November 8, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1043, Lech Lecha, Parsha Thought


The name of this parsha, Lech Lecha, describes, in a nutshell, the content of the entire parsha: Avraham’s travels.

First G-d commands him to “leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house. Even after Avraham comes to the land of Canaan he does not stay in one place: “Then Avram journeyed on, journeying steadily toward the south.”

Shortly after arriving in Canaan, a famine forces him to travel to Egypt.

After his return to Canaan the Torah records further travels after which G-d tells him to walk the length and breadth of the land.

Avraham finally settles down in Elonei Mamre. But soon after, a war breaks out and his nephew Lot is abducted. Avraham goes back on the road, this time fighting and winning the war.

The Torah then relates Avraham’s vision in which G-d predicts how his children will be persecuted in a foreign land but will eventually return to the Promised Land. Once again, we see the theme of movement.


This theme of traveling, the name of the parsha and a good part of its content, provoked a discussion in the Talmudic era Midrash Tanchuma. Midrash Tanchuma usually begins its comments with a Halachic (Jewish law) discussion. It serves as an intro to its exposition of the parsha. The following is the Halachic discussion of this week’s parsha which focuses, appropriately, on travelling:

Teach us our rabbi. May a Jewish person accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven while traveling?

Rav Idi and Rav Huna said in the name of Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yosi [who said] in the name of Rabbi Shmuel:

“It is forbidden to accept upon oneself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven while traveling. Rather, one should stand in one place and direct his heart heavenward, with a sense of awe, trembling and perspiration while declaring G-d’s unity, [pronouncing] each and every word with concentration of the heart, proclaiming: “Hear O Israel, G-d is our G-d, G-d is one,” followed by “Blessed is the name of Your glorious kingdom for ever and ever.” When one begins V’ahavta-You shall love…, one may stand or sit if one so desires…

While the connection to our parsha is obviously the theme of traveling, what does Avraham’s traveling have to do with reciting the Shma in a standing position?

Moreover, the emphasis in the Midrash Tanchuma is on not moving while reciting the Shma, the very opposite of the theme of traveling.


The following explanation is based on the 19th century commentary Bi’ur Ha’amarim.

The Midrash’s analysis of the law of standing to recite the Shma was intended to address a powerful question on the Biblical narrative.

When G-d told Avraham to leave his birthplace he was 75 years old. Avraham certainly did not start his spiritual career and quest to serve the one G-d at that age. According to an oral tradition, Avraham was actually three years old when he recognized there was one incorporeal G-d and progressed from there. There are some opinions that he was 40 years old when he discovered G-d. However, all opinions agree that he had discovered one G-d, and was even prepared to give his life for that belief, well before he was 75 years old.

Why then did G-d wait until Avraham was 75 years old to tell him to leave his land?


This question prompted the Midrash Tanchuma to cite the law that prohibits one from walking when accepting the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom by the recitation of the Shma, but permits movement when reciting the V’ahavta, the continuation of the Shma.

The difference between these two sections is encapsulated in the Mishna (Brachos, Chapter 2). The Shma is the foundation of Judaism because it is about accepting the yoke of Heaven. The paragraph that follows the Shma deals with the acceptance of G-d’s commandments. Before we can accept G-d’s commandments, the Mishna states, we must first accept the “yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” i.e., G-d’s authority to command.

We can now understand why movement is restricted while reciting the Shma. Forging a relationship with G-d’s very authority requires our total concentration. This is also why we cover our eyes while reciting the Shma as a way of blocking out all outside influences. Even the influence of serving G-d through the observance of the Mitzvos is a distraction at this point.

This can be compared to the construction of a multifaceted building. While the building itself will have multiple levels, a plethora of rooms with different shapes, sizes, colors and multifarious uses, the foundation itself is bland with a single function—to serve as a foundation for the structure. We first have to create a solid and stable foundation before we can build a structure of many stories, chambers and functions. And while building the foundation we must be far more concentrated on doing it right lest the entire structure that follows will crumble with the slightest amount of stress.

