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Lech Lecha: Fitting In As A Jew

The following verse appears in the first portion of parshat Lech Lecha:1

And Abram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until the plain of Moreh, and the Canaanites were then in the land.

In his commentary on this verse, Rashi writes:

And Abram passed through the land”: He entered it; “until the place of Shechem,” to pray for Jacob’s sons when they would come to wage war in Shechem; “until the plain of Moreh,” that is Shechem. He showed him Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, where Israel accepted the oath of the Torah; “and the Canaanites were then in the land”: They [the Canaanites] were gradually conquering the Land of Israel from the descendants of Shem, for it fell in Shem’s share when Noah apportioned the land to his sons, as it is said: “And Malchizedek the king of Salem” (Genesis 14:18). Therefore, God said to Abram: “To your seed will I give this land” (Genesis 12:7). I am destined to restore it to your children, who are of the descendants of Shem.

Journeyman

Let us concentrate on the first few words that Rashi writes: “He entered it,” referring literally to the land. But, what does it mean to enter a land? When Abraham first arrived there, the land of Israel was still the Land of Canaan. It was a foreign land, foreign to God, foreign to morality, and perhaps most importantly in this case, foreign to Abraham.

Thus, the manner in which Abraham conducted himself upon immigrating to his new environs is a lesson for us in our generation. Most Jews and God-fearing non-Jews live in communities and environments that present tremendous challenges to our faith and traditions. What then is the proper attitude to take? More importantly, Abraham’s own life was the first testimonial ever to the possibility of an individual coming into the world with a message of Divine teachings, morality, and conduct. Abraham was successful in his work, and was revered as both a sage and a leader of the highest caliber and yet he did not change one iota of his faith and traditions. How did he do this?

You have a mission

First, Abraham was aware of his Divine mission. The opening words of parshah are “lech lecha,” which literally mean “go for your own sake.” In Chassidic teachings, “your own sake,” refers to one’s soul root. All of Abraham’s travels, and all of our travels in the world, are to find our soul root. “To the land that I will show you”: land refers to the sefirah of kingdom, the so-called revealed reality where all that is hidden, such as one’s soul root, can be revealed. Thus, God was sending Abraham to reveal his soul to the entire world.

This is exactly what the Almighty says to every Jew before sending him or her to their place in the world. Every Jew is an emissary of the Almighty, a beacon of Godliness in the world. Every Jew should be aware that he or she is like Abraham being sent to a strange land by Divine sanction—to the only place in the world that they can truly find their soul-root and reveal it to the world.

But, now we come to our initial question. How does one remain true to one’s source and root in Godliness and yet still grow as part of the community that one lives in?

Vessels and Lights

The sages say: “If you have entered a city, follow its customs.”2 But, as we shall now explain, following local customs does not mean just adopting the local external attire.

We are composed of many layers of being. The outermost, called the garments, include are thoughts, speech, and actions. One layer in, we find our mind and our emotions. Still further in, we find our wills and wants. Even more internal are our pleasures, while most internal yet still definable layer is that of our faith. Every external layer is referred to as “vessels,” relative to the layer it encloses, or enclothes, which is referred to as “lights.” Of course, because of the relativistic nature of Kabbalistic conceptual scheme, mind and emotions, which relative to thought, speech, and actions are lights, are also the vessels of will.

This is the most frequently used terminology to describe the different layers of our being. But, there are more advanced meta-systems found in Kabbalah, one of the most important of which is called כל צמא (pronounced: KoL TZaMAi)3 after the acronym that hints at its components, which are:

  • כ – vessels (כלים )
  • ל – garments (לבושים )
  • צ – images (צלמים )
  • מ – minds (מוחין )
  • א – lights (אורות )

In this meta-model between every vessel and light there are 3 more layers, garments, images, and minds. But, note that these five components are divided into two groups: vessel and garments in the first, images, minds, and lights in the second.

To truly enter a place, to truly become part of the community, one has to be able to wear its garments and vessels, which include adopting the mentality, the proper emotional reactions, the customs, and the connection with the physical location. These four elements correspond to the sefirot in the following way:

  • Mentality – wisdom, understanding, and knowledge (chabad)
  • Emotional reactions – loving-kindness, might, and beauty (chagat)
  • Customs – victory, acknowledgment, and foundation (nehi)
  • Physical location – kingdom (malchut)

For this reason the Torah mentions that the Canaanite’s were conquering the land at the time for the descendants of Shem. Abraham’s challenge was to assume the full garments and vessels of the Canaanites in order to be able to introduce the Oneness of God into their world. Without doing so, he would not have been able to filter his message into these people’s lives.

Total immersion

But, before entering the garments and vessels of the place into which he is sent, a person must first totally immerse him or herself in the lights, minds, and images of holiness. You must first become completely one with the reason for which the Almighty has sent you to where you currently are, with your mission. Immersion in holiness must encompass the totality of one’s being. It can be compared to the immersion in a mikveh (ritual waters). If even one strand of hair is left out of the purifying waters of the mikveh the immersion is not kosher and has to be repeated. Likewise, if even a single strand of thought is left void of the lights of holiness, the immersion is incomplete and the adoption of foreign vessels can lead to disaster. Thus, the garments and vessels to be adopted are those of the place into which you have been placed, and the lights, minds, and images are those of the place where you are coming from, God.

The necessity of complete immersion in the lights of holiness is alluded to in the verse: “To know Your ways in the land, between all nations is Your salvation.”4 First I need to know “Your ways,” which refers to an immersion in the lights of God’s intent in sending me on my mission and then I can be “in the land.” When both are complete, then “between all nations is Your salvation,” I will experience the guarding and protecting hand of God in helping me fulfill my mission between the nations of the world.

Independence

Once a person has immersed fully in holiness and adapted to his locale he is at the level of atzadik. The sages say that tzadikim resemble their Creator. About the Creator the Zoharsays: “He grasps all, but there is none that can grasp Him.”5 In other words, the Creator affects everything and yet, for all His involvement in the mundane, remains independent of it. Likewise, Abraham, for all his involvement in the world of the Canaanites, his true self embodied within him, safeguards him from losing his independence and his authentic character and faith.

As Abraham protected his independent thought and remained free of the grasp of the Canaanite culture and beliefs, so the Canaanites remained unable to grasp the full meaning of Abraham’s monotheism. Abraham brought us the understanding that: God is everything and everything is God, a symmetrical definition which, as explained in length in Chassidut, can only be grasped by the Jewish soul.

In any case, only when combining these two elements of total immersion in the lights of holiness together with full adaptation to the vessels of the environment can the task of clarifying and cleansing reality be truly carried out by God’s chosen people. Indeed, this is also hinted at mathematically. The value of “only in the image [of God] may a man walk”6 אך בצלם יתהלך איש = 959, which is also the value of Abraham, אברהם , in mispar kidmireckoning. The mispar kidmi value of a word is found by taking each letter separately to stand for the sum of letters from alef to it. Thus, Abraham, אברהם in mispar kimdi is:

א = 1 (א ), plus
ב = 3 (אב ), plus
ר = 795 (אבגדהוזחטיכלמנסעפצקר ), plus
ה = 15 (אבגדה ), plus
ם = 145 (אבגדהוזחטיכלמ )

equals: 959!

1. Genesis 12:6.

2Bereisheet Rabbah 48:14.

3. This meta-model was introduced by the Rashash, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (1720-1777), who is considered the 18th century’s greatest expositor of and innovator in the Arizal’s Kabbalah.

4. Psalms 67:3.

5Zohar III, 225a.

6. Ibid. 39:7.

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