Torah for the Times    

Friday, November 4 Chesvan, 5772

Torah Reading: Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 - 17:27)
Candle Lighting Time: 5:31 PM
Shabbat Ends: 6:31 PM 

A Light to the Nations

Abraham’s Concern

When Abraham was given the Mitzvah to circumcise himself, the Midrash relates that he responded: “Before I was circumcised there were many wayfarers who would come to me, whereas now that I am circumcised no wayfarers will come to me.”

The question has been asked about any possible connection circumcision might have with Abraham’s hospitality? And why was Abraham so concerned that he would not attract any wayfarers once he was circumcised? Of course, the simple answer is that Abraham was talking about the short-term effects of his procedure. He would not have any guests coming to him as long as he would be convalescing.

A deeper answer to this question is that circumcision served as a testimony to Abraham’s unique relationship with G‑d. Circumcision is a covenant that G‑d made with Abraham and all of his Jewish progeny that sets them apart from the rest of the world. To Abraham, circumcision would place him on a pedestal in relation to the other nations. With his elevation to the status of a chosen person and the father of a chosen nation, how would other people feel? Would they not become alienated from Abraham? With that attitude, would they ever care to enter his home again?

This premise can also explain why, according to Rashi, Abraham consulted with his friend Mamre as to whether he should circumcise himself. The question is asked, why would Abraham consult a friend as to whether he should follow G‑d’s command?

In light of the above it may be suggested that his question was not whether he should comply with G‑d’s command, but whether it would create a barrier between him and the other nations of the world.
While Abraham knew that regardless of the consequences vis a vis his neighbors, he would go through circumcision. His question was, would it indeed have a deleterious effect on his relationships with others and if yes, what could he do about it?

G‑d’s Reassurance

We can now understand why G‑d changed his name from Abram to Abraham. Abraham, the Torah states, translates as: “A father of a multitude of nations.” By giving him this name, G‑d was responding to his fears. Not only would Abraham not lose the people he had already befriended, his influence would spread far and wide to an even greater audience—he will become the father of a multitude of nations.

This premise will also clarify why immediately after the story of Abraham’s circumcision the Torah continues with the way G‑d sent angels disguised as people so that Abraham could play host to them. By relating this event, the Torah wishes to underscore that his circumcision did not deter people from coming to Abraham. Soon after his circumcision—even was he was still recovering from the self-inflicted surgical procedure at the age of 99!—he was able to reach out to strangers. This helped to assuage Abraham’s concerns that he would lose contact with outsiders.

Concern For Losing Guests

One can still raise the question as to why Abraham was so concerned about this Mitzvah of circumcision in particular and the possibility that it would alienate people from him. Our Sages tell us that Abraham anticipated all of the commandments even before they were given at Sinai and performed them to the best extent possible. (For example, while he could not recite the Haggadah on Passover night that describes the future Exodus of the Jews from Egypt, he could have eaten Matzah.) We never find that Abraham was concerned that keeping all of these Mitzvot and having this unique code of behavior would alienate others?

Conversely, why did Abraham care if the performance of circumcision would distance wayfarers from his home? If G–d was not concerned, why should he. True, inviting guests into your home is a mitzvah—but if G‑d gives us one Mitzvah and then tells us to do another that will override the first one; that too is G‑d’s will. Why then did Abraham worry about the loss of wayfarers coming to his home?

Abraham’s Life’s Mission

Abraham was charged by G‑d to reach out to all of the people with whom he had contact and “convert” them to ethical monotheism. In the very beginning of the parsha the Torah relates how Abraham came to Canaan with “the people he had acquired in Charan.” According to Rashi this was not a reference to servants or slaves but to the people that he and Sarah had succeeded in influencing to accept the belief in one G‑d. This was not just Abraham fulfilling a specific Mitzvah. It was his life’s mission.

To this end, G–d promised him before leaving for Canaan that “I will make your name great,” the meaning of which is that Abraham’s fame will enhance his influence over others. Rashi explains that the “greatness of his name” alludes to the expansion of his name from Abram to Abraham that occurred in conjunction with his circumcision This connotes that Abraham’s future would revolve around his ability to change the world and make it conform to G‑d’s plan.

We can now understand Abraham’s dilemma. Abraham knew that he had to continue to influence the world, which he did primarily by playing host to wayfarers. In order to have an effect on others they have to feel that you share interests, come from the same background or have a similar destiny.

