“Lech Lecha!” With this phrase, the history of the Jewish people begins. It’s brevity and allusiveness have generated a number of creative interpretations: “Go for yourself…”, “Go toward yourself…”, “Get a move on…!”
But for all its potential for midrash, “go” isn’t the key word in our parasha. This part of our story is not about going to any particular place but about getting out of where we are. The key word is חוץ , “out of,” or “outside of.”
The midrash sees this phrase, twice repeated in two different contexts, as the secret of Avraham’s becoming the father of the Jewish people.1
ויאמר אברם הן לי לא נתת זרע – אמר רב שמואל בר רב יצחק: המזל דוחקני ואומר לי: אברם אין את מוליד! אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: הן כדבריך! אברם ושרי אין מולידים, אברהם ושרה מולידים!
Avram said: To me You have given no seed. R. Shmuel b. Yitzhak commented: [Abraham said:] “My planetary fate oppresses me and declares: ‘Avram cannot beget a child.’
Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: “It is indeed as you say: Avram and Sarai cannot give birth—Abraham and Sarah will give birth!” (Bereishit Rabbah 44:10)
There is a tradition that Avraham was well versed in astrological lore. (Bava Batra 16b). In our midrash, he is told not to put faith in such beliefs, but only in God. There is no lucky star for Israel! This rejection of astrological fate is bound up with the notion of human transformation. Humans can change, and when they do, they also alter their future. Avram and Sarai will be given new names as a symbol of their inner transformation.
How is this transformation to be brought about? By a change in perspective!
ויוצא אותו החוצה – רבי יהושע דסכנין בשם רבי לוי: וכי מחוץ לעולם הוציאו, שאמר הכתוב: ויוצא אותו החוצה?! אלא, אחוי ליה שוקקי שמיא, היך מה דאת אמר: עד לא עשה ארץ וחוצות. אמר רבי יהודה בשם ר’ יוחנן: העלה אותו למעלה מכיפת הרקיע, הוא דאמר ליה: הבט נא השמימה, אין הבטה אלא מלמעלה למטה. […]. ואמר רבי לוי: עד דסנדלא ברגליך דריס כובא, וכל מי שהוא נתון למטה מהם הוא מתירא מהם, אבל את, שאת נתון למעלה מהם, דיישם.:
He brought him outside (ha-hutzah). R’ Yehoshua said in R’ Levi’s name: Did He then lead him outside of the world when it says, “He brought him outside?” Rather, it means that He showed him the streets of heaven, as you read, “While as yet He had not made the earth, nor the outer spaces (hutzot) (Prov. 26).(Bereishit Rabbah 44:12)
God’s response to Avraham’s complaint, “You’ve given me no children” is implied in the verse: He brought him outside (hahutza) and said: “Look at the heavens..” According to R’ Yohanan, this means that God actually elevated Avraham above the vault of the heavens. But R’ Levi gives us the ultimate image of the one who short-circuits destiny: “Only one who is beneath the stars need fear them, but you, who are above them, tread on them!”
But this transformation of perspective is not easy, and can be nearly impossible if one is surrounded by people telling us it’s impossible! The Midrash Rabbah sees God’s command to Avram to “leave your birthplace…” as bound up with Avram’s transformation. In order for Avram to become Avraham, he will have to leave behind the worldview that is accepted as indisputable fact by his society:
רבנן אמרי: נביא את ואין את אסטרולוגוס, …. בימי ירמיה בקשו ישראל לבא לידי מדה זו ולא הניח להם הקב”ה, הה”ד (ירמיה י): כה אמר ה’: אל דרך הגוים אל תלמדו, ומאותות השמים אל תחתו וגו’. כבר אברהם אביכם בקש לבא לידי מדה זו ולא הנחתי אותו
The sages say: [God said to Avraham] “You are a prophet, not an astrologer … In the days of Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) the people aspired to become such (to read their future in the stars), and the Holy One, Blessed be He did not allow it. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Do not learn the ways of the nations. Do not be afraid of heavenly signs…’ Your father Avraham already tried to do this and I did not allow it!”
Another midrash extends this further:
בשעה שאמר הקב”ה לאברהם (בראשית יב): לך לך מארצך ואעשך לגוי גדול. אמר לפני הקב”ה: רבש”ע! מה הנאה יש לי בכל הברכות הללו, והריני הולך מן העולם בלא בנים?אמר לו הקב”ה לאברהם: כבר אתה יודע, שאין אתה מוליד?!
