Thursday, October 25, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: For Your Own Good

First, a Hebrew lesson. The fourth word of this week's Parasha provides us with yet another example of how it is impossible to truly understand the Torah without at least a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew. God says to Abram "lech-lecha", but what does "lech-lecha" mean? The "lech" part is pretty simple, it is an imperative, a command, meaning "go." But the "lecha" part is not so clear. It can mean "to yourself" or "for yourself" or it could just be poetic alliteration.

Rashi understands it as meaning "for yourself" and amplifies it: "l'tovat'kha u'l'hana'at'kha" -- for your good and for your benefit. In other words, Rashi is telling us that God is promising Abram that the result of his journey will be beneficial to him.

In the midrashic tradition, Abraham (at this point still known as Abram) undergoes ten trials. The last, of course, is the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. The first is this command, "lech lecha."

But wait, the Sefas Emes, a Chasidic commentator who lived about 100 years ago says. How can it be a trial if Abram knows that God has already promised him that it will be for his own benefit?

And then he answers his own question. Knowing that it would be beneficial to him was precisely the trial that Abram faced. Abram's desire was to do everything purely out of obedience to God and not for any other motive. How could he maintain that purity of motive knowing that his obedience would also prove beneficial to him in a "this world" way?

What a counter-cultural thought. Those of us who are rabbis and Jewish educators often find ourselves in the position of "selling" Judaism, of convincing people to observe mitzvot which they don't currently observe, to support the community and so on. We generally try to convince people that they will benefit personally in some way: people need a day of rest, a Shabbat meal brings the family together, keeping kosher will help you feel closer to God, and so on. But the Sefas Emes is saying that's not what Judaism is about at all. Our only desire should be obedience to God; any other motivation simply gets in the way.

Does this speak to you at all? What motivates you to do the Jewish things you do?

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