Lech Lecha: Tikun Olam Requires that You Make the First Move

Garments and Vessels

Today, and for the rest of the week, we will focus on the verse studied yesterday. Let us quote it once more:

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

We explained yesterday that the ability to truly affect one’s community depends on an adoption of the vessels and garments of one’s environment, while still remaining completely immersed in the lights, mind, and images of holiness. The need for Abraham to adopt local vessels and garments (of which we will see a second example today) is already hinted to in the very first verse of our parshah. God says to Abraham, לֶךְ לְךָ , “Go for your own sake.” But, the word לְךָ (“for your own sake”) is also an acronym for the two words “garments” and “vessels,” לבושים and כלים .

Thus, the Torah is telling us that Abraham passed through the land, searching for the best place to fulfill his mission, until he reached Shechem, a place where he felt that he could fully wear the garments and use the vessels of the local population. Shechem is thus the very beginning of the Jewish connection with the Land of Israel. It was the first place that Abraham felt comfortable enough with. In Shechem, Abraham felt that he could carry out the Divine command which had set him on his path in the first place: לֶךְ לְךָ . Indeed, numerically,לֶךְ לְךָ in mispar kidmi (defined yesterday) is equal to שכם , “Shechem”:
אבגדהוזחטיכל אבגדהוזחטיכ אבגדהוזחטיכל אבגדהוזחטיכ = 360 = שכם !

Moreover, if we add the command לֶךְ לְךָ to the words עד מקום שכם , “until the place of Shechem,” we get two times the value of שכם “Shechem”:

לֶךְ לְךָ עד מקום שכם = 720 = שכם שכם !

Shechem: starting point for rectification

It is now clear to us that Shechem plays a key role in the success of Abraham’s life mission and the success of his children’s mission to spread true monotheism and Torah morality throughout the world. Since Shechem figures so prominently in Abraham’s mission (and ours) to bring Godliness into the world, we need to understand what it represents better. To do so, we proceed by looking at the various meanings of the word itself.1 Each of the meanings of the name “Shechem” will provide us with a further understanding of its function in helping Abraham complete his life mission.

We find that there are four different meanings for “Shechem,” שכם :

  1. Proaction, many times in the sense of getting up early in the morning, or being the first to complete something.
  2. Precedence or presage, as in the sages’ idiom: “If someone rises up to kill you, precede him and kill him first.”
  3. Finally, it means “to shoulder,” as in “shouldering a burden,” or a task.
  4. A shoulder, as in the verse: “I have given you a shoulder more than your brothers.”2 In the human form, the shoulder represents the bridge between the front side of the body and its backside. As such it represents the ability to transfer things from the front to the back and vice versa. In Chassidic terminology, front and back refer to refined and unrefined, or rectified and unrectified states. Thus the shoulder symbolizes the ability to refine or clarify impure states (called avodat haberuruim, the spiritual work of refinement), the essence of Abraham’s mission in life.

Now, if we take all of these meaning together, we can say the following. In order to succeed in our mission of clarifying the world—a very difficult struggle for which the shoulder is the symbol, we have to wake up early in the morning; as the sages say: “The motivated strive to perform mitzvot early.” Waking up early, that is being proactive and taking the initiative is necessary, for just as the best defense is an offense, so when dealing with an unrectified reality, if we do not move first, it will move on us, tainting our motives and clouding our judgment. Finally, the task of tikun olam, of refining the world with knowledge of God, is a burden of leadership for every single Jew. It means that every Jew has been entrusted with ministering its success.

Shimon and Levi follow Abraham

Two generations after Abraham arrived there, Shechem was the first place that Jacob’s children conquered (see the Ramban’s commentary here), and Rashi mentions that one of the reasons that Abraham made his way to Shechem was to pray for the victory of Shimon and Levi in that war with the people of Shechem. For many, and according to some commentaries, even for Jacob himself, Shimon and Levi did not exhibit proper Jewish character in their dealing with the king and citizens of Shechem.3 They seem to have acted in a treacherous and vindictive manner. Indeed, as we shall see, in order to act as they did, Shimon and Levi, like their grandfather Abraham, had to act as Canaanites, for there is nothing resembling this type of behavior in the inbred Jewish nature. We can therefore deduce that when he was in Shechem, Abraham prayed that his two grandchildren would know how to correctly and effectively don the garments and utilize the vessels of Shechem itself in order to conquer it.

There is a beautiful concept that repeats many times in Chassidut, and is key to understanding many of our challenges in life. The Talmud describes it by way of an image: “The tree is chopped down with wood similar to its own [taken from another tree and affixed to the blade of the axe to handle it].”4 Sometimes this is called: “he was struck by one just like him.”5 In order to defeat the people of Shechem, who were Canaanites, Shimon and Levi had to assume the external characteristics of Canaanites. How beautiful it is that numerically, the value of Shimon and Levi equals the value of “…And the Canaanites were then in the land,” the last phrase in the verse we are studying:

והכנעני אז בארץ שמעון לוי !

Armed as Canaanites

Let us take a moment to meditate on Shimon and Levi’s battle against the Canaanites of Shechem. When Jacob, their father, blesses them, he says: “Shimon and Levi are brothers, their sabers are weapons of violence.”6 Onkelos translates this verse into Aramaic in the following manner: “Shimon and Levi are brothers, mighty men who in the land of their dwelling, performed mighty feats.” Onkelos is hinting at the same idea we have been discussing: it is thanks to their dwelling in this land [and assuming its external customs] that they were able to perform feats of might.