אמר לפניו: רבש”ע! כך אני רואה במזל שלי שאיני מוליד! אמר לו: מן המזל אתה מתיירא?!
חייך! כשם שאי אפשר לאדם למנות את הכוכבים, כך א”א למנות בניך!
It is said in the name of R’ Hizkiya b. Hiyya: When God said to Avraham, “Go from your country […] and I will make of you a great nation, and make your name great; and you will be a blessing.], he said to God: ‘Lord of the Universe, what benefit is there for me in all these blessings, seeing that I am to leave the world without children?’
God said to Avraham: ‘You already know that you are not going to have progeny?’
‘Lord of the Universe,’ he replied, ‘I have observed this in my stars that I am not going to have progeny!’
‘You fear the [portents of the] stars? As you live, just as it is impossible for a man to count the stars, so it will be impossible to count your descendants!’ (Exodus Rabbah 38:6.)
Not only is the belief in predestination unhealthy, it’s just plain wrong! No man can count the stars, and so no man can read his future in them. Even if they really did determine fate, that fate is indeterminate because unmeasurable. The stars, in their uncountability, are themselves undetermined. The future is up for grabs!
Avraham must “get out” of his habitual mindset in order to see the possibility of self-transformation. His perception of the possibility is what brings about the transformation. This might be the true beginning of Judaism as a worldview—the understanding that it isn’t only God that can perform miracles. It isn’t only God that can step out of strict causality and alter the world. Man too has this capability. The Snake in the Garden of Eden was right: by eating of the tree of large brains and opposable thumbs, we attained a capability that was previously the domain of God alone.
But perhaps this is not an ability that we acquired when we became human, so much as an ability that we became aware of in ourselves. Just as our increased self-consciousness brought home to us the fact that we are mortal, it also showed us how we can transcend fate. The mindset that would have us a slave to fortune carries a heavy penalty in terms of mental health—and even societal health. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consider the wealth of research into what psychologist Carol Dweck calls “fixed vs. growth” mindsets:
Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. …
The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort or acquirable skills, not fixed ability, they can be remedied by perseverance. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.
(Carol Dweck, The Secret to Raising Smarter Kids, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-secret-to-raising-smart-kids1/)
The understanding that we are responsible for our fate brings with it greater responsibility, for ourselves and for others. But it also is strangely liberating: we may be responsible for who we become, but we can also choose to become other than we are. We may be responsible for our wrong-doing, but we can also make amends. If Judaism has a central creed, the belief in free will is perhaps the heart of that creed. It is the foundation for the Jewish notion of t’shuvah—return/repentance—the idea that we can always, at any point in our life’s trajectory, take responsibility for our past and choose a different future.
And, as we will see in next week’s parasha, it’s at the heart of building a functional society that can endure throughout the ages.
It is not by chance that the midrash quoted above (Midrash Rabba, 44:12) continues:
ר’ יודן בשם ר’ אלעזר אמר: שלושה דברים מבטלים גזירות רעות, ואלו הם: תפלה וצדקה ותשובה… ’. ויש אומרים: אף שנוי מקום שנאמר (בראשית יב): ויאמר ה’ אל אברם לך לך.Three things cancel bad decrees (fates): prayer, charity, and t’shuvah…. And some say, even changing one’s place, as it’s said: “God said to Avram, ‘Lech lecha…’
But is there not a paradox in God’s telling Avraham not to believe his fate is predetermined? After all, does God not promise Avraham that he will become a great nation, a blessing to other nations? But this is clearly conditional on his behavior and that of his descendants. In the next parasha, we read that God says of Avraham (not to him!):
For I have known (chosen, acknowledged) him, so that he may teach and command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is righteous and just, so that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has promised him.
There is an interesting statement here about the fate of nations. God appears to be linking Avraham’s future “nationhood” with a particular type of behavior: doing justice and mercy. Why these two things? That’s a topic for another post! (See also an intriguing post on how counting the uncountable relates to Israel’s future mission to the world.)
- This post was inspired by a footnote in Devora Steinmetz. Punishment and Freedom: The Rabbinic Construction of Criminal Law. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008