Hashem tells Avraham in 15:5, “Habet-Na HaShamaymah USfor HaKochavim Im Tuchal Lispor Otam,” “Look heavenward and count the stars if you can.” While this Pasuk certainly has a simple meaning within the Pshat, I believe it is also referring to a deeper idea about serving Hashem.
Rabbi Yosef Shwab once told me that the letters of the word Shema – Shin, Mem, and Ayin – stand for “Se’u Eineichem Meromah,” “lift your eyes heavenwards,” and “Ol Malchut Shamayim,” “the yoke of Heaven.” Indeed the Navi instructs us in the Haftarah of Shabbat Nachamu to “lift our eyes heavenward” (Yishayah 40:26) and we will understand we will understand our Creator.
Cosmologists estimate the existence approximately 1018 to 1020 stars in the universe (1018 is scientific notation for 1 with eighteen zeros after it). The Gemara in Berachot (32b) explains how God created 12 constellations in the Heavens. In each constellation He created 30 armies. He created 30 legions for each army, 30 divisions for each legion, 30 subdivisions for each division, 30 camps for each subdivision, and 365,000 times 10,000 stars for each camp. Simple dimensional analysis gives:
12 constellations (30 armies/const.) (30 legions/army) (30 subdiv.’s/div.) (30 camps/subdiv.) (365x10,000 stars/camp) = 1018 stars
On the darkest night, under skies without light pollution, only about 8500 stars are visible to the unaided eye! How could Chazal have known 2000 years ago years ago what cosmologists only recently discovered?
The Vilna Gaon is quoted by his student Rabbi Baruch of Shklov as having said that “to the degree that a person is lacking in other disciplines, so will he be lacking a hundredfold in his understanding of Torah.” Rabbi Baruch relates that the Vilna Gaon therefore requested that the science texts of the day be translated into Hebrew.
Torah and science are not exclusive. Surely all of science is incorporated into the Torah. The Neviim, Tannaim, and Amoraim could perhaps learn directly from the Torah the science they needed to understand it. We are far from this level. How, then, can we ever begin to understand God’s universe?
In order for us to gain insight into God’s universal design, we must first have a firm grounding in Gemara and Tanach. In addition to this, we must follow the sound advice of the Vilna Gaon and gain a firm footing in mathematics and the physical sciences. Then things will really be looking up!
by Rabbi Joel Grossman
In his Sefer Growth Through Torah, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin derives from the Pasuk “VaYeitz’u LaLechet Artzah Kenaan, VaYavo’u Artzah Kenaan,” “[Avraham and his family] went to go to the Land of Canaan, and they came to the Land of Canaan,” that whenever one starts on a project, he should make sure to complete it. When Avraham made up his mind to travel to Canaan, he followed through on his plans and reached his destination. This is in contrast to Avraham’s evil father Terach, who, as the Torah describes in Parshat Noach, started out on a journey to Canaan, but settled in Charan along the way, never arriving at his final destination. The Chafetz Chaim said that this is a lesson to learn from Avraham: one should not become sidetracked from the goals he sets for himself. To succeed in any venture, he must complete what he starts.
Many of us make wonderful resolutions – to study more Torah, to lose weight by eating a healthier diet and exercising more, etc. Oftentimes these good intentions last for but a short time, after which the person finds himself back in his old routine, still not devoting enough time to Torah study and still watching his waistline bulge. We must remember the Gemara’s comments in Masechet Bava Metzia (49a) on the Pasuk (Vayikra 19:36) commanding us to keep “Hin Tzedek,” just weights and measures. The Gemara explains that this Pasuk means our “Hein,” our “yes,” must be righteous – when we agree to do something, we must be honest and accomplish what we said we would.
Toward the end of Elul, someone called me on the phone. I was very busy and told the caller that I would call him back. Over the next few nights, I was preoccupied with another project. As I was preparing for Rosh Hashanah, however, I remembered the conversation and returned the call. Apologizing for the delay, I nonetheless explained that I had agreed to call back, and so I felt obligated to do so.
Through his own actions in his journey, Avraham teaches us the lesson of always keeping our word. We must not give excuses for why we could not fulfill our word; in the end, even the best excuse is still just an excuse.
Reach for the Stars
by Marc Poleyeff
Twice in this week’s Parsha, Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem gives Avraham the Berachah that his descendants will grow into a large multitude. The first time Avraham is given the Berachah is after he and Lot split up. Hashem promises Avraham, “VeSamti Et Zar’acha KaAfar HaAretz,” “I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth” (13:16). After the war between the kings, when Avraham comes to the aid of his nephew Lot, Avraham is blessed again. Hashem tells him that his reward will be great. However, Avraham responds to Hashem that he is unhappy because he has no children. Hashem alleviates this concern by presenting Avraham with a second Berachah: “Habeit Na HaShamaimah USefor HaKochavim Im Tuchal Lispor Otam, Vayomer Lo Koh Yihyeh Zar’echa,” “‘Look at the stars in the sky and count them if you are able to,’ and [Hashem] said to him, ‘so shall be your offspring’” (15:5). The intent of both Berachot is that Avraham’s descendants will be great in number. (It is interesting to point out the comparison between the first and second Berachot. In the first Berachah, Hashem uses the words “KaAfar Haaretz,” “like the dust of the land,” which is a low point. In the second Berachah, Hashem describes Avraham’s offspring as “KeChochvei Hashamaim,” “Like the stars in the sky,” which is the highest point.)