The analogue to all this is the different attitude we must have to the acceptance of G-d’s authority while reciting the Shma and the acceptance of the Mitzvos that follows. During the Shma we must have a singular focus on our total acceptance of G-d. Acceptance requires more than just believing in it; it also means that we must internalize it so that it permeates our entire being.

Moreover, when we recite the Shma at the end of Yom Kippur we are instructed to reflect on our preparedness to even die for G-d and not betray our faith in Him. No other material, physical or even spiritual interest must enter our consciousness when we recite the Shma.

Movement while reciting the Shma is precluded for two reasons.

First, it is hard to concentrate when we are in motion.

Second, physical movement is expressive of emotional, intellectual and spiritual fluidity. It indicates change and putting oneself in a variety of “locations.” One cannot be in multiple places when focusing on G-d’s singularity and our singular acceptance of that Divine singularity.

Once we’ve graduated from the stage of accepting and internalizing the acceptance of the Kingdom of Heaven with the Shma, we can tolerate and even appreciate movement. When accepting the commandments, the very backbone of Judaism, we involve our mind, heart and action. There are times when G-d wants us to go in one direction and other times when He desires that we go in the opposite direction. And while there is a singular Divine source and a singular objective, making the world a dwelling place for G-d, we approach our objective by many pathways, directions and locations.


All of the above can be applied to Avraham’s life, divided as it was into two phases: his foundational stage with his acceptance of the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom and his structural stage, with his transformation of G-d’s plan into reality.

In the first phase, Avraham developed awareness of G-d as the Supreme Being. Accepting G-d as his Monarch entailed more than declaration of the Shma. Avraham strived to make this awareness fill every fiber of his being to the point where he was prepared to die for this belief. Indeed, the Midrash relates how Avraham was thrown into a fiery furnace because he refused the demand of King Nimrod to worship other g-ds.

During this first stage, when his foundation—and the foundation of all future Jewish generations—was being forged, Avraham could not move. He couldn’t segue into the mobility stage because he was still concentrating fully on his stationary stage of accepting and internalizing G-d’s sovereignty.

Once Avraham reached the age of 75 and had developed a firm footing he was ready for the movement stage of his life. His physical movements expressed his ability to relate to different people and situations and infuse them with G-d’s teachings of justice and kindness with a monotheistic underpinning.

Thus, the Midrash Tanchuma’s discussion of the law against movement during the recitation of the Shma parallels the first stage of Avraham’s life before he received G-d’s command to travel.


This explains another anomaly. The Torah is silent about Avraham’s entire life up to his 75th year. In the early period of his life Avraham actually passed the first of his “ten tests,” and was prepared to die rather than bowing to an idol. Why would such an important part of Avraham’s life be omitted?

In light of the above comparison of Avraham’s early life to a foundation we can understand why that phase was hidden from our view. A foundation is concealed from view. While it contributes strength and stability to the entire structure, the foundation remains hidden from view and is largely inaccessible.

So too, Avraham’s early and foundational phase of life was kept from our view in the Torah. But by no means is that meant to minimize its importance.

Whenever we recite the Shma and hide our eyes it should remind us of how Avraham’s early life was hidden from our view while building the foundation of his life and that of all the Jewish people.


The early Kabbalistic work Seifer Yetzira, attributed to Avraham himself, states: “The end is wedged in the beginning and the beginning is wedged in the end.”

If Avraham represents the beginning of our Jewish nation’s history, the end surely is the Messianic Age.

Just as the beginning of the beginning required a singular devotion, one that could not stand to be diluted by any other spiritual focus, so too our generation, the last of exile, must also exhibit that singularity.

Our singular devotion must be to finishing the process of bringing the world to its state of perfection, i.e., the Messianic Age. All of our multifaceted efforts and our many Mitzvos must be directed to, and permeated with, the overarching themes of Moshiach and Redemption.

And just as the early phase of Avraham’s life was concealed from our view, so too the last phase of preparations for the Final Redemption, the Midrash tells us, will be one in which Moshiach is concealed.

Moshiach’s concealment is not intended as a curse or an extension of exile. Rather, it represents Moshiach’s way of absorbing the most profound and hitherto elusive levels of G-dly knowledge to enable him to usher in the Messianic Age. It is the foundation of the imminent future, may we see it unfolding Now!

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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