Torah For The Times    

Parshat Lech Lecha
Torah Reading: Lech Lecha (Genesis  12:1 - 17:27)
Candle Lighting: 6:03 PM 
Shabbat Ends: 7:01 PM  

Bridging The Generational Gap


Abraham, the first of our Patriarchs, was promised by G‑d in a special covenant that he would be the father of a nation.  His descendants would become slaves in a foreign land, ultimately to be redeemed, emerge from exile with great wealth and eventually return to their homeland.

However, commentators point out that G‑d’s promise that Abraham’s children would eventually be redeemed and return to their land is interrupted with another verse: “You will come to your forefathers in peace, and you will be buried in a good old age.” Why is this verse inserted in between the verses that speak of their exodus from slavery and their return to their land?

One possible answer to this question is found in Rashi’s explanation that “coming to his forefathers in peace” alludes to Abraham’s father Terach and his eventual repentance for his idolatrous ways.  The reference in “being buried in a good old age” is to the return of his errant son Yishmael.

What connection is there between the promise of redemption and return from exile with Abraham’s father doing Teshuvah? And why are these facts inserted in between the verses that speak of the exodus and the return to the land?

The Last Prophecy

The connection between seeing family members return to the fold and Redemption is explicitly mentioned in the very last Biblical prophecy. At the end of the book of Malachi, the prophet states:

“Remember you the law of Moses My servant which I commanded unto him in Chorev for all Israel, even statutes and ordinances.  Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of G‑d. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the land with utter destruction.”

In this powerful statement, the prophet shows us that there is a clear link between the return of the fathers and the children to the teachings of Moses with the stability of the land. The Land of Israel cannot tolerate a people whose children and fathers are not united in the pursuit of the Torah.

We can now understand why the Torah inserts Abraham’s seeing both his father and son return to G‑d in his lifetime between the promise of Redemption and the return to the land. This was intended as a lesson for the Jewish nation in future times. G‑d promises Abraham that his children will be redeemed and endowed with great wealth. However, for them to return to their land—the land that was to become the Land of Israel—the liberated Jews would have to follow the pattern established by Abraham. His influence caused his old father and his errant son to return to the path of righteousness. The Jewish people, too, must strive towards that spiritual unity to merit longevity on their land. Children must seek to influence their parents and elders while parents must strive to transmit the message of Torah to their children. For Redemption to be complete, with our permanent return to the Land, we must bridge the generation gaps that are so pronounced in our society.

The Internal Generation Gap

“Bridging the generation gap” can be understood figuratively, and within the reach of each of us as individuals.

There are three layers to the human psyche. We have an Animal Soul that houses our yetzer hara-the impulse to do evil, which is referred to as an “old and foolish king.” All children are born with an Animal Soul that gives them life and drives their struggle for self-preservation. The Animal Soul is neither good nor evil; it is totally self-centered. The child does not have a natural capacity to do good for its own sake. Rather, like an animal, it does what it must to get what it needs and desires, regardless of the needs and wants of others. The emergence of our G‑dly souls occurs much later in life, at the age of Bas Mitzvah (12) for a girl and Bar Mitzvah (13) for a boy. Hence the designation “old” for the Animal Soul.

The “second soul” (as the Alter Rebbe characterizes it in his classic work, the Tanya, Chapter 2) is the G‑dly soul.  It is totally G‑d centered.  Its needs and wants are totally consonant with G‑d’s will. There is no tinge of ego in the G‑dly soul. All it wants is to be connected to G‑d.

The G‑dly soul would be content to dwell on spiritual matters exclusively. It has no inherent interest in engaging the “old and foolish king.” However, if the G‑dly soul were to keep to itself, that would defeat the purpose for its descent into the physical world.   According to the Tanya, the soul enjoys a much more exalted level of love for G‑d before its descent into the physical world. Why, then, would the soul be sent down here if its love of G‑d loses some of its passion and intensity? The answer is that the specific purpose of the G‑dly soul is to engage with the “old and foolish king.” The G‑dly soul teaches the Animal Soul to love G‑d by showing that it is in its own interest to have a relationship with Him.

Abraham was the personification of love for G‑d. He can thus be seen as a metaphor for the G‑dly soul, whose nature is to exhibit unbridled love for G‑d.

