Avraham’s Journey: Then and Now
Rabbi Reuven Mann
This week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, recounts the emergence of our first Patriarch and Matriarch, Avraham and Sarah. All told, the Jewish people have three Fathers and four Mothers, a situation unique in the annals of history.
Most religions and political, intellectual, and social movements trace themselves back to a single founder. However, as great as Avraham was, he occupies a position that is shared by others, his sons Yitzchak and Yaakov and their wives.
There are important lessons contained here. Most significantly, it is not good to attribute too much greatness to a human being. Judaism is leery about hero worship, especially in the the spiritual realm. There is a very thin line between legitimate respect and excessive reverence.
Why have so many crossed that line to deify humans who brought great harm to mankind? It is because man’s religious instincts often lead him astray. People are not comfortable with an abstract deity who cannot be compared to anything we are familiar with in our own sphere of existence.
They are searching for “Superman,” a figure who is like us, but infinitely greater in power and magnitude. One can’t help but be amazed at the irony; G-d created us in His image, but we are not at peace with that and seek to recreate Him in our puny image.
Judaism does not establish role models who are exclusively male. Avraham was joined by his wife, Sarah, whose participation in their “movement” was absolutely consequential. The Torah shows how these two figures interacted.
Sarah Imeinu (Our Mother) was an independent thinker who had prophetic insight. It was her bold idea for Avraham to marry the slave girl, Hagar, to bear a child who would perpetuate his religious movement.
Yet, after the birth of Yitzchak, she noticed the jealous disdain of Hagar’s son, Yishmael, and decided it was absolutely essential for him to be banished from Avraham’s house. She advocated this action, even though it was extremely displeasing to Avraham. These two wise and discerning spouses disputed over this, although neither of them could impose their will on the other.
Hashem decided the outcome by telling Avraham, “Listen to the voice of Sarah in all that she tells you,” meaning that, in this department of human behavior, her insight is superior to yours.
This message was communicated to Avraham alone, who accepted the painful reality and sent Hagar and Yishmael on their way. Acknowledging the truth and eschewing ego is a paramount hallmark of the Abrahamic tradition.
The founders of our religion are three generations of men and women who were absolutely committed to its ideals of wisdom, compassion, and truth. We do not believe in people, but only in Hashem. It is not the impulses and “visions” of charismatic characters that we live by, but only by the wisdom of Hashem, which is revealed in His Torah.
Our parsha describes the origin of the Jewish mission to spread G-d’s religion throughout the world. Hashem commanded Avraham to “Depart from your land, birthplace, and father’s house to the Land I will show you.”
Avraham’s willingness to abandon his family ties and familiar relationships is considered a great act of courage and faith. We do not necessarily appreciate the full magnitude of this gesture.
To do so, we should ask whether we would be able to make a similar journey. For we find ourselves in an almost identical position as our forefather.
Eretz Yisrael (Israel) is available to us, but we choose to remain in a country that is not our own. The journey today in an airplane, with all amenities provided, would get us there in less than a day, but it is one that many are reluctant to make.
We can’t pull ourselves away from our birthplace and “father’s home.” We simply have it too good here. We can’t separate from our social attachments and luxuries and immigrate to “the Land I will show you.”
Rashi explains that Hashem mentioned “land, birthplace, and father’s house” to increase Avraham’s reward for each enunciation. However, Hashem immediately says that He will make Avraham into a great nation and magnify his name.
This was quite a promise. So wouldn’t it constitute a great incentive and detract from the greatness of his willingness to leave his home? Wouldn’t our decision to make aliyah (move to Israel) be much easier if we knew that great rewards awaited us there?
We need to comprehend the nature of Avraham. He harbored no desire for personal glory. He served Hashem purely out of love and a natural desire to make Him known throughout the world.
Hashem’s promise that, through Avraham, “all the nations of the world would be blessed,” did not appeal to his ego. It meant that Hashem had selected him to be the medium through which the Divine plan would come to fruition on Earth.
This did not imply a life of ease or glory. Soon after arriving in Canaan, there was a severe famine and he was forced to travel to Egypt. There his life was endangered, and he had to pretend that Sarah was his sister.
Hashem places many challenges before those who seek to serve Him. Certainly the rewards are great, but they do not come quickly or easily. Nor are they of the kind that motivate people to wait on long lines to purchase lottery tickets.
Avraham and Sarah and all the other great Torah heroes who have graced our history essentially sacrificed the ordinary satisfactions of life to be partners with Hashem in the great mission of sanctifying His name in the world. This is the essence of Avraham’s journey. Whoever is motivated by his spirit can embark on it at any time.
I write these words one day before the Presidential election. I am neither endorsing nor commenting on either candidate. What I find amazing is the fact that they are not youngsters (about 70) and yet have displayed almost superhuman energy in pursuit of the office.
For the past year and a half they have worked around the clock, holding extremely draining meetings, rallies, interviews, and debates. Not to mention the constant stream of crises and dilemmas that are inevitable in all such endeavors. Both display tremendous energy and stamina. What is their secret?
I do not mean this in a bad way, but both candidates are extremely ambitious and ego-driven, with an almost insatiable desire for power. I have no problem with that, as long as the energy generated by these motives is put to positive use to benefit America.
There are enormous differences between these types of leaders and those who have been the shepherds of the Jewish people. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs were modest people who had absolutely no desire for personal adulation.
Moshe Rabbeinu was the most humble of men and pleaded with Hashem to be excused from leading the greatest mission in history. He had to be coerced into becoming the king of the Jews. To this day, Judaism views the desire for power as a serious flaw that should make us suspicious of all who cultivate it.