Parashat Lech Lecha: On Truth and Beauty
Loving-kindness bridges the gap between Abraham's penchant for truth and Sarah's beauty
by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh
At the end of Parashat Noah, we read about Abraham’s birth, but apart from gaining a superficial acquaintance with his family, there is no specific reference to Abraham that singles him out from any of the other individuals mentioned.
In Parashat Lech Lecha, God commands Abraham, “Go for yourself from your land… to the land that I will show you.” At the age of 75 years old, Abraham sets out on his journey to the Promised Land. His relocation is a relatively small step for an individual, yet a great stride ahead for humanity. This was a first step for the Jewish people, who will ultimately remodel the world with the directive of monotheistic faith.
When reading the verses in the Torah, one might gain the impression that until the age of 75 nothing noteworthy ever happened to Abraham. Yet, by reading the interpretations of the sages, a completely different picture emerges. The Oral Torah depicts Abraham’s earlier years as no less significant than those that follow. Many of us are already familiar with some of the accounts from our kindergarten days. The midrash teaches us that Abraham (then called “Abram) recognized his Creator as a young child and discovered the “Owner of the Byre.” He broke the idols in his father Terach’s store, thus shattering Terach’s livelihood and his faith in those false gods. Terach had his “reckless” son arrested and brought for judgment before Nimrod, the idolatrous king, who subsequently punished Abraham by casting him into a fiery furnace. Abraham miraculously survived the punishment, and exited the furnace unscathed. This story is implied in the Torah in God’s opening words to the “Covenant between the Pieces”: “I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans …” You, Abraham, did not escape Nimrod’s furnace (ur means “furnace”) by yourself; it was I who brought you out of there.
Despite many more accounts of Abraham’s life before his debut at the age of 75, his “official” history begins from Parashat Lech Lecha. Some commentaries count Abraham’s self-sacrifice at Ur of the Chaldeans as one of the ten trials that he endured,[i] but many enumerate leaving his homeland as the first. From this latter perspective, all that transpired prior to Parashat Lech Lecha is prehistory, and is not worthy of mention. In the following paragraphs, we will discover why this is so.
From Truth to Loving-Kindness and Back
At the outset of his life, Abraham’s guiding light was truth. He battled for the truth in a world dominated by falsehood, and he followed this philosophy to the extreme. Idols are false deities; therefore, they must be demolished, even at the expense of suffering a head-on-collision with his father’s wrath. Nimrod was the king of falsehood, but Abraham preached the truth in his face, willing to pay the price of being burned alive (obviously, he was not aware in advance that he would be miraculously saved). Abraham’s truth incited his entire generation against him, and he found himself heralded in the news of the day as a young revolutionary who challenged the entire world, and he was condemned by them all, “Abram the Hebrew (עִבְרִי) – the whole world was on one side (עֵבֶר) and he was on the other side.”
By contrast to his early penchant for truth, later in life Abraham is renowned for his loving-kindness, as the verse states, “Give… loving-kindness to Abraham.”[ii] He is renowned for his love of people, his charity, his hospitality and for his incomparable attribute of judging people favorably.
Abraham teaches us that true loving-kindness does not contradict truth. His loving-kindness motivates him to demand justice and truth for the people of Sodom, and to stand boldly before God to ask, “Will the Judge of the World not behave justly?”
Throughout his long life, Abraham never surrendered his attribute of truth. Nonetheless, his emphasis gradually changed. As a young man, his burning desire for truth lashed out at any falsehood that met his path. Such conviction infuriates individuals who are comfortable living in a world of falsehood. However, following God’s command to leave his homeland, Abraham refashioned his strategy. On arrival in the Promised Land he equipped himself with a great deal of patience.
Upon his arrival, a famine broke out and Abraham emigrated temporarily to Egypt. Later, God described to him His long-term plan: Abraham would become the forefather of the Jewish people. A long exile is in store until the nation finally returns to its homeland, as God told Abraham, “Your offspring will be a foreigner… for four-hundred years.” In the meantime, “the Canaanites were then in the Land.” Abraham had to reconcile himself with the presence of those nations who settled there. It would take time.
The time involved demands a transition in the attribute of truth. From now on, the truth must be less pointed. Practically speaking, it must make way for the attribute of loving kindness and allow it to orchestrate the music, with truth playing a secondary role. At the moment of creation, the attribute of truth determined that man should not be created because he is full of falsehood. In response, God hurled the truth to the earth, to sprout from there. Instead, He founded the world upon loving-kindness.