The Netziv in Haamek Davar states that the second Berachah is presented in order to enhance the first one. Not only will Avraham’s descendants be great in number (KaAfar Haaretz), but they will also have amongst them people who are Gedolim and Chashuvim (KeChochvei Hashamaim).
My Zeide, Rabbi Yisrael Poleyeff, suggested an explanation that he heard as to what the two Berachot refer to. We are given the opportunity in all of our endeavors to reach for the heavens (KeChochvei Hashamaim) or to allow ourselves to sink to the lowest depths (KaAfar Haaretz). With much effort and willpower we can reach the greatest of heights and achieve great things for ourselves and for Am Yisrael.
Abarbanel says that the choice of Kochavim was deliberate in that even against the darkest skies, the stars shine brightly. So, too, Bnei Yisrael stand out among the nations. Or, as Rav Soloveitchik used to put it, “The Jewish people were to be outstanding.” We, too, should always set high goals and reach for greater spiritual achievements.
Financial vs. Spiritual Considerations
by Dani Yaros
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Lech Lecha, the Torah states (14:12), “And they took Lot and his possessions, the nephew of Avram, and they left.” This is grammatically awkward; would it not have made more sense for the Torah to write, “And they took Lot, the nephew of Avram, and his possessions, and they left?” What does the Torah come to teach us with the odd formulation of this Pasuk?
Rav Shimon Schwab gives a very insightful answer to this question. He writes that Lot started out in this week’s Parsha as a Tzadik. He was Avram’s top student, and felt a very strong connection with Hashem and His Torah. However, somewhere during this week’s Parsha, Lot moved from the righteous path to the path of the wicked. This transition is hinted to in 13:14: “And God spoke to Avraham after Lot departed company from him.” This “departure of company” comes to teach us that Lot had at that point left the righteous path. However, one must ask: what prompted Lot to leave Avraham and his teachings? How could a person go from being the top disciple of a great Tzadik to becoming a Rasha?
Rav Schwab suggests an answer from 14:12, quoted above. When the Torah writes the words “and they took Lot” next to “and his possessions,” it teaches us that the difference between Lot and Avraham was the connection of each to his belongings. Although Avraham was very rich, his belongings were not important to him. Rather, Hashem and his Torah alone were important to Avraham. This was not the case for Lot, who felt a greater connection to his belongings and wealth than to Hashem. The separation between Lot and living up to his potential as “the nephew of Avram” was the phrase that came in the middle, “his possessions.”
We must learn a very important lesson from Lot. One must not act like Lot and find his belongings and money to be more important to him than Hashem. We must work hard to differentiate between what is truly important and what is unimportant. Keeping the Torah and fulfilling the Mitzvot are very important and must be made very high priorities, while attainment of wealth is much less important. We must work hard not to fall into the trap that Lot fell into; rather, we must work hard to keep the Torah and its teachings above all else. -Adapted by a Dvar Torah by Rabbi Yissocher Frand
A Beneficial Test
by Tzvi Zuckier
Parshat Lech Lecha begins with Hashem telling Avraham to leave his dwelling place, the place where he was born and raised, to travel to an unknown land. There, Hashem says, he will make Avraham into a large nation, make him famous, and bless him.
The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (5:4) states that Avraham was tested ten times and passed every test. Many Mefarshim say that this commandment to leave his abode constitutes one of the ten tests. However, Rashi comments that the Torah’s superfluous use of the word “Lecha,” “[you shall go] for yourself” (12:1), indicates that Avraham’s journey will be beneficial. If this journey was really for Avraham’s benefit, how could it be a test for him? Was there any question as to whether he would choose the obvious road of personal gain?
The Ma’ayanah Shel Torah quotes a novel interpretation, offering that the actual test for Avraham was his motivation; would he leave his home for the money, fame, and nationhood, or simply because Hashem commanded him to do so? In the next Pasuk (12:2), the Torah hints that he succeeds, since it says that Avraham went “Ka’asher Dibeir Eilav Hashem,” “as Hashem spoke to him,” and not for any ulterior motives. This could also explain what Rav Saadya Gaon meant when he said that the “Vayomer Hashem” preceding “Lech Lecha” means “because Hashem said.” He would render the Pesukim (12:1-4) as, “Because Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself…’ Avram went, as Hashem spoke to him,” implying that Avraham went not for the wealth, but due to his commitment to Hashem.
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