Abraham’s father, Terach, was an idolater.  He is associated with the Animal Soul and evil impulse. Abraham’s influence over Terach portended the victory the Jewish people over their Animal Souls, which will make the process of Redemption complete. This interaction between the G‑dly soul (Abraham) and the Animal Soul (Terach) is crucial for us to gain mastery over the Land.

Translating the G‑dly Soul

There is a third layer to the human psyche: Our children. Metaphorically speaking, these are our thoughts, words and actions that are the product of our personalities. A person whose personality is controlled by his “old and foolish king” will think, speak and act foolishly. The “Abrahamic” personality, i.e., one whose soul is on fire with passion for G‑d, will use his or her mind to think Torah, speak only words that are positive, such as words of Torah and prayer, and, arguably, most importantly, translate the lofty feelings of the G‑dly soul into action through the physical performance of the Mitzvos.

A person who is spiritual and full of religious fervor, however, may think that what is solely important is the way he or she feels about G‑d. Being in touch with our G‑dly souls may often be seen as the desired end state; translating those feelings into action may be relegated to a secondary or tertiary status. This attitude divorces the passion of the G‑dly soul (Abraham) from its “children,” (Yishmael): thoughts, words and actions.

The very name Yishmael signifies one with a high spiritual character. The name means “G‑d shall listen,” implying that Yishmael’s soul was initially in tune with G‑d. Yet the Torah tells us that Yishmael, although born miraculously and with a name that expresses a powerful bond with G‑d, turned out to be a rebellious son who threatened the life of Isaac, the true heir to Abraham’s legacy. Yishmael shows us the gap that exists between the spirituality of certain individuals and the way they translate their spirituality into action.

Torah also tells us, however, that Abraham’s spirituality eventually succeeded in changing Yishmael and brought him back into the fold. This teaches us that it is possible to remove the barrier that prevents the translation of ideals and aspirations of our G‑dly soul into our daily life of action.

In summary, there may be two “generation gaps” to bridge insofar as our G‑dly soul is concerned. We may allow our spirituality to remain detached from engaging our senior soul partner, the Animal Soul, as was personified by Terach. One who makes this mistake may decide to lead a life of a hermit, divorced from the lower aspects of life. This, the Torah exhorts us is not the ideal. We must love G‑d, the Mishnah states, with both of our impulses, the G‑dly and the animal, the yetzer tov and the yetzer hara.

Alternatively, some may allow a separation between their lofty feelings and their behavior, feeling content with spiritual experiences and neglecting to do the Mitzvos which they may regard as unspiritual and lacking inspiration.

Abraham’s ultimate reversal of both Terach’s idolatry and Yishmael’s rebelliousness conveys an important message to us about the ultimate goal of the Jew. The fact that this message is sandwiched between the promise of deliverance from exile and the full return to the Land suggests that the means to complete the process of Redemption from our exile is to remove the two “generational” barriers we have just described.

Two Myths Dispelled

We are presently waiting and preparing for the imminent arrival of Moshiach and the complete Redemption. There are two erroneous popular attitudes about Redemption which we still must consider.

One error is to speak about Moshiach and Redemption in terms of a severance from the past. Moshiach, it is asserted, will introduce a totally new world order that will detach us from and negate everything that we were accustomed to and valued in the past. This idea is parallel to keeping the “younger” G‑dly soul from engaging with its “senior” counterpart, the Animal Soul.

The Rebbe strongly dismisses this notion. Moshiach will not negate who we are.  Instead, he will enhance our qualities and perfect them.  Redemption does not delegitimize our past; it validates that past by showing us the true spiritual nature of our exile and past accomplishments.

Another error is to harbor an antinomian view of Moshiach, by divorcing one’s passion for Redemption from the observance of Torah and Mitzvos. Redemption becomes a totally spiritual phenomenon, relative to which practical Mitzvah observance is redundant, and ought to become obsolete, G‑d forbid.

This attempt to divorce the spirituality of Moshiach from his “children” is likewise based on a flawed premise.  Moshiach, the Rebbe emphasized, based on the teachings of Rambam, is here to strengthen Mitzvah observance and to bring integrity and perfection to all the aspects of Judaism that were lacking because of exile conditions.

Abraham’s success in uniting with his father and son represents the true ideal of Moshiach in that it enhances the past while it guarantees the continuity of the immutable teachings of the Torah.