ויאמר ה' אל אברם לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך.
“And Hashem said to Avrom: ‘Go for yourself from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.” (Bereishis 12:1)
Rashi asks what the meaning is of the word lecha - for yourself, and explains that this means: “For your benefit and for your own good.” Hashem’s command that Avrohom should leave his birthplace and his family was for his own good.
Why did Hashem say this to Avrohom? If Hashem would not have said explicitly that it is all for his own good, would Avrohom not have complied? Of course he would have! So why was it necessary to tell him?
There is another difficulty with these words. Hashem’s command for Avrohom to leave his country and family is counted as one of the Ten Tests that he was tested with. But if Hashem promised Avrohom that it would all be for his benefit, then why is it considered a test? If Avrohom would have listened to Hashem without being promised anything as a reward, then it would have indicated his great love for Hashem. The assurance that it is for his own good seems to detract from the difficulty of the test.
The verse concludes: “To the land that I will show you.” Hashem told Avrohom to leave his land, so it is self-understood that he would be going to a different land. It would have been enough for the verse to say: “To where I will show you.” What is the significance of the word “land” which appears twice in the verse?
The verse is teaching us a very important lesson. There are different ways that one can serve Hashem. There were tzaddikim who served Hashem with complete asceticism. They punished their bodies in order to subdue it to the soul. They would fast and abstain from pleasures, eating only the minimum to hold body and soul together, often subsisting on tasteless food or plain bread and water. There were tzaddikim who never went to sleep; they only slept when they dozed off from sheer exhaustion. This is what Yakov did during the fourteen years when he was at the Yeshiva of Shem and Eber. Some tzaddikim would submerge themselves in freezing water, roll in the snow in the bitterness of winter or burn their fingers in fire. They did all of this to free their souls from the limitations imposed by the physical body. It is known that some tzaddikim would say, when asked why they afflict their bodies: “What good has my body done for me that I should protect it?”
But on the other hand, there were tzaddikim who served Hashem differently. They guarded their bodies and their health by eating properly and ensuring that they get sufficient sleep. They did all of this with the intention of serving Hashem and they elevated their mundane activities, turning them into spiritual endeavors.
So we see that there is more than one way that a person can serve Hashem. Each tzaddik serves Hashem according to his essence and personality. A tzaddik that is like Yitzchok Avinu who was the essence of gevurah – strength, serves Hashem by completely shunning the physical world. But a tzaddik that is like Avrohom, whose essence was chesed, serves Hashem through a different approach. Avrohom was constantly busy preparing food for his guests and providing for their needs. In fact, Rebbe Mordechai of Nadvorna said that Avrohom ate together with his guests, which would mean that Avrohom was busy all day with eating.
How was Avrohom able to serve Hashem this way? Why didn’t his occupation with food detract from his avodas Hashem? This is because Avrohom’s essence was chesed – kindness. His way of serving Hashem was by doing chesed with everyone, including his own body. The Gemara tells us that the tzaddik Hillel considered caring for his body a kindness. It all depends on the person’s intentions and the manner in which he performs these actions to determine whether or not he is serving Hashem when eating, sleeping and caring for his body.
This is what Hashem was telling Avrohom: “Go, for yourself, from your land.” Go away from you body’s desires and focus on your true self, your soul. You should always remember the neshama’s needs and fulfill its desires. So if you will now think that the only way to do so is by punishing the body, fasting and abstaining from pleasures, I want you to know that it isn’t so. You can go “for yourself” – for your soul – and it will still be “for your benefit and for your own good” by caring for your physical needs.
The world eretz – land, represents physicality. Two people may be performing the same physical act, but there could be a major difference between their intentions. One of them is in his own “land” far removed from Hashem. The other one is in the “land of Hashem” and serving Him every moment.
This is what the verse means by saying: “To the land that I will show you.” I will show you a land, a way of performing physical actions, that won’t distance you from Me but will elevate you instead and bring you closer to Me.
There are tzaddikim who think about Hashem’s great wisdom and beautiful creations whenever they eat. They enjoy the good taste of their food while praising Hashem for His wonderful world. Isn’t it amazing that each fruit has its own distinct flavor? The apple never tastes like a grape, because Hashem gave it its own special flavor! Such thoughts bring the person closer to Hashem and he is overcome with love for his Master.
The Rambam says that when a Jew looks up to the sky and sees the countless stars that twinkle in the night, he marvels at Hashem’s greatness and is overcome with fear of Heaven and love for Hashem. People who think about Hashem during their mundane activities can reach very great heights!
This is what Hashem told Avrohom; He instructed him to stay with his essence of kindness and use this quality of his personality to serve Hashem. He should not serve Him in “your land” – the physical activities that a person does solely for his own pleasure, because that will distance him from Hashem. Instead, he should leave his “land” and go to the “land that I will show you” – he should perform physical actions in a manner that glorifies Hashem.
This struggle to serve Hashem with one’s physical actions is one of the great tests with which Avrohom was tested. In a way it is easier to become holy by abstaining from physical pleasures. A person who is able to serve Hashem with all of his daily, mundane activities has truly accomplished something very difficult.
Avrohom served Hashem through chesed, and Yitzchok served Hashem through strength. Yakov combined both ways. When he was younger he abstained from physical pleasures; we mentioned before that he learned Torah for fourteen years without ever going to sleep. But when he left the Yeshiva and arrived at the Mountain, it says: “And he went there and lay down.” He reached an understanding that one can serve Hashem by sleeping, and he went to lie down.
Hashem should help us all discover our essence and serve Him properly. We should be able to fulfill Hashem’s will, not our own will, and then everyone will be helped with whatever they need and we will soon merit greeting Moshiach, speedily in our days.