Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah
Parshat Lech Lecha
by Rabbi Steven Weil
After discovering God, Avraham Avinu found his mission in life— he “made souls.” Together with his wife Sarah, he successfully brought thousands of pagan idolaters under the wings of the Shechinah by lovingly and logically teaching them about the One True God. Avraham did not care about nationality, social status, age or gender; he only cared about enlightening the masses and spreading the truth of monotheism to as many people as he could reach. Avraham was God’s number-one kiruv person, single-handedly transforming a society. That is why it is so difficult to understand why God instructed Avraham, “Lech lecha.” God told him to leave his home, his birthplace, the place where he was having an outstanding impact and go to an unknown, sparsely populated destination. Avraham was doing God’s work. Why would God want him to abandon that?
Another curious statement from God comes years later. The four kings, who waged war against the five kings, lured Avraham into the battle by kidnapping his nephew, Lot. Against all odds, Avraham was victorious. He not only rescued Lot and other prisoners of war, but he pursued the most powerful armies of the world all the way into Syria. After the war, he was greeted personally by the king of Sodom and honored by Malki Zedek the priest. Avraham already enjoyed a fine reputation as a generous, charismatic man, but after this stunning victory in a world war, he also became known as an awe-inspiring man of power, someone whose might and strength were to be feared. So why, right after this battle, does Hashem say to him, “Al tira Avram—Do not fear, Avram” (Bereishit 15:1)? What could Avraham—one of the most feared men alive—possibly be afraid of?
The third puzzling statement comes from Avraham himself. After Hashem promises, “Do not fear, Avram, I am your shield; your reward will be very great” (Bereishit 15:1), Avraham responds uncharacteristically: “What can You give me, seeing that I go childless?” he says to Hashem (Bereishit 15:2).
Avraham endured many tests to his faith: he left his home, survived a famine and his wife’s abduction, lost his nephew to a foreign value system, and was drawn into a world war—all without ever questioning or doubting Hashem’s plan. But when Hashem promises him great things, Avraham is dismissive. This is the first time Avraham complains to Hashem, and the first time he seems to be bothered by the fact that he is childless. Why has this never before been an issue for Avraham, and why does it take on suddenly take on such urgency?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik addresses these questions, and shares with us a very relevant insight into the nature of Avraham’s mission—which is our mission as well. Avraham faced an existential crisis, a crisis of identity and purpose, during his battle against the kings. Until this war, Avraham had understood that his mission in life was to transform humanity and bring the knowledge of God to the peoples of the world. Avraham loved all mankind and envisioned a world united in the belief in a singular God of morals and values. Numerous followers proved his success.
But what scared Avraham was that the world he loved and cared about so much, the world that he dedicated his life to teaching, turned against him in this epic world war. Avraham had faced adversaries before, like Nimrod and Pharaoh, but they were individuals. This was the first time entire kingdoms united against him. Notably, it is the first time the Torah uses the adjective “ivri” to describe Avraham (Bereishit 14:13). Ivri is a variation of the word “eiver,” which means “other side.” For the first time, Avraham felt that the world stood on one side, and he on the other. He felt like an outcast. The idea that he would not be able to fulfill his mission, that he would always be at odds with—instead of at one with—the world, terrified him.
That is why Hashem reassures him, “Do not fear… your reward will be very great.” But Avraham protests that Hashem’s rewards are wasted since he has no children. Up until this point, Avraham was not pained by his childlessness; he considered all of mankind to be his children, who would perpetuate his teachings when he no longer could. But after this war, once he saw himself estranged from mankind, having his own biological child suddenly became monumentally important.
Hashem responds to this, too. “Look now toward the heavens and count the stars if you are able to count them… so shall your offspring be” (Bereishit 15:5). Hashem promises Avraham that he will have his own children. Avraham’s mission to turn the world into a monotheistic community is noble and necessary, but it is not enough. Hashem commanded Avraham to leave his home and the great work he was doing there because to really have an impact on the world, to really transform humanity, to really leave behind an enduring legacy, Avraham had to first teach one little boy named Yitzchak. The world needs to know that there is One God, and that He has expectations of humanity and ethical and moral standards to uphold. But we, the descendants of Avraham, need to know that often times the world is against us, and no matter how great our impact on the world at large may be, the greatest impact we can ever have is on our own children—children like you, the bar mitzvah bachur.
Eight days shy of thirteen years ago you entered into the covenant of Avraham Avinu at your brit milah. Now you stand at the next stage, bar mitzvah, where you become responsible for the beautiful system of mitzvoth that you have been taught by your teachers, parents and grandparents. Their mission, like Avraham’s, was to teach one little boy, and raise him with a solid commitment to the ideals and values of a Godly life. While their mission continues, yours is just beginning. You, too, must be a kiddush Hashem to the world at large, and continue to learn, continue to grow, continue to be the living fulfillment of Avraham’s dream.
And God willing, one day, you will be able to teach everything you know and everything you are to your own little boys and little girls. Then you will know the joy and nachat of Avraham and of every parent that has borne that privilege and led his son to this day.
Rabbi Steven Weil is Senior Managing Director of the Orthodox Union.