Emanuel Cohn

Former Shaliach in Montreal (2001-2003)
Currently Teaching Film and Judaism (“Torah mi Cinema”)

From “Lech lecha” to “Lechu lachem”

Our Parsha opens with the bombastic overture of Avraham leaving Charan in order to follow God’s word and “make Aliyah”. But many overlook the fact that only ten (!) verses later we read about a sudden anti-climax: “There was a famine in the land. Avram went down into Egypt to live as a foreigner there, for the famine was severe in the land.” What is going on? Weren’t we taught that the first Religious Zionist was not Herzl nor Rav Kook, but Avraham Avinu? One little famine and you leave the Holy Land?! That’s it with adhering to God’s plan?
We are not the first ones to raise our eyebrows concerning Avraham’s behavior: Rashi himself views Avraham’s decision to leave the Holy Land as a failure – or at least as a failed test of his faith: “The famine was in the Land of Israel only [and not in the surrounding countries] and its only function was to test Avraham’s degree of faith in God and His command to go to the Land of Canaan.”
Ramban uses even stronger wording: “…By leaving the land which he had been commanded to live in, even if there was a famine, Avraham had sinned because God would have saved him from death in the famine.” Not only does Ramban criticize Avraham for his wrong conduct, but he even sees it as the shocking cause for later historic developments: “By leaving the Land of Israel Avraham sealed the fate of his offspring to live in exile in Egypt under Pharaoh!” (Based on the concept “Maase Avot Siman laBanim”, the father’s actions are a sign to their children.)
As we all know, Avraham did not stay for good in Egypt. Ten verses after Avraham’s “Yeridah”, we read about the Happy End: “Pharaoh commanded men concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had. Avram went up out of Egypt: he, his wife, all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South [of Israel]…”
When I read these verses, the first thought which crosses my mind is what a great sense of humor the Torah has! Indeed, when God sends Avraham to Israel, the latter leaves the land soon thereafter. But when the wicked goy Pharaoh makes him leave the Diaspora, then Avraham stays in the Holy Land for good… Some cynics would remark on this that when a Jew makes Aliyah based on divine, sublime motivations, full-packed with blue & white ideology, then in some cases the stay in the Zionist entity won’t last for long. But when a Jew leaves the Diaspora because of Anti-Semitism (Pharaoh!), there might actually be a chance that he will settle for good in the Holy Land…
Let us – far from any apologetic notion – try to compare the two “Aliyoth” of Avraham; the one from Charan initiated by God, and the one from Egypt “pushed” by Pharaoh. I would like to focus only on one major difference: Regarding the first Aliyah it says: “So Avram went, as God had spoken to him, and Lot went with him… Avram took Sarai his wife, Lot his brother’s son, all their goods that they had gathered, and the souls whom they had gotten in Charan, and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan.” In verse 4, it says that Avraham went to Canaan, and Lot went with him. What about Sarah? Isn’t it strange where Avraham’s wife is mentioned in this whole enterprise? In verse 5, among all the other people and vessels! It says that Avraham “took” her, together with his belongings. Like an object.
On the other hand, regarding Avraham’s second Aliyah it says, “Avram went up out of Egypt: he, his wife, all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South [of Israel]. Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and in gold…” Here the depicted reality looks totally different: Sarah is mentioned immediately after Avraham (“he, his wife”), she is mentioned before Lot, and all the belongings are described only a verse later. It seems as if Sarah’s role and status have changed. After the Egyptian experience, she was not an “object” anymore. Now she has indeed become the “First Lady”.
Only thanks to this transformation of Sarah, Avraham’s Aliyah now had real substance. Only with a partner whom he totally respected as a full person and personality, only from within his harmonious relationship could Avraham undertake the Zionist journey. In his first Aliyah, he was not less “Zionist”, but he was alone. Maybe there was also Lot, his nephew and business-partner, but Avraham did not have a home. Our sages say that a person’s home is a person’s wife. You cannot encounter great visions and enterprises if your inner circle is unbalanced. But when your inner circle is strong and confident, then even the biggest economic insecurity (=famine!) can not give you any serious harm. Once Avraham managed to turn the “Lech Lecha” into a harmonious “LECHU LACHEM”, his Aliyah had everlasting substance.
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