As long as Abraham’s focus was on ethics and morality there was common ground between him and all the others. Even the recognition of G‑d was achieved by Abraham demonstrating to them how G‑d was their Provider and Benefactor. Abraham essentially introduced them to a G‑d who is the Creator and Provider of all humanity equally. From that vantage point it was relatively easy to convince them to follow in his footsteps.

Once he would be circumcised—which goes against nature—to form a Supra-rational bond with G‑d—to the exclusion of the rest of humanity—it had the potential to thwart his ability to influence others. Abraham’s dilemma was how does one balance the two? How can one be an “elitist” and expect the rest of humanity to be receptive to the message?

Moreover, Abraham’s question was, how does one reconcile the changing of his name to Abraham with the connotation of reaching out to other nations with the fact that it came in conjunction with circumcision which separates him from other nations?

The New Guest

The answer to his dilemma is further provided for by the Midrash: “G‑d said: ‘Heretofore people came to you, now I, in My glory, shall come and reveal Myself to you, This is the meaning of [the subsequent verse, at the beginning of the next parsha]: “G‑d revealed Himself to him in the plains of Mamre.”

G‑d’s response to Abraham was that in the past these people were coming to you. Since you are a finite human being and they are finite human beings there is a limit how far you can go to influence them. There are barriers to your soul’s potential and therefore you needed to find common ground to have an effect on them. Now that you are made “perfect” by circumcision, you now will have access to the Divine. Nothing can prevent G‑d from entering Abraham’s home to bestow a G‑dly glow in it. This will do wonders to remove all impediments and barriers to inspire and impact others.

Lesson for Contemporary Times

There is an obvious lesson to be derived from the above. When we try to be a “light unto the nations” we may entertain the notion that we must not focus on our unique relationship with G‑d. This will drive a wedge between us and the rest of the world. We might be apprehensive that it will not help us to bring the world closer to following the Seven Noahide Commandments, (the commandments given to all of Noah and his progeny that are geared to make the world a habitable and stable place). Many have used the argument that favored assimilation in some form as the only means to relate to the other nations and have a positive influence on them.

The story of Abraham turns this argument on its face. On the contrary, only when we live a more Jewish and exalted life and identify with and enjoy our special relationship with G‑d, symbolized by circumcision, can we really have an impact. And this is not only attributable to the greater respect we will command when the nations see us living a more refined and G‑dly life, but also because we then allow G‑d to become our “guest” in our home. This, in turn, will radiate G‑dly truth and light to all those outsiders that may enter our sphere of influence.

Seven Mitzvot and Moshiach

The Torah belief in the Messianic Age is that Moshiach will influence all nations of the world to follow in their Seven Mitzvot. Indeed, Maimonides’ Yad Hachazakah devotes several chapters to the laws concerning our obligation to educate and influence the nations of the world to observe the Seven Noahide Commandments. Immediately following these laws Maimonides discusses the laws concerning the coming of Moshiach.

Why does Maimonides link these two themes of the Noahide commandments and the Messianic Age?
One simple answer is that as we get closer to Moshiach, we are witness to an unprecedented phenomenon. Never before have Jews had the freedom to practice their own religion undeterred and to even inspire non-Jews to keep their Mitzvot. This paves the way to the day when Moshiach will “call unto all the nations to serve G‑d as one.”

However, in light of the above, one may suggest a deeper explanation: As we get closer to the Messianic Age when G‑d’s unfiltered light will shine, we are empowered to inspire all the nations of the world more than any time previously.

In the days of King Solomon, at the peak of Israel’s spiritual development—occasioned by and reflected in the construction of the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple—the nations of the world were enamored with the Jewish people and their teachings and were attracted to them.

Similarly, as we stand on the threshold of the final Redemption we can already see and bask in some of that unprecedented G‑dly light and positive version of “global warming.” As a result, our ability to be a “light to the nations” has become easier. And the more of that G‑dly light associated with the Messianic Age that we identify with the greater the potential we have now to change the world for the good. 

Moshiach Matters 

Four of the blessings to be said when Moshiach comes are: 1) "Blessed are You...Knower of secrets (a blessing pronounced upon seeing 600,000 or more Jews together);  2)"Blessed are You... Who has apportioned of His wisdom to those who fear Him";  3)"Blessed are You... Who has apportioned of His honor to those who fear Him"; 4)and Shehecheyanu. (L'Chaim)
© 2001- 2011 Chabad of the West Side
Moshiach - It’s a Jewish issue. For more info, visit