Parshas Lech Lecha
The Deeds of the Patriachs
Volume 26, No. 3
Harold and Gilla Saltzman
on the yahrtzeit of his mother
Rivka Rachel bat Yehuda Leib a”h (Rebecca Saltzman)
The Vogel family
on the yahrzeit of father and grandfather
Aharon Shimon ben Shemayah a”h (Arthur Kalkstein)
The Edeson and Stern families,
on the anniversary of Jacob S. Edeson’s bar mitzvah
R’ Bachya ben Yosef ibn Pekuda z”l (Spain; 11th century) lists 30 types of
cheshbon ha’nefesh / accounting with one’s soul that a person must perform,
the twenty-fourth of which is the following: “Reconsider everything you have
known since your youth and the beginning of your education about G-d and His
Torah, about the words of the earlier generations, about the riddles of the
Sages, and about the prayers, for these subtle matters are not the same to
one whose understanding is immature [i.e., a youth] as they are to one whose
understanding is mature.
“Therefore, do not be content with the images you have in your mind from the
beginning of your studies. Rather, when your mind has matured you should
begin again to study the Torah of Elokim and the books of the Prophets.
[Learn them with a fresh perspective] like someone who is first learning to
read, and accustom yourself to explain them, to elaborate upon their
allusions, and to look carefully at their wording and phraseology. Also,
recognize which statements are meant to be understood straightforwardly
(peshat), and which are not meant to be understood that way. . . If you do
this, you will see the secrets of the Torah and the secrets of the Prophets
and Sages in way that is impossible if you continue to learn the way you
learned as a child.” (Chovot Ha’levavot: Sha’ar Cheshbon Ha’nefesh ch.3)
R’ Isaac Sher z”l (1875-1952; rosh yeshiva of the Slobodka Yeshiva in
Lithuania and Bnei Brak) applies these words studying the Book of Bereishit.
He writes: A person learns Sefer Bereishit as a child and grasps what he
learned on a childish level. This forms his understanding of the Patriarchs
and their deeds. The typical person does not thereafter reexamine his
understanding of these “stories” as the years pass.
He continues: As a result, we are unable with our limited perspective to
understand the Torah’s stories and to learn about the deeds of the
Patriarchs. We do not appreciate their depth. Worse yet, some of the deeds
of the Patriarchs appear to us to have been sins, and we have the nerve to
say, “After all, there is no tzaddik who is perfect.” This is wrong!
Rather, we are obligated to say, “When will my deeds reach the level of the
Patriarchs’ deeds?!” (Lekket Sichot Mussar Vol. I p.37)
“There was a famine in the land, and Avram descended to Egypt to sojourn
there, for the famine was severe in the land. . . . ‘Please say that you
are my sister, that it may go well with me for your sake, and that I may
live on account of you’.” (12:10, 13)
R’ Moshe ben Nachman z”l (Ramban; 1194-1270; Spain and Eretz Yisrael)
writes: Know that Avraham sinned a great sin, albeit inadvertently, when he
placed his wife at risk of stumbling into sin [i.e., with Pharaoh] merely
because he (Avraham) was afraid for his life. Rather, he should have
trusted in G-d to save him and his wife, for G-d has the ability to protect.
Leaving the land to which he had been commanded to travel [i.e., Canaan]
because of the famine also was a sin, for G-d can save man from death by
famine. Because of this, G-d decreed that Avraham’s descendants would go
down to Egypt. (Peirush Ha’Ramban Al Ha’Torah)
R’ Yehuda Loewe z”l (Maharal of Prague; died 1609) challenges Ramban’s
assertion that Avraham sinned in our verse, for we read (in next week’s
parashah) that Avraham traveled to the land of the Plishtim where he again
said that Sarah was his sister. How could Avraham have make the same
mistake a second time after being told (later in our parashah) that his
descendants would be exiled, which according to Ramban was a punishment for
endangering Sarah the first time?! [Presumably, Avraham would have known
why he was being punished and would not repeat his sin.]
Rather, Maharal writes, Avraham committed a different sin--specifically,
when he said (15:8), “My Lord, Hashem/Elokim–How will I know [i.e., give me
a sign] that I will inherit [the Land]?” It was for the subtle lack of
faith implied in this question that Avraham was punished and his descendants
exiled. (Gevurot Hashem ch.9)
R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch z”l (1808-1888) cites Ramban’s comment, but
disagrees, as well, and writes that Avraham did not sin in our verses.
Briefly, he explains that Avraham would not have done what he did unless he
had no alternative, and we are not in a position to judge him. However, R’
Hirsch adds: The Torah never presents our great men as being perfect, and it
deifies no man. The Torah never hides from us the faults, errors and
weaknesses of our great people. This in no way makes them smaller; it
actually makes them greater and more instructive. If they stood before us
as the purest models of perfection, if they had no internal struggles, we
would attribute to them a different nature than we have. In that event,
they would not be a model that we could hope to emulate. Take, for example,
Moshe’s humility. If we did not also know that he was capable of anger (see
Bemidbar 20:10 & 31:14), his humility would seem to us to be nothing more
than his inborn nature. Now, however, we know that his humility was the
result of immense self-control which we should copy. From the Ramban
(above) we learn that it is not our task to whitewash the spiritual and
moral heroes of our past. Rather, the seal of the Torah is truth.
