This week's parsha
Climbing the Ladder of Love
Each and every event that is recorded in the Torah about the lives of our forefathers and foremothers is relevant to the story of every single Jew. That is why there are some key events in their stories that are not recorded in the Torah (like Abraham discovering G‑d at an early age and debating with the people of his native land, which is recorded only in Midrash), and why some seemingly trivial details are recorded. The Torah records only those events that are relevant to us, that will recur, in some form or another, in the life of every Jew.
Who was Abraham? What did he stand for? What does he teach us?
Chassidic philosophy teaches that Abraham embodied the quality of loving-kindness, love for his fellow human beings and for his Creator. If there is one theme that runs through many of the stories about Abraham, it is the theme of love -- for G‑d, as well as for people who were not necessarily deserving of love, such as his nephew Lot, his elder son, Ishmael, and the wicked people of Sodom. The story of Abraham’s journeys is the story of a journey toward achieving true love.
This week’s Parshah begins with G‑d commanding Abraham to “go forth” and begin a new journey:
And the L‑rd said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.”
Abraham followed G‑d’s instructions and travelled to what would later become the Promised Land. There he built an altar to G‑d:
And the L‑rd appeared to Abram, and He said, “To your seed I will give this land,” and there he built an altar to the L‑rd, who had appeared to him.
Why did Abraham decide to build an altar to G‑d precisely at this time and place? Rashi explains that Abraham built the altar to thank G‑d for His two promises: the promise that he would have children and the promise that he would be given the land. As Rashi puts it:
And there he built an altar: [in thanksgiving] for the good tidings concerning his descendants and the good tidings concerning the Land of Israel.
In the next verse we read of Abraham’s journey to the next stop in his travels, to a place near Ai where, once again, he built an altar to G‑d:
And he moved from there to the mountain, east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent; Bethel was to the west and Ai was to the east, and there he built an altar to the L‑rd, and he called in the name of the L‑rd.
Why did Abraham decide to build this second altar? Rashi explains:
And there he built an altar: He prophesied that his sons were destined to stumble there because of the iniquity of Achan, and he prayed there for them.
The story of Abraham’s journeying continues. Abraham and his wife, Sarah (at that point called Sarai), were forced to move to Egypt because of a famine. Sarah was taken to Pharaoh’s palace, and then released. Abraham and Sarah returned to Canaan, Abraham and his nephew Lot parted ways, and Abraham then reached the city of Hebron, where he built his third and final altar:
And Abram pitched his tents, and he came, and he dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the L‑rd.
Why did Abraham decide to build the third altar? We would expect that Rashi, having explained why Abraham built the first two, would explain the rationale for the third one. And yet Rashi is mysteriously silent.
To understand the reason for this silence, we need to read the story through the lense of chassidic teachings. If we look at Abraham’s journey as a journey toward love, we will understand why Abraham built the third altar, and we will understand why Rashi does not give a reason for its construction.
In general, there are three stages of love. These three levels are represented by the three altars that Abraham built.
The first stage is love that is motivated by a benefit received. We fall in love because of what we receive from the relationship, because of what the relationship does for us. We like the way the relationship makes us feel.
The second stage is more complicated. We fall in love, and then we grow apart. Eventually, a distance springs up between us and the recipient of our love. This distance is painful. However, this is when the second stage of love comes into play. This love is motivated by returning to the original feelings of love after the experience of separation. The second stage of love is fueled by the pain experienced from being distant from our beloved.
Finally, there is a third stage of love. This love is not motivated by what we receive from the love, nor is it motivated by the pain felt by the lack of connection. The third level of love is all about connecting to the object of our love for its own sake. We are drawn to connect because there is no other way; we sense that deep down we are one.
The first altar that Abraham built, the first stage of Abraham's love for G‑d, was about the benefit that Abraham would receive. As Rashi explains, Abraham built the altar because he understood that the relationship with G‑d was beneficial to him. He had just been promised the blessing of children and the gift of the Land of Israel.
When Abraham came to Ai, he sensed that his descendants would sin at this very location. In building an altar there, he was teaching his children that the disconnect of sin can itself be a reason to connect to G‑d. Estrangement is in fact key to another, deeper, stage of love. Abraham was demonstrating that love intensifies when it overcomes the pain of separation.
Finally, Abraham reached the city of Hebron. The word Hebron comes from the Hebrew word chibur, which means “connection.” In Hebron, Abraham reached the third and ultimate stage of love. Why did Abraham build an altar here? Rashi’s silence communicates a deep truth. There is no reason for this altar, no reason for this relationship. This stage of love is not based on reason; it is not based on receiving something. Abraham built the altar for no reason other than to be connected to G‑d -- not for any personal benefit, spiritual or otherwise, but for the sake of the bond itself.
Abraham is the father of each and every Jew. We read about his journeys not merely for historical information, but to glean a lesson about our relationships, about our bond with G‑d. Abraham’s story inspires us to reach for the final stage of love. As Maimonides writes:
One who serves [G‑d] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvahs and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true…This is a very high level, which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our patriarch, Abraham, whom G‑d described as, "he who loved Me," for his service was only motivated by love.