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R’ Yosef Yozel Horowitz z”l (1847-1919; the “Alter of Novardok”) introduces the era of Avraham Avinu, the subject of our parashah, as follows: After ten generations had passed [since the Flood] during which not even one person chose to live a spiritual life, during which the generations were engulfed in a dark fog of ignorance, there emerged from this darkness one man who was as different from everyone else as can be. At age three, he recognized his Creator. His misguided ancestors and contemporaries could not restrain his search. His yearning for the truth was so strong that it overcame the false beliefs that were taken for granted by his generation. He searched, and he found; he investigated, and he discovered Hashem and His Torah, as our Sages say (Yoma 25a): “Avraham Avinu kept the entre Torah before it was given.”

Not only did Avraham Avinu perform mitzvot, continues the Alter, he understood the value of a mitzvah properly performed. This is evident, the Alter explains, from the two tactics with which the satan tried to prevent him from succeeding in his ultimate challenge: the akeidah of Yitzchak (at the end of next week’s parashah). First, say our Sages, the satan placed physical roadblocks in Avraham’s path to prevent him from performing the akeidah. When that failed, the satan tried to interfere with Avraham’s concentration so that he would not perform the mitzvah l’shmah / with proper thoughts. The yetzer hara uses these two methods to interfere with our mitzvot as well, notes the Alter. Avraham Avinu, however, withstood these challenges. (Madregat Ha’adam)

R’ Moshe ben Maimon z”l (Rambam / Maimonides; 1135-1204) writes: In the days of Enosh [grandson of Adam], mankind made a terrible mistake. They reasoned: “Since Elokim created stars and other heavenly bodies to govern the world, and He placed them in the heavens in places of distinction, it follows that they deserve our recognition and praise.” They said: “Surely it is G-d’s Will that we honor whomever or whatever He honors, just as a king wants his courtiers to be honored because that itself honors the king.” Therefore, Rambam continues, they began building temples to the stars and offering sacrifices and bowing down to them–all because they believed this to be G-d’s Will. They did not, at first, attribute any divinity to the stars.

As time passed, false prophets appeared and told the people that G-d had commanded that such-and-such star or all the stars be worshiped, that sacrifices be offered to them and that forms or images be built to which one could bow down. The priests of these forms told people that bowing to them, venerating them, doing “this” or not doing “that” was the way to ensure material success. Eventually, these beliefs spread across the world.

As still more time passed, the Awesome and Honorable Hashem was forgotten by mankind. They did not speak of Him, think of Him or know of Him. All they knew were their idols of wood or stone. There were a few exceptions: Chanoch, Metushelach, Noach, Shem and Ever. In general, however, the world continued on the way described above until the “pillar on which the world stands” was born, i.e., Avraham Avinu.

As soon as he was weaned, while still a child, he began to think day and night, and he wondered: “How can the universe function constantly in an orderly fashion without someone or something running it? It certainly cannot run itself!” But there was no one to teach him or answer him because he was stuck in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idol worshipers. His father, his mother and everyone around him was an idolator. He served idols with them, but his mind was elsewhere. Eventually, his intellect led him to the truth. He realized that there is one G-d who runs the universe and who created everything. He understood that there is no other god. He knew that the entire world was mistaken. At age 40, he recognized his Creator.

[In a gloss on Rambam’s exposition, R’ Avraham ben David z”l (Ra’avad; died 1198) cites the well-known midrash that Avraham recognized Hashem at age 3, not at 40, as Rambam writes. Some commentaries reconcile the two views by noting Rambam’s explanation that Avraham went through a process of discovery. Perhaps that process took many years.]

Rambam continues: Once Avraham recognized and knew the truth, he began to speak out and to debate the people of Ur Kasdim. He told them that their way was wrong, and he broke the idols. When his arguments overpowered theirs, the king tried to kill him. He was saved miraculously, and he set out for Charan. (Hil. Avodah Zarah, ch.1)

“He said to [Avram/Avraham], ‘I am Hashem Who brought you out of Ur Kasdim to give you this land to inherit it.’ [Avraham] said, ‘Hashem Elokim! How shall I know that I am to inherit it?’ . . .

