypt, described as “the nakedness of the land.” (Cf. Genesis 42:9, 12.) The very name of the land, mitzrayim, is related to the word meitzarim, meaning “boundaries” or “limitations.” (Torah Or, Va’eira, p. 57b ff.)

And yet even Avraham’s descent brought him blessing. He left Egypt “very rich in cattle, in silver, and gold.” (Genesis 13:2.) Moreover, this wealth came from spiritual effort; Avraham had elevated some of the sparks of G-dliness invested in that country.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“A Journey To One’s True Self: Avraham’s Odyssey As A Lesson For His Descendants”
Commentary on Torah Portion Lech Lecha; Genesis 12:1-17:27

Four mornings during the work week, I get up at 4 a.m. and by five, I’m picking up my son David at his place so we can go to the gym together and work out for 60 or 70 minutes before getting ready to commute to our jobs. Although that sounds like a really early hour to go through such exertion, we encourage each other and one of us always helps the other one to do the best we can. Some days are better than others, but we both know that only through hard work can we move toward our goals. David is suffering from a number of physical disabilities he incurred during his service in the Marines, and I’m just plain getting older. We both have our challenges to overcome, but thankfully we don’t have to go the course alone.

As Rabbi Touger’s commentary on this week’s Torah reading teaches, we also encounter a number of spiritual challenges in our lives, all of us. While working out physically is a choice (I could choose to be lazy, eat what I want, become ever larger, and damage the quality of my life as I continue to age), it really isn’t if I want to remain healthy and even to improve my physical condition as I get older. The same goes for spiritual growth.

But if you think getting up at four in the morning just so you can start sweating by five is no fun, imagine making yourself face, not just traditional Bible readings and devotionals, but challenges and conflicts both within yourself and your understanding of God, and outside of yourself in the world of religious dialog (to put it politely). Sometimes, I’d rather face any machine and any exercise I could possibly work with at my gym than spend five minutes wrangling with some “attitude” in the religious blogosphere.

As I mentioned though, those challenges don’t have to be externally driven. I’ve got enough internal challenges to last me for a good, long while. How exactly do the blessings in the Abrahamic covenant bind the Christian to God in covenant relationship? What effect does the New Covenant have on the Abrahamic for a Christian? Why does or doesn’t the Mosaic covenant factor into the line of other covenant blessings for the non-Jews in the church? Other people seem to think the Bible and what is says is a “slam-dunk” as far as what it all means. For me, it’s an endless adventure story wrapped in darkest mystery that has inspired me to the heights of ecstasy and driven me to miserable despair.

A person’s spiritual quest should not be a lonely journey. On the contrary, one of the hallmarks of personal development is an increasing capacity to inspire others. Avraham surely gained such an ability, as our Sages comment (Sotah 10a.) with regard to the verse, (Genesis 21:33.) “And he called in the name of the G-d of the universe”: “Do not read ויקרא (‘And he called’), read ויקריא (‘And he had others call’).”

This concept is also reflected in the changing of his name from Avram to Avraham. (Ibid. 17:5.) Rashi (In his commentary to that verse.) explains that Avram implies merely “father of Aram,” while Avraham alludes to the Hebrew words meaning “father of many nations.” The change implies that Avraham had been given the potential to inspire and influence all the nations of the world to begin striving toward spiritual goals.

“It is not good that..man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18 ESV) Although Rabbi Touger suggests that the “not alone” part in Abraham’s case, was his ability to teach and to inspire others to call out to God, it implies (for most of us, I think) that we should seek out companionship, not just to inspire them, but so that they can inspire us, much like my son David and I inspire each other. Avraham Avinu was the father of many nations, not just the Hebrews, and according to Paul, this was through his seed.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

Galatians 3:16 (ESV)

Paul explains that we Christians too can call Abraham our father because of our relationship with his seed, the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was never alone. He was always teaching. He was surrounded by his disciples. He was surrounded by multitudes of those who were desperate. He was the shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel. I can’t recall the source (and a quick Google search doesn’t reveal it), but I seem to remember a principle in some corners of Judaism saying that a teacher will learn as much from his students as they will from him. I don’t know if this could be applied to Jesus, but perhaps it can be to those who came after him.

As one who has taught (albeit in a rather small setting) before, I can certainly say it is true of me.

As you may know from my comments in my Days series, I have been inspired, or maybe challenged is the better word, to seek out a more traditional Christian fellowship venue. This is with the idea that I not only can learn and be supported by my fellow believers, but that I also have something of value to give back. What that is may be apparent to my blog audience, but it remains to be seen if a face-to-face group of Christians will agree.

There’s only so much encouragement I can give and receive via the web. At some point, like Abraham, I must leave, at God’s command, what is familiar and comfortable to proceed into the unknown. Abraham trusted God with everything he had, and it was accounted to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3) Abraham’s example teaches me that it is not good that I be alone and that risk is part of the “business” of faith and trust in God. Abraham took everything he had, his family, his entire household, and all his possessions, and followed God to a land he never knew.

What a person believes about himself and his abilities is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A person who does not consider himself “important” will not free himself from negative habits.

Believing you are inferior, untalented, unimportant or incapable, influences your abilities. If you view yourself as unable to do things, you will be unable to do them. On the other hand, if you see yourself as talented, capable, and important, your self-concept will open up powers and talents that would have otherwise remained dormant.

Hardly anyone utilizes his entire capabilities. We can accomplish much more than we realize. By raising the perception of your capabilities, you will accomplish more.

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #618”

A week from today, I begin the first step on a journey into a land that, while not entirely unknown, seems rather alien to me after so many years. One difference is that I don’t take with me everything I have. Certainly my family will not be accompanying me on the journey. Unlike Abraham, I walk alone, with only the promise that it will not always be this way.

