Tradition Vs. Self-Discovery

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Lech Lecha
Tradition Vs. Self-Discovery

After Avraham won a war against four powerful kings, Malki Tzadek, the King of Shalem, brought bread and wine to Avraham (Gn. 14:1-18).

Let us first establish who Malki Tzedek was. According to the Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, 43:6) and the Talmud (Nedarim, chap. 3, "Arbaa Nedarim", pg. 32b, Rebbi Zecharya in the name of Rebbi Yishmael), Malki Tzedek was none other than "Shem" the righteous son of Noach. That said, let us share an interesting piece of historical data.

This verse, which speaks about Malki Tzedek being the King of Shalem, serves as one of the sources in the Torah that tells us about the origins of the name of "Yerushalayim" (Jerusalem).

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabba, 56:10) explains that Avraham named this city "Yireh" (Gn. 22:14). However, Malki Tzedek named it "Shalem" (Gn. 14:18). God said that if he were to choose the name which Avraham picked, Malki Tzedek would complain. Similarly, if Hashem chose the name which Malki Tzedek picked, Avraham would complain. So, Hashem decided to combine both names together. "Yireh" and "Shalem" joined spells "Yerushalayim."

Naming this city is not a small matter. Yerushalayim is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. As such, we should try to understand the debate between Avraham and Shem. Why did Avraham select the name "Yireh", while Shem chose "Shalem"?

One answer to this is based on a teaching from the Maggid of Mezheritch (Likkutim Yekarim, #199) who says that there are two approaches as to how a person comes to recognize God. They are best described by the following two words: tradition and self-discovery.

Tradition represents a person who has teachers, Rabbis, mentors, and parents who teach him about the existence of God. This is called the "mesorah" (that which is passed down or transmitted from one generation to another).

Self-discovery represents a person who did not have such teachers, however, he searched, explored, and probed to find the truth until he discovered it on his own.

Shem and Avraham personify these two approaches.

How did Shem come to recognize God? Well, he was born into a very religious family. Noach, his father, was a prophet. Noach taught Shem about God. Noach received this tradition from the righteous Mesushelach before him, who in turn received it from the righteous Chanoch before him, who in turn received it from the righteous Shes before him who received it from his father, Adam Harishon, who received a Divine communication from God directly in Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden). This was the chain of mesorah at that time. Since Shem was taught about God traditionally, he is called a traditionalist.

Avraham, however, was not connected to that line of mesorah. Avraham did not have mentors who taught him about God. His own father Terach never taught him about God. On the contrary, Terach taught him about everything other than God. Terach was an idolater who made a living by selling idols from his shop (BereishisRabba, 38:13, Rebbi Chiya bar brei D'Rav Adda D'Yafo). Growing up, Avraham was exposed to other religions. How did Avraham come to recognize the real God? He investigated, explored, and questioned until he finally found the truth. Since Avraham found God on his own, he is called an explorer.

Parenthetically, the Talmud (Nedarim, chap. 3, "Arbaa Nedarim", pg. 32a, Rav Ami bar Aba) says that Avraham was three years old when he discovered Hashem. This is derived from the verse that says, "Eikev Asher Shama Avraham Bikoli" (since Avraham listened to My voice; Gn. 26:5). The word "eikev" is translated as "since." However, the actual translation of "eikev" is "heel." What is the word "eikev" doing in this verse?

The Gemarah explains that, in this instance, the word "eikev" neither means "since" nor does it mean "heel." Rather, it is a numerical value which equals 172. With this new "definition", the verse reads, "For 172 years Avraham listened to God's voice." Since Avraham died at the age of 175, we can deduce that he began to obey God from the age of 3.

This number seems to be challenged by the Rambam (Hilchos Avodas Kochavim, 1:3) who says that Avraham recognized God at the age of 40. With all due respect to the Rambam, he does not have the authority to disagree with the Talmud that preceded him. How then, can the Rambam claim that Avraham was 40 when the Talmud states that he was 3?

The Kesef Mishnah quotes the Ramach who reconciles this apparent tension. He says that Avraham BEGAN to explore God when he was 3. However, Avraham CONCLUDED that Hashem existed when he reached the age of 40.

This further demonstrates Avraham's status as an explorer. He was a truth seeker who searched for 37 years until he found the truth.