(Commentary on the Torah)
R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzato z”l (Ramchal; Italy and Eretz Yisrael; 1707-1746)
writes: The greatest and most powerful antidote to the yetzer hara, albeit
an easy antidote, is for a person to take time every day, completely removed
from any distractions, to ask himself: What did the Patriarchs do that
caused G-d to want to have a relationship with them? What did Moshe
Rabbeinu do [to cause his closeness to G-d]? What about King David, G-d’s
anointed one? What about all of the great people who preceded us? (Derech
R’ Isaac Sher (see above) quotes Ramchal and notes that we know relatively
little about the Patriarchs’ specific deeds. We know that Avraham was
willing to give his life for his beliefs [from the midrash describing how he
was thrown into a furnace], that he took in guests, and that he was willing
to sacrifice his son because G-d said so. Pirkei Avot tells us further that
he was humble and generous. Still, there are few details to learn from!
Moreover, we find Avraham doing some things that seem to contradict these
Regarding the latter point--who are we to judge the Patriarchs, especially
when our Sages have taught us (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu ch.25), “Every Jew is
obligated to ask himself, “When will my deeds reach the level of the
Patriarchs’ deeds”? Rather, if we don’t understand one of their actions, it
is because our understanding is superficial.
What then can we learn from the Patriarchs? We know that they were
prophets, and the Rambam tells us the steps that a person must go through to
attain prophecy. Obviously, then, the Patriarchs accomplished all of those
steps. Furthermore, as we refer to G-d as the “Elokim of Avraham, of
Yitzchak and of Yaakov,” we can infer that they made themselves vessels
through which G-d could be revealed. On a practical level, this means doing
the mitzvot not only because they are mitzvot, but with the goal of
attaining perfection. (Lekket Sichot Mussar Vol.I p.37)
Letters from Our Sages
This letter was written by R’ Yitzchak Hutner z”l (1904-1980; Rosh
Yeshiva of Mesivta Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn) in response to a former
student. The correspondent apparently had bemoaned the fact that he faced
spiritual struggles; as quoted by R’ Hutner, he had written: “I will never
forget the desire that I once had to succeed and to climb ‘from strength to
strength,’ but now, my hope is lost.” The letter is found in Pachad
Yitzchak: Igrot U’ketavim No. 128.
Your letter reached my hand, and your words touched my heart. Know, my
friend, that your very letter belies the descriptions that it contains. Now,
let me explain this statement.
It is a terrible problem that when we discuss the greatness of our gedolim,
we actually deal only with the end of their stories. We tell about their
perfection, but we omit any mention of the inner battles which raged in
their souls. The impression one gets is that they were created with their
For example, everyone is impressed by the purity of the Chafetz Chaim’s
speech. [Ed. Note: The Chafetz Chaim led the battle against lashon hara and
is held up as the model of how a Jew should speak.] However, who knows
about all the wars, the battles, the impediments, the downfalls, and the
retreats that the Chafetz Chaim experienced in his fight with the evil
As a result [of this gap in our knowledge of gedolim], when a young man who
is imbued with a [holy] spirit and with ambition experiences impediments and
downfalls, he believes that he is not planted in the house of Hashem. This
is because this young man thinks that being planted in Hashem’s house means
experiencing tranquility of the soul “in lush meadows beside tranquil
waters” [Tehilim 23:2].
However, know my friend, that the key for your soul is not the tranquility
of the yetzer hatov, but the war against the yetzer hara. Your letter
testifies that you are a faithful warrior in the army of the yetzer hatov.
There is a saying in English, “Lose the battle and win the war.” You surely
have stumbled and will stumble again, and you will be vanquished in many
battles. However, I promise you that after you have lost those battles, you
will emerge from the war with a victor’s wreath on your head.
The wisest of all men [King Shlomo] said [Mishlei 24:16], “The tzaddik will
fall seven times and will rise.” The unlearned think that this means, “Even
though a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.” The wise know well that
the meaning is: “Because a tzaddik falls seven times, he will rise.” On the
verse [Bereishit 1:31], “And Elokim saw all that He had made and it was very
good,” the midrash comments, “‘Good’ refers to the yetzer hatov; ‘Very good’
refers to the yetzer hara.”
[In line with this midrash, R’ Hutner continues:] If you had written to me
of your mitzvot and good deeds, I would have said that it was a good letter.
Now that you tell me of your falls and stumbles, I say that I have received
a very good letter. Please, don’t picture to yourself that a gadol and his
yetzer hatov are one and the same; rather, imagine the gedolim at war with
all types of base tendencies . . .
I have seen fit to write these words to you so that you can refer to them
from time to time. Regarding specific details, it is preferable to speak
You are one who is planted in Hashem’s house!
Sharing in your suffering,
Confident that you will prevail,
Praying for your success,
[Signed] Yitzchak Hutner.
P.S. Now you understand the opening sentence.
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