Good Shabbos.

Lech Lecha: Choices of the Heart

avrahamThe Torah portion of Lech Lecha relates how G-d commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and the members of his household. By doing so, Avraham became the first and primary individual to adopt the sign of the holy covenant that exists between G-d and every Jew.

This connection between circumcision and Avraham is so strong that the blessings for circumcision include the phrase: “to enter him into the covenant of Avraham, our father,” i.e., the circumcision currently taking place is directly related to our patriarch Avraham. Since Avraham is our father,he makes it possible for all of us, his children, to inherit the privilege of entering into an eternal covenant with G-d.

This kind of inheritance is not at all dependent on any preparations or qualifications on the part of the inheritor — a one-day old infant can inherit everything.

Commentary for Torah Portion Lech lecha
“The Covenant of Avraham”
Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. X, pp. 44-47

The Brit Milah, the covenant of circumcision is something that no one can ask for and no one can reject. Jews males are circumcised on their eighth-day in accordance to the commandment and become part of Israel, and Israel becomes a part of them. But Ishmael was also a son of Abraham. Does the older son inherit along with Isaac? The commentary continues.

The following, however, must be understood: In explaining the commandment of circumcision, the Rambam states: (Commentary on Mishnayos, Chulin conclusion of ch. 7) “We do not engage in circumcision because our father Avraham, of blessed memory, circumcised himself and his household, but rather because G-d commanded us through our teacher Moshe to circumcise ourselves.”

And where are these commandments?

For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. –Genesis 17:12

On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. –Leviticus 12:3

The Abrahamic covenant is “honed” and applied within the context of the Mosaic covenant, passing from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to the Children of Israel. Then passing to every Jew across history and to this very day.

But what does it mean besides being a sign of a Jew’s perpetual inheritance of the land of Israel?

Significantly, Avraham was given this name in connection with the mitzvah of circumcision. Circumcision an act which affects the most basic physical aspect of our being, demonstrates that our spiritual quest is not an attempt to escape worldly reality, but is rather an attempt to refine it. Circumcision represents a “covenant in the flesh,” and endows even our physical bodies with sanctity.

-Rabbi Eli Touger
“A Journey To One’s True Self: Avraham’s Odyssey As A Lesson For His Descendants”
Commentary on Lech Lecha
Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. V, p. 57ff; Vol. XX, p. 59ff, p. 301ff;
Vol. XXV, p. 52; Sefer HaSichos 5750, p. 96ff.

We are all faced with a physical and spiritual journey in our lives that starts the day we are born and continues until our death. This journey begins and progresses whether we want it to or not. It exists regardless of our religious orientation or lack thereof. Atheists, agnostics, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Taoists, and Jews all walk upon the path of spirit as well as the path of life. No newborn infant can ask to proceed on a spiritual path nor can they refuse it. For a Jew it is the same with the unique sign of the covenant. An eight-day old boy cannot ask for nor refuse the Brit Milah. It is the mark of God separating him from the hoards of humanity and signaling that his spiritual journey is unique among the peoples of the earth. He is a Jew and things will be different for him than for the rest of us. It is not a matter of choice.

Abraham had a choice but in choosing, he also chose for his children, his grandchildren, for Isaac, for Jacob, for the twelve tribes, and for all Jews throughout the corridors of time. He chose for Jews today. And in spite of legal decisions made by men such as Yoram Kaniuk, a Jew can never become a “not-Jew”.

spiritual-journeyThe rest of us have a choice. People who convert to Judaism have a choice, and one of the reasons that Judaism is reluctant to convert others is that the converts, under persecution, can decide to renounce their Jewish identity. Not so the born Jew. The Christian who accepts Christ as Lord and Savior can, under duress or discouragement, choose to renounce Jesus, join another religious tradition, or enter into atheism, acknowledging no God except himself. There is no sign on our flesh marking us as set apart. The circumcision we undergo is on our hearts.

A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God. –Romans 2:28-29

But this is really confusing. Who is Paul talking about here?

Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live. –Deuteronomy 30:6

These aren’t the only examples of “circumcision of the heart” in the Tanakh (Old Testament)  and the Apostolic Scriptures and certainly not the only illustrations of such a circumcision applied to the Jews. So who is circumcised and what does it mean? Has “circumcision of the heart” replaced the Abrahamic and Mosaic commandments for physical circumcision?

Or does one symbolize the other?

The way I see it, the physical circumcision indelibly marks a Jew as a Jew beyond all undoing. However, not all Jewish individuals dedicate themselves to the service of God and in obedience to the mitzvot. You can’t decide to be or “un-be” a Jew (except if you’re a convert), but you can decide, as a Jew or a Gentile, to serve God or not to serve God. You can make a conscious decision to allow the circumcision of the heart. You don’t get to decide to be born or to start on the journey of spirit and life, but you can decide the specific paths to take between birth and death (and beyond).

Small plantThe uniqueness of the Jewish people in the Kingdom of God is beyond question. How we decide to serve God or to fail God is entirely up to us, as a Jew, Christian, or anyone else. In that, we are like Abraham. God tells us to go somewhere and to do something. How we answer God is up to us.

The Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him. –Genesis 12:1,4

If the world did not need you and you did not need this world, you would never have come here. G-d does not cast His precious child into the pain of this journey without purpose.

You say you cannot see a reason. Why should it surprise you that a creature cannot fathom the plan of its Creator? Nevertheless, eventually the fruits of your labor will blossom for all to see.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Waiting for Fruition”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Good Shabbos.