The Hebrew word here translated as “their sabers” is מכרתיהם , “mechorotaihem,” a word whose exact meaning is unclear. Rashi writes that this word means “their weapons” and notes that in Greek the word for saber is “machir.”7 Thus, “their sabers are weapons of violence,” describes the soul donning the garments of those it is coming to refine. In Hebrew, this phrase is written: כלי חמס מכרתיהם . The initial letters spell חכם , “a sage.” All the other letters together equal 815, the value of בעל תשובה , “ba’al teshuvah.”8

In the Torah, the act of Shimon and Levi is described in the following verse: ”The two sons of Jacob, Shimon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, each took his sword and came unrecognized [betach, literally, ”secure”] upon the city.”9 Looking at this verse, we can immediately see that taking their swords corresponds to adopting the vessels, the instruments of the local community, while sneaking up on the city, unrecognized, corresponds to donning the garments of the Canaanites and blending in with them. Again, we see this correspondence beautifully hinted to in gematria: the value of “each one his sword” plus “unrecognized” is equal to twice the value of “the place of Shechem.” It is also equal to three times “Jacob,” for it was with their confidence in their father’s abilities that they mustered the courage to make war with the city in the first place:

יעקב יעקב יעקב מקום שכם = איש חרבו… בטח !

Modern day Canaanites

Since most of us are not at odds with a Canaanite community, one might wonder how to apply all of the preceding to our own lives. The name “Canaan” also means a merchant, in Hebrew, as in the verses: “Canaan [the merchant] used dishonest scales; he loves to defraud“10 and “And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite [a merchant] in the House of God.”11 Since Canaan means “a merchant,” it fits that the difficult word מכרתיהם“mechorotaihem” means “goods [to be sold].”

The merchant is a symbol for the soul which comes to this world to make a profit through its particular mission. Unfortunately, many times only a residual memory of the need to make a spiritual profit is remembered and, instead of engaging in rectifying the world, Jews especially are prone to seek material profit at the expense of spiritual endeavors.

Be things with the individual as they may, the positive aspect of the Land of Israel being called the Land of Canaan in the Torah is that it has a special affinity to making spiritual profit through the elevation of the fallen sparks that fell down to earth, i.e., to our mundane reality. About the Land of Israel specifically, the sages say that the reason the earth was called ארץ(“earth” is clearly the Latinized form of the Hebrew “eretz”) is because it was imbued with the will (רצון ) of its Creator. The Land of Israel is always ready to do the will of God by assisting in the elevation of the fallen sparks of holiness. One might say that the Land of Israel is always doing business, buying and selling these sparks of holiness in order to advance the refinement of the world. It is the Land of Israel that “feels” as it were, more than any other country, the value of the sparks and that suffers from the as yet unrectified state of the earth.

The Canaanites too were merchants of fallen sparks. But, as the verse says, “Canaan uses dishonest scales; he loves to defraud.” The Canaanites made their spiritual profit by defrauding the holy sparks, by creating cheap imitations of holiness, which fooled and tricked many nations and spread the most abominable religious practices throughout the world. The modern equivalent of a Canaanite is a person who cheats and defrauds in his business dealings; who makes a profit by making cheap imitations of real products, etc. Like his ancient source—the Canaanites—an individual who is dishonest with money drives the fallen sparks of holiness further and deeper into the abyss making it more and more difficult to refine and rectify the mundane.

Abraham had the ability to don the garments of the Canaanites but still act truthfully and honestly (by being always completely immersed in the lights, mind, and images of holiness). His grandchildren, Shimon and Levi were able to don the garments of war of the Canaanites, but do so for a just and true cause (by being completely immersed in holiness through their trust in the merit of their father Jacob). Likewise, every Jew today has the special ability to go into the world of business and money-matters and remain honest and truthful, directing all of his or her actions by the holy teachings of the Torah.

The sages say that one of the first questions that a person is asked by the heavenly tribunal after their passing is: “Did you conduct business with faith [i.e., honestly].” To practice one’s faith in business, one has to learn from our father Abraham who said, “I am but dust and ashes,”12 thus expressing his inbred feelings of submission and humility before the Almighty. When you experience your role as an emissary of God to do good in the land, then you experience Abraham’s humble stature before God and cannot be impressed by anything but goodness and holiness.

Notes:

1. Other approaches would be to look at the significance of Shechem in terms of its geographical location in the Land of Israel, its history, etc. But, as discussed many times, the essence of an object, or place, or person, or action, can be revealed by studying its Hebrew name. All the actual aspects of that thing will be derivatives of the essence already present in the name.

3. To see the background for this story read Genesis, chapter 34.

4Sanhedrin 39b.

5. פגע בו כיוצא בו . See especially Tanya, chapter 31.

6. Genesis 49:5.

7. Apparently Rashi based on the Midrash is referring to the Greek word: μάχαιρα, which indeed means a short sword, or dagger.

8. For more on this gematria, see our upcoming book “Lectures in Modern Physics.” The sage refers to the sefirah of wisdom, the ba’al teshuvah refers to the sefirah of understanding. Thus, there is a beautiful enclothement here of the father principle within the mother principle, the sage within the ba’al teshuvah.

9. Genesis 34:25.

10. Hosea 12:8.

11. Zachariah 14:21.

12. Genesis 18:27.

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