J.J Gross

Learning the wrong lessons from Parshat Lekh Lekha

The unique thing about Torah’s narratives is that they provide us with fallible heroes. In contrast to the impossibly perfect saints of Christianity, our greatest men and women are remarkably human. Their errors of both judgment and action are painted in vivid color.

Inherent in these ‘warts and all’ portrayals are two important lessons:

  • First, that by learning from their mistakes we have the advantage of starting out at higher level of human evolution.
  • Second, that we must not allow our human failings to prevent us from achieving great things.

It is too facile to fall into the trap of self-abnegation and convince ourselves that we are unworthy of great accomplishments because of our obvious human foibles. Indeed, often it is precisely such character flaws that empower us to achieve heroic deeds.

If ever there was a case study of human fallibility in a great personage, it is the story of Avraham – starting with Parshat Lekh Lekha.

By allowing ourselves to gloss over or explain away Avraham’s colossal transgressions we are at risk of making them characteristics worthy of emulation rather than blemishes to be avoided at all costs.

Lekh Lekha is replete with aspects of Avraham’s behavior that should be examples of what NOT to do. And, yet, it appears that entire segments of our population here in Israel see their role model in precisely these flaws.

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ
And the Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (12:1)

G-d Himself tells Avraham to relocate to Canaan, the future Land of Israel. Who would not obey an order communicated directly by the Almighty Himself?

Indeed, Avraham does obey G-d, but not without first packing lifts and containers and long-haul moving vans to transport his significant belongings.

וַיִּקַּ֣ח אַבְרָם֩ אֶת־שָׂרַ֨י אִשְׁתּ֜וֹ וְאֶת־ל֣וֹט בֶּן־אָחִ֗יו וְאֶת־כָּל־רְכוּשָׁם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר רָכָ֔שׁוּ
And Avram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired (12:5)

Clearly, material possessions are very important to our patriarch. A powerful attachment to material goods remains a characteristic of his – and thereafter for we, his descendants, down to our very times.

Now, one would naturally assume that, having been ordered by G-d Himself to settle in the Land of Israel, Avraham wouldn’t even think of making ‘yeridah’ and decamping to, of all places, Egypt. And yet this is precisely what he does, in clear defiance of G-d’s explicit instructions:

וַיְהִ֥י רָעָ֖ב בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיֵּ֨רֶד אַבְרָ֤ם מִצְרַ֨יְמָה֙ לָג֣וּר שָׁ֔ם כִּֽי־כָבֵ֥ד הָֽרָעָ֖ב בָּאָֽרֶץ
And there was a famine in the land, and Avram descended to Egypt to live there because the famine was severe in the Land.(12:10)

So, yes, there was a famine in the Land. Does this mean the entire population of Canaan moved to Egypt or only those who could afford a business-class ticket to a more comfortable lifestyle?

Ordinary Canaanites remained at home and did the best they could. But Avaraham – no doubt with his entire possessions – and at no risk of starvation – decamps to Egypt.

He, like some people today, was a fair-weather oleh. As soon as the going gets tough they fly out to wherever they came from in order to ride out the storm. At a time, like now, when real Israelis come flocking back to defend their country, Ben Gurion Airport is jammed with a certain element that is hell-bent on getting out. Zero fidelity to Israel. Zero faith in the Almighty. Zero commitment to the greater society.

What’s more, Avraham uses his wife as his meal ticket. He is going to Egypt to succeed in business and he is going to do it at her expense.

אִמְרִי־נָ֖א אֲחֹ֣תִי אָ֑תְּ לְמַ֨עַן֙ יִֽיטַב־לִ֣י בַֽעֲבוּרֵ֔ךְ וְחָֽיְתָ֥ה נַפְשִׁ֖י בִּגְלָלֵֽךְ
Please say [that] you are my sister, in order that it go well for me because of you, and that my soul may live because of you.(12:13)

וַתֻּקַּ֥ח הָֽאִשָּׁ֖ה בֵּ֥ית פַּרְעֹֽה …וּלְאַבְרָ֥ם הֵיטִ֖יב בַּֽעֲבוּרָ֑הּ וַֽיְהִי־ל֤וֹ צֹֽאן־וּבָקָר֙ וַֽחֲמֹרִ֔ים וַֽעֲבָדִים֙ וּשְׁפָחֹ֔ת וַֽאֲתֹנֹ֖ת וּגְמַלִּֽים
… and the woman (Sarah) was taken to the house of Pharaoh. And Avram benefited because of her, and he had flocks and cattle and he donkeys and men servants and maid servants, and she donkeys and camels. (15:16)

There is a great deal more questionable behavior on Avraham’s part in this Parsha, but he can be excused. After all, unlike us, he was a first, with no role models to learn from. But let us pause here for now, and examine how what we have noted thus far is reflected In life in Israel today.

56 years ago I landed in Israel for the first time as a volunteer. It was three days before the formal outbreak of the Six Days War. Then, as now, the Boeing 707 was jammed with Israeli men racing home to defend the Land.

As we were taxiing to the terminal, I was certain we would be arriving to an empty airport. After all, who would want to leave Israel at a time like this? But I was wrong. Very wrong, Jammed into the departure area (Lod was then a fairly small aerodrome) were haredim clamoring to board the next flight out.

Avraham might be excused for his error. But G-d makes sure it does not repeat itself. In Bereishit 26, when there is yet another famine, Yitzhak is told to remain in Israel:

גּ֚וּר בָּאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את וְאֶֽהְיֶ֥ה עִמְּךָ֖ וַֽאֲבָֽרֲכֶ֑ךָּ
Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and I will bless you (26:3)

Yizhak obeys. Yet, clearly, the lesson has not been fully learned, at least not among a great many of those who think of themselves as the true believers, the “maaminim bnei maaminim”

As soon as the current war broke out, Ben Gurion Airport was mobbed by thousands of haredim, as well as a sprinkling of fair weather olim clamoring to leave on the earliest possible flight.

Clearly they hadn’t gotten the message. They chose to follow the earlier example of Avraham rather than the later, more advanced, example of Yitzhak.

Of course the majority of haredim remain in Israel. Some, no doubt, because they have a bit more bithaohn (faith), others because they can’t afford the airfare, or because they have no other country that would welcome them on such short notice. Regardless, for the mobs who fled, there was absolutely no shame among their peers, no rabbinic disapproval, no herem, no shanda. If anything they were the lucky ones, They could get out.

Hence it is hardly surprising that so many haredim also live off their wives. Sadly, they learned only the negatives of our forefather Avraham. In their paradoxically Christian way of looking at things, Avraham and every significant Jewish figure since then, is a saint, perfect, unblemished worthy of emulation in every aspect.

Hence, materialism, cowardice, and exploitation of their womenfolk is nothing other than following a proper example. It is not their job to defend the Land. There is no reason to abjure material greed. It is not their responsibility to support their families when they have a woman who can shoulder this burden as well.

Is all this true for all haredim? Definitely not. Is it sometimes true among non-haredim? Definitely yes. Sadly, however, it is rather typical of many among them – lust for material comfort, shirk work, be dependent on women, flee at the first sign of uncertainty. G-d’s promises be damned.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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