Avraham was not the first person to recognize God, because Adam, Shes, Chanoch, Mesushelach, Noach, and Shem recognized God before him. However, Avraham was the first person to recognize God ON HIS OWN.

If Shem and Avraham were alive today, we would probably label them because we love labeling people. Shem would be called an F.F.B. (frum (religious) from birth), whereas Avraham would be called a B.T. (ba'al teshuvah - one who repents later in life).

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Let us mention some of the advantages first.

One advantage of the traditionalist is his unwavering Emunas Chachamim (faith in the Sages). It is an admirable thing to accept what our Sages tell us. We are supposed to listen to them, and when we do, it is something to respect.

One advantage of the explorer is the effort he puts into discovering that which others were served on a silver platter. Such a person is a truth seeker who knows that Judaism is the truth because he has compared it to everything else that is available out there.

Now let us mention some of the disadvantages.

The traditionalist does what he does because everybody around him is doing the same thing. His class mates, friends, family, and community are all practicing Judaism, so he follows along. This is likened to "Monkey see, Monkey do." I like to call it "The path of least resistance." The question for the F.F.B. is if he was born a Palestinian, would he do what Palestinians do just because everybody around him is doing the same thing. Would the F.F.B. think for himself? It is possible that the traditionalist does not even know if the religion that he is practicing is the truth. This is a tragedy.

On the other hand, the discoverer who is disconnected from any sort of tradition, will inevitably make mistakes with respect to mitzvah observance. For example, he may have heard about Shabbat. He may even have heard of singing zemirot (Sabbath songs) at the Shabbat table. Without being educated, he could pull out a guitar during the Friday night meal and start strumming a song to God. This comes from a good place, but this person is actually desecrating the very Shabbos he seeks to observe.

This is why God orchestrated that Avraham and Shem meet each other. They met each other for the first time in this week's parsha. Hashem wanted that each one of them would supplement the others' deficiencies. For example, Shem would say to Avraham, "Between you and me, I grew up with this stuff, but how do I know that this is really the truth? Maybe some other religion out there is closer to the true service of God."

To which Avraham would respond, "What do you think is the truth? Buddha? Jesus? Or some other faith? Let me tell you, "Been there, done that!" I have explored all the religions of the world. Let me show you how shallow they are. This is their testament; this is their philosophy. Now let me show you the fallacies in them. Let me prove to you that they are dead-end streets and full of contradictions."

As Avraham would talk, it would become clear to Shem that he was on the right path all along. Through the eyes of Avraham, Shem had a renewed appreciation for the religion that he had been practicing his entire life. Finally, Shem KNEW that he possessed the truth.

Similarly, Avraham would say to Shem, "Between you and me, I've been a lone wolf my entire life. I've discovered Hashem on my own, but how do I know that the way I practice the religion is acceptable? You have the mesorah. Please teach me what is allowed and what is not; what is OK and what is out of bounds." At that point, Shem would teach Avraham the exactitudes, rigidities, and technicalities of halachah (law; BereishisRabba, 43:7).

This explains what the debate was between Avraham and Shem with respect to the name of the city. They both recognized that Jerusalem was, and still is, the spiritual headquarters of Avodas Hashem (service to God). Although a Jew can connect to God anywhere in the world, in Yerushalayim it is easier because there is a current of spirituality that is so palpable, you can reach out and touch it. Therefore, each one selected a name which, in his opinion, describes the best way to approach God.

Shem called the city "Shalem" because that name represents tradition. How so? "Shalem" means "complete." That is precisely what happens when one receives the principals of the religion traditionally. It is served to him as a complete package. Shem was very proud of his approach to God. As such, he suggested that we all come to recognize God traditionally. That is why he picked that name for the city in which one approaches God in the deepest and highest of ways.

However, Avraham called the city "Yireh" because that name represents self-discovery. How so? "Yireh" means "to see, as in "I have to see it for myself." Such is the way of the explorer. Avraham was very proud of his approach to God. As such, he suggested that we all come to recognize God through exploration. This is why he selected that name for the city which represents the ultimate way for a Jew to connect to God.

After analyzing both suggested names, God chose to name the city Yerushalayim which is a combination of the two. This is because God wants man to serve Him in totality. Each approach individually has shortcomings. Therefore, God said that we should approach Him in a synthesized and balanced way. If we do, we will lack nothing.