Abraham’s initial belief is reminiscent of our first encounter with Moses, who zealously smote the Egyptian taskmaster whom he saw striking a Jewish slave. Indeed, a passion for truth is a necessary quality for a leader. But, whereas Moses continued his exacting conduct throughout his leadership, Abraham restructured his tactics, curbing his desire for truth, so that the first chapter in his life is only hinted at in the Bible. Nonetheless, the past cannot be erased completely, and it still appears in our historical records for all to see… However, the Torah teaches us that sometimes it is necessary to start over and change the emphasis. By overlooking the truth in the name of loving-kindness, eventually truth and loving-kindness will be able to reunite.
The Man of Truth Marries a Beauty Queen
Let’s put Abraham aside for a moment and discuss our Matriarch, Sarah. The most prominent description of Sarah in the Torah is in Abraham’s words to her, “Now I know that you are a beautiful woman.”[iii] Indeed when Abraham and Sarah descended to Egypt, Sarah’s beauty became the central axis around which the entire story revolved, so much so that the Midrash compares Sarah’s beauty to the beauty of the sunrise, “From here, our sages learned that any woman, compared to Sarah, is like a monkey before a man.”[iv]
Having seen how Abraham initially excelled in his penchant for truth, we now discover that the first Jewish family, an archetypal couple, presents a fascinating connection between truth and beauty. In general, truth is a masculine attribute. It descends from above, representing the absolute sense of, “This is how it should be.” By contrast, beauty is a feminine attribute that manifests in the lower realms. Kabbalah teaches us that there are sparks of holiness concealed in reality. When refined and released from their captivity, these sparks illuminate the darkness of mundane existence with their extraordinary beauty.
Loving-Kindness Makes the Match between Truth and Beauty
The ultimate connection between truth and beauty depends on loving-kindness. Just as a cold skeptic cannot admire a work of art, absolute truth has no consideration for beauty. Yet, when truth is enclothed within the attribute of loving-kindness, the sparks of beauty in reality are gradually refined, so much so that even a man of truth can no longer pass off beauty as inconsequential. “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain,”[v] but, a God-fearing woman like Sarah is one who is praised even for her charm and her beauty. Truth without beauty remains in heaven, while beauty without truth plummets into the abyss. Abraham’s kindness mediated between his original attribute of truth and Sarah’s beauty until she too became as true as she was beautiful.
This leads us to a better understanding of Abraham’s words to Sarah. How was it that until their descent to Egypt, he had not known that she was a beautiful woman? The profound explanation for this is that only then did Abraham achieve the level at which truth could acknowledge beauty and elevate it to higher levels. According to the Arizal, most of the sparks of holiness fell into Egypt and were lost there. Abraham and Sarah’s descent into Egypt marked the moment when they began to refine the abysmal Egyptian culture, which followed the pleasure principle, seeking physical beauty, and idolizing it (which is why Abraham is so certain that the Egyptians will not “overlook” Sarah’s beauty). By bonding between truth and beauty, even the pleasure principle can be elevated to a level of sanctity, until beauty becomes a source of the highest levels of Divine pleasure. Abraham began this refining process by bringing loving-kindness to Egypt. Yet, Sarah is the one who effected this process. She did so by subduing Pharaoh by virtue of Abraham’s power of zealous truthfulness, so much so that Pharaoh was unable to approach her.
Truth Sprouts from the Earth
This picture of Abraham and Sarah marriage is not complete until we note that the very same truth that Abraham was so adamant about in his youth later became Sarah’s personal attribute. Indeed, it is Sarah who stands guard to refine Abraham’s loving-kindness and protect it from becoming radical liberalism. It is she who came to the uncompromising realization that Ishmael was unworthy of inheriting Abraham’s legacy, telling Abraham, “Banish this maidservant and her son!”[vi] (and God agrees with her, telling Abraham, “listen to her voice”). Although God “threw truth to the earth,” from there it begins to sprout in its refined form and ascends once again to return via Sarah, “Truth will sprout from the earth.”[vii]
Let’s conclude with a numerical allusion: the sum of the numerical values of “beauty” (יֹפִי; 100) and “truth” (אֶמֶת; 441) equals “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל; 541). Adding “loving-kindness” (חֶסֶד) to the total brings us to a total of 613, which alludes to the perfection of the Torah and its 613 commandments.
The sages teach us that not only Jacob, but also Abraham and Isaac are referred to as “Israel.” In fact, the letters of the word “Israel” (יִשְׂרָאֵל) include the initial letters of all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (the yud and the reish appear twice): Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah (אַבְרָהָם, שָׂרָה, יִצְחָק, רִבְקָה, יַעֲקֹב, רָחֵל, לֵאָה) – alluding to the fact that each one of them reached the ultimate inter-inclusion between “beautiful truth” and “truthful beauty.”
[i] Avot 5:3.
[ii] Micah 7:20.
[iii] Genesis 12:11.
[iv] Baba Batra 58a.
[v] Proverbs 31:30.
[vi] Genesis 21:10.
[vii] Ibid 12.