Parshas Lech Lecha
The Ordeal of Departure
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
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.