The Eitz Yosef (a commentary of tefillah, by Rav Chanoch Zundel of Bialystock, Poland - Germany, d. 1867) says that although both approaches are extremely important, one of them is slightly better that the other. The approach of the B.T. is a little bit better than the approach of the F.F.B. We can see this by comparing the deficiencies of each one of them.

The B.T.'s great mistake is that he might not observe the minutia properly. This is not good, but by contrast to the problem of the traditionalist, it seems small.

The F.F.B. has mostly been sheltered his entire life from outside influences. If, when he gets older, he is exposed to other people and their cultures, he may start to wonder if they have the truth. He might start to entertain the thought that other religions are right. He may feel uncomfortable asking these questions within his own community for fear of being looked down upon or excommunicated.

This traditionalist may harbor thoughts that are tantamount to actual heresy. This is by far much more severe than making mistakes with the technicalities of halachic practices.

The Dover Shalom (a commentary on tefillah by the first Belzer Rebbe, Rav Shalom Rokeach, Galicia, 1779 - 1855) adds that this is why we always find liturgical passages and scriptural verses preferring the approach of the explorer over that of the traditionalist.

For example, many prayers (like the Shmoneh Esrei) begin with the words, "Elokeinu Veilokei Avoseinu" (our God and God of our forefathers). This seems a bit strange. Who believed in God first? Us, or our forefathers? Our forefathers. If so, the prayer should begin, "Elokei Avoseinu", and only then mention, "Elokeinu." Why is it out of order?

The Dover Shalom says that "Elokeinu" does not just mean that He is "our God." It also implies that He is the God that we came to know ON OUR OWN. The words "Elokei Avoseinu" do not just mean "the God of our forefathers." It also implies that He is the God that we came to recognize "THROUGH OUR FOREFATHERS."

Therefore, we mention "Elokeinu" before "Elokei Avoseinu" to give preference to the approach of the explorer over the approach of the traditionalist. The God that we come to know on our own resonates with us much more and is thus much more meaningful. When we dig to find God on our own, we KNOW that it is the truth because we have compared it to everything else. We took it apart and put it back together again, and it withstood the test of skepticism.

We also find a verse which supports this notion. It says, "Zeh Keili Vi-anveihu, Elokei Avi Va-aromimenhu" (This is my God and I will glorify Him, the God of my father and I will exalt Him; Ex. 15:2). Once again, the ordering of the verse seems strange. Was God our God first, or was He first the God of our forefathers? Obviously, He was the God of our forefathers first. In that case, the verse should have said "Elokei Avi (the God of my father) first, and only then mention "Keiliu" (my God) second. Why is it apparently out of order?

Once again, we give partiality to "Keili" because it represents the God that I came to know ON MY OWN. Only then do we mention "Elokei Avi" to show that the God we heard about traditionally from our predecessors is in second place.

Both approaches are extremely important. It's just that the approach of the discoverer is slightly better that the approach of the traditionalist.

Even the name "Yerushalayim" drives this point home. Two personalities participated in naming this city, Shem and Avraham. Who was older and who was younger? Shem was much older than Avraham. Shem was on an Ark during the flood way before Avraham was ever born. Who named the city first? Shem did. We can see this from the fact that Shem called it "Shalem" in this week's parsha, Lech Lecha, whereas Avraham called it "Yireh" in next week's parsha, Vayeira.

That being the case, when God combined both names, He should have made "Shalem" the first part of the name, and "Yireh" the second part of the name. It would have sounded something like "Shalmireh." Why did God call it "Yerushalayim" by mentioning Avraham's name first and Shem's name second? Once again, this was in order to favor Avraham's approach over that of Shem's.

This teaches us an incredible lesson. We must always strive to become a synthesis of both approaches. This means that we must hold on tenaciously to the traditions of the past. We must adhere, unwaveringly, to the way halachah has been transmitted to us by our Sages. We must have Emunas Chachamim and steadfastly follow the tenets of our faith.

At the same time, we must be educated on how to refute any attack which challenges our faith. This requires exploration.

So, whether we are F.F.B.'s or B.T.'s, may we be blessed to serve God in totality by learning from each other, supplementing each other, and by strengthening each other, so that one day soon, we will all be able to serve Hashem in our eternal capital, Yerushalayim!