“He said to Avram, ‘Know with certainty that your offspring shall be aliens in a land not their own; they will serve them, and they will oppress them four hundred years. But also the nation that they shall serve, I shall judge, and afterwards they shall leave with great wealth’.” (15:7-8, 13-14)

R’ Baruch Shalom Ashlag z”l (1907-1991) writes in the name of his father, R’ Yehuda Ashlag z”l (1885-1954; the Ba’al Ha’sulam): We see from next week’s parashah, in the prelude to the destruction of S’dom, that Avraham did not shy away from debating with Hashem when he felt it was warranted. Here, Avraham does not do so; apparently he accepted Hashem’s answer. What then was Avraham’s question, and what did G-d answer?

Another question: We read in Parashat Bo that Hashem hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that Hashem could demonstrate His wonders. Why exactly was this necessary?

R’ Ashlag explains: Avraham asked Hashem: You are promising my descendants a gift [Eretz Yisrael] that contains great spiritual lights. What vessels will my descendants use to receive and contain such great lights?

Hashem answered him: I will provide the vessels! I will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he will oppress your descendants until they recognize that they cannot escape without turning to Me. This will cause them to pray with great intensity and concentration.

R’ Ashlag continues: The Gemara (Shabbat 104a) teaches: “If one wants to purify himself, he receives Divine assistance.” According to the Zohar, this means that he receives a new, more holy soul. Thus, Hashem told Avraham, when your descendants turn to Me, I will imbue them with a soul that will be capable of absorbing the great light of Eretz Yisrael. (Birkat Shalom 5747 p.316)

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l (1903-1993) offers a different interpretation of Avraham’s question and Hashem’s response. Avraham asked: “How can I be confident that my descendants will remain devoted to the Land which You are promising them?”

Hashem answered: “Know with certainty that your children will suffer a long exile during which they will pine for the Land. During the long night of the exile, they will have one dream, one hope–to reach Eretz Yisrael. This will ensure that they will remain forever loyal to the Land.” (Quoted in Haggadah Shel Pesach: An Exalted Evening p.55)

Zemirot Shabbat

“Dorshei Hashem, zera Avraham ohavo” / “Seekers of Hashem, descendants of Avraham, His beloved, who delay departing from the Shabbat and hurry to enter [it].” (From the zemer Kol Mekadesh)

R’ Yitzchak Meltzen z”l (1854-1916; Lithuania and Eretz Yisrael) writes: When one follows in Avraham’s footsteps, doing everything with love of Hashem and with joy, he will depart from Shabbat later than the earliest possible time and will accept Shabbat earlier than the latest possible time. He will not treat Shabbat like an obligation to be observed against his will, bringing it in at the last possible moment and counting the minutes until he can recite havdalah. One who knows and believes that Shabbat is a gift from Hashem will want it to last as long as possible. (Siach Yitzchak)

Why is “Tosefet Shabbat” / “adding” to the Shabbat connected with Avraham Avinu in particular? R’ Chaim Tirer z”l (better known as R’ Chaim of Czernowitz; died 1817) explains: Avraham is the paradigm for a man of chessed / loving-kindness, whose nature is to do more than he is obligated to do. So, too, by adding to the hours of Shabbat, we express our desire to do more than we are required to do. (Sidduro Shel Shabbat I 4:11)

Before one’s Shabbat can end, it must begin. Why, then, did the song’s author write, “who delay departing from the Shabbat,” before, “and hurry to enter [it]”?

R’ Aharon Perlow z”l (1802-1873; Karliner rebbe) writes in the name of his father, R’ Asher z”l (1760-1826): The poet is referring to the first Shabbat that Bnei Yisrael observed. Never having tasted the sweetness of Shabbat, they did not hurry to begin Shabbat early. But, having experienced Shabbat once, they delayed departing from it. Then, the following week, they did hurry to enter it. (Beit Aharon: Likkutim)