Bereishit 12: 1-4 (Robert Alter trans.)
And the LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land I will show you. And I will make you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. … And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew … And he pulled up his stakes from there … And Abram journeyed onward by stages to the Negeb.”
The names of Abraham and Sarah change from Abram and Sarai. What might the Torah
being tell us through name changes?
(Chapter 17 – name changes)
What is the significance of land, birthplace, and father’s house? Why not just go forth
from your land — doesn’t that imply the other two?
Abraham “goes forth,” and “pulls up his stakes,” he is constantly on the move, even if
“by stages.” What is the significance of his movement?
Mussar recognizes that the environment influences who we are, and may limit us. Understanding
our environment may be important in driving change.
In Judaism the patriarchs model spiritual characteristics and journeys. This is also true in Mussar
practice. Of particular importance with Mussar are the changes and growth that occurs for the
patriarchs through tests they go through.
The patriarchs are contrasted with other persons who may have similarities but respond to the
tests in different ways. For example, Abraham is contrasted with Lot and Noah.
A strength of Abraham is zeal or enthusiastic commitment (zerizut). Unlike Noah he goes beyond
what he is told to do.
And Pharaoh summoned Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, “She is my sister,’ so that I took her to me as wife? Now, here is your wife. Take her and get out!”
It is striking that Abraham lies (or half-lies) about his relationship with Sarah to the
Egyptians. Since this episode casts such a negative light on Abraham’s character, why
might the Torah being trying to set up to teach us?
Alter points out that “get out” qakh walekh plays on lekh lekha.
Rabbi Dressler writes that Abraham’s strength in chesed (lovingkindness) needs to be balanced by truth, a sense of boundaries, and a fear of God (recognition of human limitations, the profound
depth of God’s power, the bigness of the universe, and recognition that humans are not in control).
Why might a strength in lovingkindness pose problems concerning truth, boundaries,
and awareness of limitations?
And Lot raised his eyes and saw the whole plain of the Jordan, saw that all of it was well-watered, before the LORD’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, till you come to Zoar. And Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward, and they parted from one another. Abram dwelled in the land of Canaan and Lot dwelled in the cities of the plain, and he set up his tent near Sodom.
Alter notes that Lot’s description of the plain is over the top — may be overblown in its fertility. The
language used, “set up his tent” near the city is opposite of pulling up stakes. Lot has ended his
When Abraham moves to Canaan, he marks out his territory by walking it’s boundaries.
What do we learn from Abraham’s and Lot’s choices here?
The Torah describes a series of battles between Canaanite warlords, with Abraham participating.
After a victory after a night raid, Abraham returns the booty to the chieftain of Sodom.
And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I raise my hand in oath to the LORD, the Most Hight God,
possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a single thread or sandal strap of all that is
yours, lest you say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ Nothing for me but what the lads consumed.”
Abraham is not acting like the conqueror of Canaan. He acknowledges God as the possessor of heaven and earth. What might this be saying about Abraham understanding of the covenant? God tells Abraham that he will have many descendants.
And Abram said, “O my Master, LORD, what can You give me when I am childless … And he
trusted in the LORD, and He reckoned it to his merit. And He said to him, “I am the LORD who
brought you out of Ur …” … And as the sun was about to set, a deep slumber fell upon Abram and now a great dark dread came falling upon him.”
What does Abraham not understand and then learn? Also note that this is the first
time that Abraham challenges God — why is this important for his spiritual growth?