The Aroma of Avraham
Parashat Lekh L'kha, Genesis 12:1 - 17:27
Dr. Vered Hillel, Israel
Hashem said to Avram, “Lekh L’kha — You go out of your country and your relatives and your father’s household to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
With this call, Avraham burst into history with surprising suddenness. For ten generations Hashem had been silent. He had not spoken to a human since Noah and, as at creation, the message was one of hope and blessing to humanity. Avraham’s immediate response to this call marks the beginning of his journey, through which he became the father of many nations through whom the nations of the world are blessed. There was no one like Avraham. He was a man of exemplary virtue.
So intriguing was Avraham that Rabbi Yochanan, a Tannaitic sage, inquires as to what he can be compared. Commenting on the phrase שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק שְׁמֶךָ (shemen turak shemekha) “finest oils (perfume) is your name” in Song of Songs 1:3, R. Yochanan explains that Abraham resembles a flask of spikenard, an oil scented from leaves, which was tucked away in a corner and its scent was not spreading. When someone came and moved it from that place, its scent began to spread. Hashem’s call and Avraham’s response were similar. He states, “It is as if Hashem said ‘Avraham you have many good works, you have many mitzvoth; spread yourself (like fine fragrance) in the world and your name will become great in the world. You go out.’ What is written after it? ‘I will make you a great nation’ (Gen. 12:2)” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1.2 ג).
When Avraham chose to respond to Hashem’s call to go out from his country, extended family, and nuclear family (12:1), his fragrance began to spread. But, what is Avraham’s fragrance? It includes his belief, which Hashem reckoned to him as צְדָקָה (tzedakah, righteousness, justice, charity; Gen. 15:6), and the things he did: welcomed strangers, extended hospitality, rescued his nephew Lot, prayed, waited for a child, and when commanded was willing to sacrifice him. Adjectives describing Avraham’s character are rare in the Tanakh, but his noble attributes are implicit in the narrative accounts. This week’s parasha reveals several of Avraham’s characteristics through his relationship with Lot.
We are told that Avraham returned from Egypt with great affluence. He was rich in cattle, silver, and gold (13:1), all of which were media of exchange in commerce, and afforded a pastoral nomad a measure of security and protection. Lot also had flocks and herds and tents, which indicate that he was an independent unit within the clan, whose limited affluence posed a threat to the family harmony and cohesion. Avraham demonstrated his magnanimous and peace-loving character when, despite his being the elder of the two men and the uncle, he choose not to enforce his rights of seniority or priority. Instead he selflessly offered Lot the first choice of grazing land and watering spots. In contrast, Lot displayed his selfishness by not deferring to Avraham (Gen. 13:5–13).
Avraham’s willingness to give way to Lot demonstrates the principle developed later in Judaism that we only truly own that which we are willing to give away. The principle is true universally, as the world belongs to Hashem. He made it, therefore, he owns it (Ps. 24:1). It is also true in a particular sense in that Hashem gave the Land of Israel as an inheritance and with it the command that, “The land must not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine , you are but strangers and my tenants” (Lev. 25:23). The principle is expressed in the commands to share the produce of the Land with the poor, release slaves and debts every seven years, and return land to its original owners every fifty years. We are guardians of property and not owners. It is only when Avraham was willing to give part of the land away that Hashem tells him the whole land would be his (Gen. 13:14 –18). Avraham demonstrates that we truly only own what we are willing to give away.
The story of Avraham’s rescue of Lot (14:1–23) provides another glimpse into some of Avraham’s veiled characteristics. Upon hearing of the capture of his nephew Lot, Avraham immediately mustered an army and set out in pursuit in order to rescue his nephew. He attacked, accomplished his goal, and took considerable plunder. On his way home he was met and blessed by Melchizedek (vss. 18–20) and then paid Melchizedek a tithe from the plunder, but Avraham refused to take anything in return.
In Egypt Avraham appeared to be fearful and evasive, but in the Land of promise he was decisive and courageous. He exhibited skill and heroism in battle. He was a military hero, but was not glorified as such. Notice that Avraham did not initiate the war, he was drawn into it through self-sacrificing loyalty to his nephew, who earlier was estranged from him, but needed his help. The lack of detailed information about the war, e.g. nothing about the size of the opposing army, weapons used, number of casualties or details about the plunder, emphasizes Avraham’s virtues of loyalty to family, the redemption of captives, disdain of material reward, and faith in the power of Hashem despite the odds.
None of us can be Avraham, but we can take him as a role model. We can emulate his actions and his characteristics by being magnanimous and peace-loving, and loyal to family and community, by not imposing our rights of seniority or priority, by being undaunted by material reward and trusting in the power of Hashem despite the odds, and by recognizing that we only truly own that which we are willing to give away. May we all be a שֶׁמֶן תּוּרַק, a sweet smelling fragrance, throughout the world, for “God . . . makes known through us the fragrance that consists of the knowledge of him in every place. For we are a sweet aroma of Messiah to God” (2 Cor. 2:14–15).