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Three Altars

The Torah portion of Lech Lecha relates that Avraham built three altars to G-d.1 Rashi, basing his commentary on the Midrash2, explains that Avraham built the first altar “upon hearing G-d’s promise that he would have children, and that they would inherit the land of Israel.”3

Rashi goes on to state that he erected the second altar — in the vicinity of Ai — because “he saw in his prophecy that his progeny would stumble there through the sin of Achan. He therefore prayed for them there.”4

However, no explanation is given by Rashi as to the reason for Avraham’s third altar, since Avraham built it out of his simple love of G-d upon his arrival in the city of Chevron.

Our Sages inform us5 that “G-d gave Avraham a sign that all that transpired with him will transpire with his children as well.” This is so because the actions of the Patriarchs serve as an antecedent and a catalyst for the subsequent actions of their descendants.

Thus, the altars built by Avraham empowered his progeny to successfully bring offerings upon the altars in the Mishkan and the first and second Beis HaMikdash.

How did Avraham accomplish the building of these three altars?

The Gemara relates6 that the altars performed three primary functions: they provided sustenance to the entire world; they negated any harsh decrees against the Jewish people by bringing about atonement for their sins; and they caused the Jewish people to be loved by G-d.

These three functions correspond to the three general categories of offerings: Olah — which were wholly consumed upon the altar; Chatos — atonement offerings; and Shelamim — peace offerings:

The Shelamim — parts of which were eaten by those who brought them — symbolize the altar’s function of providing the world with sustenance; just as the owners were able to physically sustain themselves by eating parts of the offerings, so too is the “entire world sustained in the merit of the offerings.”

Chatos — offerings that brought atonement — served to negate any and all harsh decrees, and caused the Jewish people to be forgiven for their sins.

The wholly consumed Olah , offered “entirely for G-d’s glory,”7 without any ulterior motive, served to make the Jews even more loved by G-d.

The bringing of offerings was deemed to be so important that the generic term “service” (Avodah) is applied to it. It thus follows that in our day-to-day service to G-d, which mirrors the “service of offerings,” we will also find the three above-mentioned categories:

First and foremost is the ongoing service of Torah and mitzvos — similar to the Shelamim offering — which continually provides a Jew with his physical and spiritual sustenance.

The second general aspect of Divine service — similar to the Chatos offering — is that of repentance and atonement; even when one — G-d forbid — transgresses, one is able to gain forgiveness through repentance and atonement.

However, a Jew achieves total unification with and attachment to G-d only through the service of mesirus nefesh — complete, absolute and selfless dedication, similar to the wholly consumed Olah offering.

In this state, a person dedicates himself to G-d not for the sake of physical or even spiritual reward, but solely for the sake of G-d’s glory, with no thought of self. By acting in such a manner a Jew becomes “ever the more loved by G-d.”

Avraham’s building of three altars and their effect on his progeny can be understood accordingly: he thereby laid the foundations for the three general aspects of Divine service practiced by the Jewish people throughout history.

The first altar — built upon hearing G-d’s promise about children and the land — relates to the physical and spiritual sustenance achieved through the ongoing service of Torah and mitzvos.

The second altar — wherein he prayed that the sin of Achan be forgiven — involves repentance, atonement and forgiveness.

The third altar — for which Rashi provides no reason at all — symbolizes that aspect of service which transcends reason: the service of mesirus nefesh.

“Down Is Up”

The name of a Torah portion is, of course, indicative of its general content, inasmuch as the title applies equally to all its verses. This is also true regarding Lech Lecha , “Go for your own sake” — a title that implies a continual moving forward.

The general meaning of forward movement in the life of a Jew, prefigured by the journey of Avraham — the first Jew — is a constant spiritual elevation through divine service, the reason for which man was created.9

The beginning of Lech Lecha describes how Avraham fulfilled G-d’s command to “move forth from your land, birthplace and father’s home,”10 by completing his father’s journey to Eretz Yisrael. It then goes on to chronicle how Avraham continued to journey in the direction of Jerusalem and the Beis HaMikdash.11

The above facts thus detail Avraham’s constant spiritual climb, forever attaining more sublime spiritual levels.

However, soon afterwards the Torah relates how a famine in Eretz Yisrael forced Avraham to descend to Egypt, a land whose spiritual degradation was such that is was called the “abomination of the earth.”12

How does this descent conform with a title that refers to continual spiritual ascent?

Our Sages inform us13 that “All the events that transpired with the Patriarchs serve as a sign to their progeny.” This means that not only were these events the forerunners of similar ones involving the Jewish nation, but also that the trailblazing of the Patriarchs brought about those ensuing events.

Thus the Zohar says14 that Avraham’s descent to Egypt led to the subsequent exile of the Jewish people there, and understandably, Avraham’s ensuing ascent from Egypt made possible the Jewish people’s subsequent exodus and elevation. Similarly, since Avraham left Egypt “heavily laden with livestock, silver and gold,”15 the Jewish people would leave Egypt with great wealth.

Accordingly, it is to be understood that the ultimate meaning of Avraham’s descent into Egypt is indeed alluded to in the title Lech Lecha ; his descent into Egypt was a necessary prerequisite to his subsequent ascent, “heavily laden with livestock, silver and gold.” Therefore, this descent was part and parcel of his later ascent.

The same holds true with regard to our own spiritual debasement in the present Exile — an exile rooted in the Egyptian exile, the source of all later exiles.16

The ultimate intent of this exile is the enabling the Jewish people — through their spiritual service under the most trying circumstances — to reach an even loftier level than that attained during the time of the Beis HaMikdash.17 Thus, the present descent is in itself truly part of the coming ascent.

The above helps immeasurably in terms of our own spiritual service. When one ponders the current state of the world, one may well despair of ever vanquishing the spiritual darkness and illuminating the world with the light of Torah and mitzvos.

In truth, however, all these descents and concealments are merely external. On a more sublime level, since G-d conducts the world according to His will and since He desires that all creation attain spiritual perfection, even those things that seem to indicate darkness and a headlong fall are but a prerequisite for refinement, illumination and soaring ascent.

Thus, since the present state of affairs is truly part and parcel of the coming ascent. The world overall is indeed becoming holier day by day, and ultimately will attain completion as a wholly fit dwelling place for G-d.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. V, pp. 57-63.

FOOTNOTES
1. Bereishis 12:7, 12:8, 13:18.
2. Bereishis Rabbah, conclusion of ch. 39.
3. Rashi, Bereishis 12:7.
4. Ibid. 12:8.
5. Tanchuma, Lech Lecha 9; similarly in Bereishis Rabbah 40:6.
6. Kesuvos 10b.
7. Midrash Tadsheh; Sefer Raziel HaMalach.
8. See commentaries on Avos 1:2.
9. Conclusion of tractate Kiddushin.
10. Bereishis 12:1.
11. Bereishis Rabbah 39:24.
12. Bereishis 42:9.
13. See Tanchumah, Lech Lecha 9; Bereishis Rabbah 40:6.
14. Zohar, Lech Lecha.
15. Bereishis 13:2.
16. See Likkutei Sichos IX, p. 178, fn. 28.
17. See Pesachim 87b; Torah Or , 6a; Or HaTorah , Lech 86a.

 

 


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