Parashat Lech-Lecha: We’re Never Off-Duty
Parashat Lech-Lecha begins with G-d’s command to Abraham Abinu to "go forth" – "Lech Lecha" – and move to Eretz Yisrael. Rashi explains the phrase "Lech Lecha" to mean, "Le’hana’atecha U’le’tovatecha" – "for your benefit and your wellbeing."
To explain Rashi’s comment, the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) discusses the concept of "Nisosot Kedusha" – the "sparks of sanctity" that are dispersed throughout the world. Wherever we find ourselves at any given moment, he explains, we have a task, and that is to reveal and extract the sparks that are concealed in that place. The Ben Ish Hai gives an example from his own life. He was once imprisoned for a brief period of time by the authorities in Baghdad, and while he sat in jail he managed to write a book of Torah scholarship. Evidently, the Ben Ish Hai said, there were sparks of Kedusha that needed to be released at that place, in that prison cell, and so Hashem sent him there so he could study and write words of Torah, through which he extracted those sparks.
To give a modern-day example, let us imagine somebody who lives in New York and needs to schedule a business meeting in Chicago. He boards the plane, lands, takes a taxicab to the office, and the secretary tells him that the person he needs to meet will be available in another ten minutes. In the meantime, she offers him a cup of tea, and he recites a Beracha and drinks. Ten minutes later, the secretary returns and apologetically informs him that an urgent matter arose and the meeting had to be cancelled. The man’s instinct would be to bemoan the fact that he traveled all the way to Chicago for nothing. But from our religious perspective, this is not true at all. Hashem brought him to Chicago because there were sparks of Kedusha which only he could release. By reciting a Beracha, and through the other Misvot he performed over the course of his trip, he did the job assigned specifically to him that needed to be done specifically at that location.
This is why our tradition does not encourage us to live a secluded or monastic lifestyle. We are urged to engage in worldly, mundane pursuits such as work, eating, marriage, and so on, in moderation and in strict compliance with Halachic guidelines. The Hatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg, 1762-1839) noted the difference between Hanoch, a righteous Sadik who was taken alive from this world and brought to the heavens, and Abraham Abinu, who became the founder of our nation. Hanoch withdrew from the world and involved himself exclusively in spiritual matters, and thus was removed from this world. Abraham, however, became our nation’s founder because he was fully engaged in the world, accumulating wealth, waging battles, serving scrumptious food to wayfarers, and working with people to disseminate the belief in G-d. The sparks of sanctity are dispersed throughout the world, and are extracted by bringing Kedusha to the mundane frameworks within which they are concealed. Each time we recite a Beracha over food, for example, we extract the sparks of sanctity from that place and from that piece of food. This goal is achieved not by withdrawing from worldly affairs, but by engaging in worldly affairs in a sacred manner as dictated by the Torah.
The Ben Ish Hai thus explained that G-d’s command of "Lech Lecha" was directed not only to Abraham Abinu, but to each and every one of us. We are all to "go forth," to go about our normal, mundane lives in a manner that extracts Kedusha from all the places we go. Rashi therefore comments that this is to be done for our "benefit" and "wellbeing." We are not to abstain from the pleasures of the world, but to enjoy them, in a way that brings Kedusha and extracts the sparks of sanctity that are waiting for us to come along and uncover them.
The practical lesson of this insight is that a Jew is never "off-duty." At no point in any day are we in a place or a situation that exempts us from our religious obligations. We must not view our mundane activities merely as necessary but unwanted responsibilities that we quickly and hurriedly complete so we can return to religious life. Rather, they are part and parcel of religious life. It is specifically there where we have the great mission and challenge of uncovering and retrieving the sparks of Kedusha. Wherever we are and under any circumstances that we confront, we have a job to do. At every moment, Hashem brings us to the precise place where we need to be to perform Misvot and do our part in revealing all the sparks of holiness, so they can gradually combine into a large, raging flame of Kedusha that will, one day, illuminate the entire Earth.