This week’s parsha begins the story of Avraham, the father of monotheism and the spiritual father of all Jewish converts. His story begins with a command that’s familiar:
“Go from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you.”
In some way or other, we all have to eventually leave what is comfortable and familiar and step into an unknown future. I’ve heard it said that Avraham was the first Jewish convert and this makes perfect sense. He didn’t grow up with monotheism around him. He grew up in a family of idolaters in a community where idolatry was normal.
If he’d grown up today, it’s likely his father might have sold iphones and kept up with the Kardashians or simply been someone who idolized money or power. After all, not all idols are made of stone or wood.
It would have been easy for Avraham to simply follow along. He could have stayed where he grew up and simply blended in with everyone else. Instead, he was called upon to leave everything behind and begin a new life, one that was foreign to him both physically and spiritually. He had to leave what he’d known.
When you study Torah, you quickly learn that the Torah wastes no words. If something is repeated, it’s for a deeper reason. Here, we see the Torah basically say that Avraham is commanded by Hashem to go in three different ways. It would have been clear enough to list any one of them. Instead, he’s told to leave his “land,” his “birthplace,” and his “father’s” house. Odds are, during that time period, all three of these could be the same physical location, so it’s obvious that this must mean three different things in some other way.
Chabad.org has a article explaining these 3 different journeys in depth:
This is the deeper significance of the words “your land, your birthplace and your father’s house” in G‑d’s call to Abraham. Eretz, the Hebrew word for land and earth, is etymologically related to the word ratzon–will and desire; so your land also translates as your natural desires. Your birthplace–moladtecha–is a reference to the influence of home and society. And beit avicha, your father’s house, refers to man as a mature and rational being, forging his mind-set, character and behavior with the transcendent objectivity of the intellect. (In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidism, the intellect is referred to as the father within man, since it is the progenitor of, and authority over, his feelings and behavior patterns.)
Avraham was being called upon to do a lot more than just make a physical move, more than just relocating his wife and household to a new place. He was being called upon to go and leave behind. His journey is even beyond just leaving behind his father’s ways or the culture he was born into. His ultimate journey was to travel beyond the finite, human ability to understand and perceive the world and to glimpse beyond it to Hashem’s will. Essentially, he was being asked to do more than just reject idolatry and believe in one G-d alone…he’d already done that before the command to Go came to him.
He’s being told that it’s time for him to transcend his own nature, his habits, and even his rational self. This makes sense when you recall that the culmination of this journey is the akeida, where he sets aside his rationality in favor of pure faith and binds his only son for sacrifice at Hashem’s command. Everything we learn about Avraham as we follow his journey up to that point contradicts the binding of Isaac. We see him yearn for a child. We see him agonize over sending the wicked Ishmael away. We see his kindness and generosity towards strangers and we see him plead for the lives of Sodom and Gomorrah. We learn that Avraham is a kind, generous, righteous man. And yet, in the face of all this evidence that the akeida is exactly the sort of thing a man like Avraham would never do, would outright refuse to do and argue with Hashem over…he obeys without doubt, certain that Hashem has a plan and will cause everything to turn out for the good.
It’s precisely because an act like sacrificing his own son is so opposite what we learn about Avraham’s character that it is so powerful, but on deeper reading, it seems like the changes that Avraham needed to make to reach that point spiritually began with the command to GO.
I think the reason why Avraham’s journey has resonated through three different faiths for thousands of years is because we each have a similar journey. Some of us are called to travel further than others, but we all must go and leave behind some aspect of ourselves to continue to grow and move forward. We can all relate to that idea that we often do have to leave behind what is familiar and comfortable to become the people we are meant to be. For Orthodox Jewish converts the journey is so similar to our spiritual father’s, even if we are never to reach such spiritual heights. We’re still called upon to move beyond the spiritual place we were born to in a radical way. It’s easy to see the families, faiths, and cultures we leave behind, but often harder to see the ways in which we also have to transcend parts of ourselves as well, our very nature, our habits, and even at times, our rational selves.
In ways large and small, we all make leaps of faith into an unknown future. Could Avraham have known with absolute surety that Hashem would keep his promises? Did he sometimes worry he’d lost his mind or way when the commands he received didn’t seem to make rational sense? Were there moments during the long walk up Mount Moriah with Isaac where his heart was troubled and he simply prayed that Hashem would find a way to save his son? Did he look back with regret when he left his homeland and the family he grew up with or did he walk on, confident and certain?
I can bet that there are stories in Midrash that answer many of these questions that I have yet to learn, but for now, I find the Avraham in my mind is often a reflection of where I am in my faith. When I am wavering, afraid that my trust is misplaced and I’m making a huge mistake for my family, Avraham is a man who worries and prays a lot, silent prayers as he follows Hashem’s commands. He lifts the knife reluctantly, fervently praying for Hashem to stop his hand. When I’m full of faith and feeling strong myself, the Avraham I see is certain and confident and he never loses any sleep with doubts.
What is important, I think, is that both my Avrahams keep going forward, in the direction Hashem has commanded them. Their bravery and faith may be rattled, but their commitment and obedience is not.
For now, I suppose that is enough to keep me going on my own journey, following Avraham’s footsteps through the snow.