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Home » Lech L'cha

Lech Lecha: In the Clouds or on the Ground

Submitted by on October 30, 2011 – 3:46 amNo Comment | 2,928 views

Two Paradigms

Who is truly the person of G-d? Is it the venerable sage who sits alone,head in the clouds, nose buried in ancient tomes or the fellow on the streets, who guides the perplexed and mentors seeking souls? Is it the scholar, whose mind is immersed in ancient wisdoms or one who provided for the needy and counsels the poor? Is it the pious rabbi whose prayer and meditation melts the heart or the cheerful soul whose unbounded joy finds expression in spontaneous song and dance?

This is an age old debate that continues to rage in homes and halls across ethnic lines. Jews also debated this question, each camp insisting that its path is correct. Some believe that true worship of G-d is found in seclusion, study and meditative prayer whereas others maintain that G-d is found among His people, on their streets and in their homes. (1)

The first model leader, who is cloistered from the masses, is free to devote time to higher leaning and ecclesiastic worship. This leader can become a true model for the world to follow and admire and. The downside is that this leader is divorced from the people and doesn’t truly understand their needs. How can leaders lead without knowing those they are meant to lead.

The second model leader is engaged and truly knows the flock, relating to their concerns and understanding their needs. The engaged leader can address the masses on their level and speak to them in their language. On the flip side, such leaders are exposed to outside secular influences and run the risk of compromising their own spiritual pursuit, personal scholarship, piety or even integrity.

 Each model is valid in its own way, but the only way to determine the original Jewish model is to return to the beginning and seek our answer with Abraham, the father figure of the Jewish people.

However, looking to Abraham leads to more confusion than clarity. As we shall see, when reviewing Abraham’s story we learn that he encompassed both models, his head was in the clouds and his efforts were on the street. In fact, he might even have been the origin of the entire debate.

Name Change

Abraham’s original name was Abram. Just before appointing him patriarch of the Jews G-d changed his name to Abraham. Abram is an amalgam of two Hebrew words, Ab, which means father, and Ram, which means exalted. By adding an H (or the Hebrew letter Hei) to the middle of Abraham’s name G-d taught Abraham the proper function of a leader. (2)

The Torah tells us that the letter Hei represents the Hebrew words Hamon Goyim, Hebrew for multitudes of nations. G-d seemed to be saying, if you want to be a patriarch you cannot seclude yourself in the ivory tower, with your head in the cloudsin the clouds or on the street- innerstream and divorced from the multitudes. You have to stop being an Abram – a father exalted and aloof from his children – and be an Abraham – mingle with the multitudes.

Indeed, a brief review of Abraham’s lifestyle will show that he was an outgoing teacher rather than a reclusive scholar. Abraham sparked a revolutionary religious movement that transformed ancient Mesopotamia.  Before Abraham Mesopotamia was a stronghold of idolatry and pagan worship. Abraham organized mass lectures and held public debates. He wrote more than four hundred manuscripts outlining his arguments for Monotheism. He was an activist on every level. He fed the hungry and housed the poor, taught the students and educated the masses.

He was not a reclusive scholar, content with his scholarly tomes. He was a man driven to share his message. He was a firebrand, who kindled a flame. In every respect, Abraham was a man of the people.
At first glance it would appear that G-d endorsed Abraham’s leadership style. Your name, G-d seemed to be saying, doesn’t fit your character. I will change your name to better reflect your leadership style for this is the form of leadership I desire for my children.

Yet upon closer scrutiny we find this approach overly simplistic. If G-d wanted to convey a message of activism over personal piety he would have changed Abraham’s name entirely to something along the lines of Ami-el, which means my nation is G-dly or Betoch-Ami, which means among my nation. Instead G-d preserved Abraham’s original name in its entirety and merely added an H or the Hebrew letter Hei.

It appears that G-d’s message to Abraham was that either approach can work. You can be an exalted father if this is your particular leadership style or if you perceive it as the appropriate approach for your community, but don’t categorically reject the other model. Being a father who is involved with the multitudes is also a valid approach. If this is your leadership style or if you consider this an appropriate approach to your time and place you may feel free to adopt it.

This is not at all helpful. If we were seeking resolution to an age old debate we certainly don’t find it in Abraham’s name. If anything, the name implies that both approaches are valid. In true Jewish fashion, the debate continues…

Scholar on the Street

While it is true that both approaches are valid and that each leader must choose according to his or her circumstances, I believe that the optimal approach can indeed be found in Abraham’s combined name.
Leaving the study hall and sanctuary is a spiritual risk only if the world outside represents a compromised level of holiness and Divine presence. One who can bring the learning and intensity of the sanctuary to the greater outdoors need not make this choice. Such leaders can thrive even outside.

We need not choose between heightened piety in isolation and compromised connection with G-d among His people. We can do both. So long as Abraham busies himself with mentoring, guiding and teaching Torah to the masses, he would be immune to the influences of the outside. On the contrary, he would be so busy lifting others up that he would not be available to be dragged down.  (3)

In this way it is quite possible to be an Abra(ha)m An Abram among the Hei or a father, exalted on the highest levels, among the multitudes. To do that, we must tap the wellspring of spiritual energy that G-d invested into Abraham’s soul and through Abraham into each of us.

Can we emerge from our protective spiritual cocoons without compromising our piety and integrity? The answer is yes, but only if we bring our Torah and intense spiritual connection along. (4)


  1. This debate raged in the Jewish community when Jews
    emigrated in large numbers from Europe to America. For better or worse,
    Europeans forced the Jews into the ghetto. It isolated the Jews and
    deprived them of many opportunities, but it also created an enclave in
    which Torah Judaism could grow unimpeded.
    Arriving to America, Jews found themselves welcome to live where they
    pleased. Some Jewish leaders saw this as a terrible threat to the
    integrity and piety of their communities. In response they created
    virtual ghettos. Neighborhoods populated by observant pious Jews, who
    sunned all forms of secular influence and remained segregated from the
    larger community.
    Others established residence in integrated neighborhoods and reached out
    to all Jews living in these places. They too worried about secular
    values encroaching in their communities, but believed that integrating
    into the wider Jewish community was more important.
    This essay takes the view that both approaches are valid within their
    respective communities. But the optimal approach merges both poles
    enabling a Jew to live in the wider community and remain steadfast in
    value and orientation irrespective of surroundings.
  2. Genesis 17: 5.
  3. This approach is predicated on an interesting point
    of Jewish law. When a pot is heated its molecules expand allowing it to
    capture the flavors of the foods cooking within. When a pot is used to
    cook a non kosher dish it absorbs the non kosher flavor. When it is
    later heated up to cook a kosher dish, the heated and expanded molecules
    release those flavors into the kosher dish, rendering the dish
    The solution is to purge the pot in boiling water, which allows the
    flavors entrapped within the pot to emerge. The problem is that in its
    heated state the pot will not only release its non kosher flavor, but
    also reabsorb it.
    Jewish law (Babylonian Talmud, Chilin 108b and note especially the
    commentary of Tosafot) contends that so long as the pot is in the
    process of expunging its flavor it is not able to absorb. Once it stops
    expunging it is available to absorb again. One must thus carefully
    monitor the length of time that the pot is submerged in boiling water.
    The same holds true of human nature. So long as we are in the wider
    community to share our love of G-d, passion for Torah and excitement
    about prayer with others we can remain as exalted as we were in the
    sanctuary. The risk begins only when we stop trying to be an influence
    to others and become susceptible to be influenced.
  4. This essay is based on Torah Or to Genesis 17: 5 and on LIkutei Sichos v. 10 p. 163.

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