Parashat Lech Lecha 5778
Two different ways to approach God
This week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, starts with the story of the first Hebrew, our patriarch Abraham.
I believe that in this parashah, we may find two different and legitimate ways to approach and understand God. We may find that God addressed two different characters in different ways.
First of all, God approached Abraham and commanded him to leave his country in order to start a new nation in another place: “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation.” (Bereshit 12:1-2)
What do we know about Abraham before God’s order? Had Abraham talked with God before? What did Abraham know about God? We don’t know any of these answers. Nothing is mentioned in the Torah.
However, the sages try to imagine what had happened before this moment in order to understand why God chose Abraham to start a new nation.
One proposal you can find in the Mishneh Torah written by Rambam, in Avoda Zara 1:3:
“After this mighty man was weaned, he began to explore and think. Though he was a child, he began to think [incessantly] throughout the day and night, wondering: How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling it? Who is causing it to revolve? Surely, it does not cause itself to revolve.
He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and all the people [around him] were idol worshipers, and he would worship with them. [However,] his heart was exploring and [gaining] understanding.
Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension. He realized that there was one God who controlled the sphere, that He created everything, and that there is no other God among all the other entities. He knew that the entire world was making a mistake. What caused them to err was their service of the stars and images, which made them lose awareness of the truth. Abraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator.”
According to Rambam, Abraham started to observe the world and tried to understand how it works. Thinking and asking many questions, he concluded that there must be someone powerful behind everything. Through thinking alone, Abraham discovered God, the creator of the world. When Abraham reached that conclusion, God approached him and ordered him, “Lech Lecha,” the first command. After Abraham’s rationalist search, God appeared to him.
Rambam believes that Abraham discovered God through a rational method. As a rationalist philosopher, it is one of Rambam’s main principles about approaching God.
You may find a similar idea in the Midrash Bereshit Rabbah 39:1:
“Rabbi Yitzchak said: this may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a castle with the windows aglow. He said, ‘Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?’ The owner of the building looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the castle.’ Similarly, because Abraham our father said, ‘Is it possible that this castle has no guide, no one to look after it?,’ the Holy Blessed One looked out and said to him, ‘I am the Master of the Universe.’ … Hence, God commanded Abraham, Lech Lecha.”
As in Rambam’s case, this Midrash teaches that Abraham discovered God through a rationalistic means, thinking about the nature of the world.
On the other hand, we also have in this parashah the figure of Hagar. Who was Hagar? She was Sarah’s servant. Because Sarah couldn’t have a child with Abraham, Sarah proposed that Abraham have a child with her servant Hagar on behalf of her. Hagar had a child and then she had a lot of problems and struggles with Sarah, who caused her to suffer a lot.
The Torah describes two different times when Hagar went to the desert and encountered God. How did Hagar discover God?
It is written in the Torah that when she escaped from Sarah and Abraham’s house and was in the desert, an angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water, told her that she would bear a son, and encouraged her to return to the house. After that encounter, it is written that Hagar said: “And she called the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You Are El-roi,’ by which she meant, ‘Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!’ Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it is between Kadesh and Bered” (Bereshit 16: 13-14).
Hagar was suffering and an angel of the Lord appeared to support and give her hope. She discovered God through a spiritual revelatory experience. She named God as “God of seeing” referring to him as an “all seeing God,” and also, a God whom she has seen. She approached God not in a rationalistic way as Abraham did, but in a spiritual and experiential way. She discovered God in her suffering and necessity. She discovered God from her sense of vision.
At the second time that Hagar was suffering in the desert with her son Ishmael, it is written:
“When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.
God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.
Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink” (Bereshit 21:16-19).
Here God heard the cry of the boy and opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water. Again, she had a spiritual experience based on her suffering and again the senses are connected to the religious experience.
In parashat Lech Lecha, as I mentioned at the beginning of this Dvar Torah, we may find two different and legitimate ways to approach and understand God. Abraham approached God in a rationalistic way and Hagar in an experiential way. They are two ways among many others to approach God, depending on the personality and quality of each person.
It is our challenge to discover and approach God in the way that is meaningful to us, whatever that may be.