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Posted on י״א במרחשון ה׳תש״ע (October 29, 2009) | in Lech Lecha | by

The Trip Down to Egypt

This week’s parsha tells the story of our first forefather, Avraham. Among many other stories, we learn how Hashem commanded him to leave his home, travel to Israel and how a famine forces Avraham and Sarah to leave Israel for Egypt.

A quick summary of the trip to Egypt is as follows: Before getting to Egypt Avraham and Sarah realize that the Egyptians are not very moral people and since Sarah is so beautiful, they might kill Avram in order to take Sarah. To avoid this possibility, the two decide to tell the Egyptians that they are siblings.  This will hopefully save Avraham from murder and Sarah from rape. Upon entry into Egypt, the officers of Pharaoh see Sarah and take her to the king, while Avraham is paid richly. Hashem, however, afflicts the Egyptians on account of having taken Sarah.  Upon realizing Sarah’s true identity, Pharaoh rebukes Avraham and asks him and Sarah to leave the country

The Ramban notices an amazing parallel between this episode in Egypt and the story of the Jew’s slavery in Egypt. In that story, there was again a famine, so Yaakov and his sons’ again descend to Egypt. The Jews were enslaved by the Egyptians and they took the Jewish women (only throwing the baby boys into the Nile.) Hashem afflicted the Egyptians with the Ten Plagues, and finally the Jews were chased out of the land with huge amounts of wealth.

In his analysis of the story of Avraham and Sarah, the Ramban criticizes Avraham for putting Sarah into such a horrible situation. He goes so far as to say that the reason the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt was because of Avraham’s actions endangering Sarah.

The Abarbanel, however, sees the story completely differently. He doesn’t think that Avraham Avinu did anything wrong when making his plan with Sarah. If this is so, then what is the unavoidable connection between Avraham’s trip to Egypt and our later slavery there?

There is an idea in Judaism known as “maaseh avot, siman l’banim,” which loosely translates to mean that the actions of ancestors are signs of what will eventually happen to descendants. By causing Avraham to live through the experience of going down to Egypt, having his wife taken from him, seeing the Egyptians afflicted by Hashem and finally by leaving with vast amounts of wealth, Hashem hinted towards the similar cycle of oppression and ultimate salvation that the future Jewish people would experience.

We see from this story that our actions don’t just affect us, but rather affect generations to come. While the actions and experiences of someone with the stature of Avraham Avinu have huge, global implications, that does not detract from the lesson that our actions too have ramifications reaching far beyond our immediate surroundings.

Why Avraham?

The second issue I want to focus on is the question of what it was about Avraham Avinu that made him the one Hashem chose to found the Jewish people?

Most people would immediately answer this question by saying “Avraham was the first monotheist,” but this is not entirely true.  We know that many people preceding him (e.g. Adam, Hanoch, Noach) believed in and had personal relationships with Hashem. There must then be something about Avraham that distinguishes him from everyone who preceded him.

When thinking about characteristics that would make someone a successful founder of a religion, a staunch devotion to a belief system and a desire for truth are two characteristics that seem necessary. These characteristics, however, are not used to describe Avraham. Rather, our sages use these terms describe Yitzchak, known for the trait of Din (Justice), and Yaakov, known for the trait of Emet(honesty). Avraham’s main character trait is rather understood to be Chesed (kindness).

This kindness – this ability to make his own needs secondary to the needs of others – was what made Avraham so special. Avraham didn’t just realize there was a Creator, he asked “What does Hashem want of me?” Avraham was fully prepared to give everything of himself in the service of others and in the service of Hashem.

This is why Avraham, with his qualities of kindness and selflessness, had to be the first of our forefathers. He had to set the framework for all of morality to follow. Without the basis of kindness, it is very easy to see how a drive for truth can end up in the repression of others and how a staunch religious devotion can end up alienating others.

May we all learn from the messages and the foundations of Avraham Avinu and realize that all of our actions have lasting effects and that doing everything selflessly truly sets a framework able to last the ages.

[1]: This idea is based on idea I heard from the Keshet (english KMTT) Podcast on the weekly Parsha by Rabbi Yonatan Grossman.

[2]: This second idea is based on a talk that I heard from a Podcast by Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovitz.

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