Before Abraham could be deemed worthy of becoming the
Patriarch of the Jewish people, Hashem put him through ten ordeals to
probe the depth of his devotion - all of which he passed brilliantly. The
last and most familiar is, of course, the Akeidah, when Hashem
commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son, only to stay his hand at the
very last moment. This week’s parshah describes one of the earlier
ordeals, Hashem’s command to Abraham to leave Mesopotamia and
settle in a different land.
The Midrash considers this ordeal comparable to the Akeidah as a
test of Abraham’s devotion. But how can these two situations be
compared? On the one hand, we have the tragic image of an old man
blessed with an only son at the age of one hundred and now being
asked to bind him hand and foot and place him on the altar as a
sacrificial lamb. Not only would he be left childless and devastated, but
for his remaining age-dimmed years, during his every waking moment,
he would think of nothing else but what he had done to his son. What a
shattering ordeal! An ordinary man could not possibly have withstood it.
On the other hand, we have the image of a man in vigorous middle age
being told to relocate to a different land. Granted, relocation is an
unpleasant experience. But tragic? Harrowing? Shattering?
Furthermore, let us take a closer look at the wording of the
command. “Go away from your land, from your birthplace and from your
father’s house to the land I will show you.” (Bereishis 12:1) Logically, it
would seem, an emigrant first leaves the house of his father, then the
city of his birth and, finally, his country. Yet here, Hashem tells Abraham
to make his exits in the reverse order. Why is this so?
The answer lies in a deeper understanding of the command of
departure. Hashem was not merely telling Abraham to relocate
geographically a few hundred miles to the west. He was telling Abraham
to make a complete break with the culture in which he had grown up
and spent all of his life. Abraham had indeed recognized his Creator at
a very young age and was completely free of pagan ideology, but he
was still connected by cultural ties to the pagan society in which he
lived. The style of his home, the clothes he wore, his modes of
language, the cultural timber of his daily existence were all
Mesopotamian. As long as he remained thus connected to the corrupt
society of his ancestors he would never be able to reach the highest
levels of prophecy and attachment to his Creator. The only choice was
to break away and move to a different land. In a strange land, even a
corrupt pagan one, he could remain totally detached from his cultural
surroundings. Standing alone in Canaan in his stalwart purity and
righteousness, he could penetrate to the highest spheres of Heaven.
But not in the land of his fathers.
Therefore, Hashem commanded him to sever all his cultural
umbilical cords in a logical progression. First, his attachment to the
country in general. Then his closer attachment to his birthplace. Finally,
his attachment to the very household in which he was born. When this
final detachment was accomplished, he could begin his spiritual journey
toward prophecy and the establishment of the Jewish nation.
This departure, therefore, was a most difficult ordeal indeed.
Abraham was required to purge himself every cultural vestige of his
entire life, to penetrate every hidden crevice of his heart and soul,
search out every hidden crumb of Mesopotamian culture and sweep it
out. Perhaps this ordeal was not as frightening and tragic as the
Akeidah, but in pure difficulty it may have surpassed it.
We all live in our own Mesopotamia, and no one can deny that the
sinister tendrils of the surrounding culture insinuate themselves into the
innermost crevices of our own hearts. We are not Abrahams, of course,
and we cannot be expected to extricate ourselves completely from
these entanglements. However, we can at least recognize them for
what they are and try to keep them at arm’s length so that we can grow
spiritually even as we live in such an environment.