Lech Lecha 5778 – Descent into Ascension

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Go to yourself. That’s a rough translation of the name of our Parsha. Rabbi Norman Lamm explains that this is a call to “return to your spiritual identity, climb up the ladder to spiritual heights, reach your own soul in ascent.” The Jew, according to Rabbi Lamm and others, must constantly be in flux, yearning to grow more and more each day. Rabbi Lipman Podolsky z”l, a beloved educator in Netiv Aryeh before my time there, yet one whose voice still reverberated through the halls of the yeshiva, likened our existence to being on an escalator. There is no inertia — either you’re going up, or going down. If we wish to ride our own coattails, rest on our laurels of previous accomplishments never seeking to delve deeper, in our service to those around us, God, at work, etc., what are we?

We must always be growing, yet talking about the importance of growth can make light of the Herculean task of actually growing. Our Torah portion immediately begins with Avram being commanded to leave his home and travel to a land that he will be shown only upon actually getting there. He is promised by Hashem that he’ll be made into a great nation and blessed tremendously. It almost seems as if we learn this information in the middle of the story line, yet we are not privy to significant details about who Avram even is or what made him so unique. Nevertheless, Avram, his wife, nephew, and the souls they encountered in Charan set off to their new land. Yet, just as soon as we read of the group on the move, they encounter hardship — a famine. This didn’t appear to be a minor hiccup. Avram was purported to be blessed! Great nation! This is a blessing? The pasuk states “Vayered Avraham Mitzraima”, that Avram went down to Egypt. Rabbi Lamm poignantly notes that Avram was history’s first oleh, and had now become history’s first yored. Even while in Egypt, the trials continue as Sara is taken by Paro.

Rabbi Lamm continues, and quotes the Lubavitcher Rebbe who mentions a familiar topic when it comes to growth. We refer to it as yeridah l’tzorech aliyah, descent for the ultimate purpose of ascent. He writes “Often, you must go down in order to go up to an even higher level than that at which you began. Some failures are merely temporary; that are the future successes in disguise. Sometimes the setback is instrumental to later success. Often you must retreat in order to move on, in which case the retreat is preparatory and part of progress and advance.” Yet, through the rest of the Parsha, as well as Sefer Bereishis, we will read about the life of Avraham and there are plenty of times in which this missive comes into play. Avraham Avinu is referred to as Av Hamon Goyim, the father of many nations. Looking back on his life, would anyone venture to say that he was not truly blessed?

In the grand scheme of our existence, we too encounter situations, albeit on a much smaller scale, where our path to something great is met with disappointment at various junctures. These hurdles may knock us out temporarily, or even force us into a deep yeridah. Living a life dedicated to Hashem is not necessarily one of ease. How many generations of Jews have uttered shver zol zayn a yid? Nevertheless, the growth and blessing that we so desperately seek is something that cannot be measured day by day. There are days in which we make tremendous strides in one direction, while other days see us going the opposite way. When a child says they want to be taller, we tell them to wait, because though they are small now, they will one day grow. It’s not always easy to accept the bumps in the road. What’s even more discouraging is that if we acquiesce that we must descend first, it’s may be even harder to pull ourselves out from that tailspin. Fostering lasting growth is hard enough to accomplish when we are on solid ground. When we are struggling, it can be even harder.

There are two suggestions that come to mind when pondering this conundrum over. First, one of my favorite points that I’ve mentioned before comes from Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s commentary on Rav Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah. In the times that seem darkest in our lives, those are the precise moments when we can create immense kedushah and meaning. Sometimes, through the pain that we feel, we can conjure up the strength to move mountains.

The second point is a notion based off “sheva yipol tzaddik vekam,” that a tzaddik falls seven times and gets up. This part of Mishlei doesn’t teach us that a righteous person never has shortcomings or frustrations in their life. It points out to us that they get up and continue to exist despite them. It could be 7 times, 70 times, or more. This growth that we seek in our own “Lech Lecha” moments will only exude through our own efforts, despite the roadblocks we may face. Hashem was true to His word, Avraham’s life was ultimately blessed, even in the face of immense challenges that could derail others. Hopefully our lives will be so blessed as well.

 

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