Torah: A Canon Without Closure

Lekh Lekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Oct 31, 1998 / 5759 | Torah Commentary

Our parasha opens like a thunderclap on a clear day. Since No·ah, the voice of God had not been heard by human ear. For ten generations the Torah records not a single instance of communication. Then, without forewarning, God explodes into Abraham’s life: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you (Genesis 12:1).” The course of history was about to be rerouted.

But why Abraham? What induced God to reenter human affairs through his channel? One well-known tack taken by the midrash to compensate for the Torah’s terseness is to lionize Abraham’s early life. He is imagined as an enlightened and courageous young man ready to subvert the coarse religion of his family and society and to defy the wrath of its rulers. His independence of mind earned him the attention of God.

I prefer, however, another tack in the midrash which seizes the very spareness of the Torah to give a measure of credit to Terah, Abraham’s father. This reading posits that the estrangement from Mesopotamia begins with Terah and not Abraham, for the biblical narrative makes it clear that Terah is the one who initiates the long journey to Canaan. Some time after the death of his son Haran, Terah took Abraham and Sarah (still bearing the names Abram and Sarai) and his grandson Lot (Haran’s son) in order to leave his native city, Ur of the Chaldeans, “for the land of Canaan (Genesis 11:31).” Though Terah gets only as far as the city Haran, where he would eventually die, the unexplained decision to head for Canaan was entirely of his own making.

And this is the ultimate reason, I believe, why Rabbi Abba bar Kahana claims that Terah merited a spot in the world-to-come. To be sure, there are also exegetical clues like the doubling of Terah’s name at the beginning of his genealogical list [“Now this is the line of Terah: Terah begot Abram… (11:27)”] that imply a presence for him both on earth and in heaven. But they rest firmly on the self-evident meaning of the underlying narrative (B’reishit Rabba 38:12).

In other words, the disorienting intrusion by God into Abraham’s consciousness is not quite as sudden as it appears. The storm clouds had long been gathering on the family’s horizon. Confirmation of this view comes from an unexpected source. The Zohar acknowledges Terah’s role in paving the way for Abraham’s revelation. God enters only where receptivity to the divine word already exists. The Torah goes out of its way to underscore Terah’s intention to start afresh in Canaan. And the Zohar cites the talmudic belief that once an individual has chosen a path of self-renewal, divine assistance is not long in coming (B.T. Yoma 38b). Terah’s failure became Abraham’s mission. God does not address those not primed to listen. The completion of a long journey may take generations (Zohar, Sulam ed., vol. 2, Lekh- Lekha no. 18).

At the same time, the Zohar (or better, an early version entitled Midrash ha-Ne’elam) proposes a radically different reading of God’s command to Abraham (Sulam ed., vol. 9, Lekh L’kha , nos. 5 ff). Authored by the Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon in the 1280s, the Zohar is a Torah commentary written in Aramaic and predicated on the mystical assumption that the Torah at its deepest level is a compilation of divine names. Its law, poetry and narrative are but outer garments that reveal the nature and inner life of God, “to the degree that one opens the gates of imagination. The capacity to connect with the spirit of wisdom, to imagine in one’s heart-mind – this is how God becomes known (Zohar, The Book of Enlightenment, trans. & intro. by Daniel Chanan Matt, p. 66).” In brief, the Zohar is an extreme form of midrash driven by a mystical spirit of enormous power and ingenuity. I share its reading of Lekh-Lekha with you not only because it offers a wonderful sample of its soaring imagination, but also because it allows me to amplify my recent Yom Kippur comment on the divine source of the human soul.

For the Zohar, as for the Rabbis, God and humanity are linked through the soul. The journey of Abraham alludes to another journey: the passage of a soul from its divine dwelling into the body of a specific human being at birth. God’s command to “go forth” is addressed to the soul, a spark of God’s own being, which God showers with a cascade of seven blessings (as in the wedding ceremony) in accord with the Hebrew phrasing of the biblical narrative (Genesis 12:2-3) because of its great reluctance to leave. Indeed, the impact of the passage derives largely from the exquisite manner in which imagination is tethered to exegesis, as brought out by the fine translation of Professor Matt (pp. 60-62) which follows. You will need to read it slowly and often to appreciate fully how adroitly the Zohar has transposed a familiar text to an utterly unrelated realm of inspired meaning without doing violence to the words themselves. In the process, it has rendered a concrete and particular narrative into the description of a spiritual and universal phenomenon. As the core of our religious life, the Torah is a canon without closure, a vessel of voices and readings without number.

Rabbi Jacob son of Idi said
“All soul-breaths of the righteous
have been carved from the bedrock of the Throne of Glory
to guide the body like a father guiding his son.
For without the soul-breath, the body could not conduct itself,
would not be aware of the Will,
could not actualize the Will of its Creator.
As Rabbi Abbahu has said:
‘The soul-breath directs and trains the human being
and initiates him into every straight path.’ When the Blessed Holy One
sends her from the place of holiness
He blesses her with seven blessings,
as it is written:
‘YHVH said to Avram,’ [Genesis 12:1]
this is the soul-breath
who is av, ‘a father,’ to teach the body
and ram, ‘high’ above him [a play on the name Abram]
for she has come from a high and lofty place.
What does He say to her?
‘”Go forth from your land, your place of birth,” [12:1]
your dwelling, your place of bliss.'” 
“And from your father’s house” [12:1]
Rabbi Jacob said,
“This is the mirror that shines.
‘To the land that I will show you’ [12:1]
means to such and such a body, a holy body, an upright body.
And even so, ‘I will bless those who bless you,’ [12:3]
those who treat you correctly and virtuously,
those who bless Me for you, saying
‘As long as the soul breathes within me
I acclaim in Your presence: YHVH is my God.’ 
[final line of morning prayer,”Elohai neshama,” Siddur Sim Shalom, pp. 8-10]
‘He who curses you I will curse,’ [12:4]
those who curse you by acting perversely.
‘Abram went forth as YHVH had directed him.’ [12:4]
Blessed with these seven blessings,
Abram, the soul-breath, went forth,
father to the body and high from the place of the highest.
‘As YHVH had directed him’
to enter the body that she had been commanded to guide and train.” 
Rabbi Jacob continued
“Look what is written about her once she has entered the body:
‘And Lot went with him.’ [12:4]
This is the Deviser of Evil, [in Aramaic “lut” means “to curse”]
destined to enter along with the soul-breath
once a human is born.
How do we know that the Deviser of Evil is called by this name?
It is said:
‘The devisings of the human mind are evil from youth’
(Genesis 8:21).
This is Lot, who is cursed.
This corresponds to what Rabbi Isaac has said:
‘The serpent who seduced Eve was the Deviser of Evil.’
We know that he was cursed, as it is said:
‘Cursed are you above all animals’
(Genesis 3:14).
Therefore, he is called Lot, Cursed.
When the soul-breath enters the body,
immediately, ‘Lot went with him.’ [12:4]
For he is destined to enter with him,
to mislead the human being and challenge the soul-breath.”

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The electronic distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s comment on Parashat ha-Shavua has been made possible by a generous gift from the members of Temple Beth Sholom, Cherry Hill, NJ, in honor of Rabbi Albert L. Lewis in celebration of the 50th anniversary of his ordination from the Seminary, and his 50 years as the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom.