In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, in a very abrupt and peculiar fashion. The verse states, “God said to Abram,” Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”(Genesis 12:1) The Torah does not first describe any part of Abraham’s childhood or background, and unlike the introductions of Noach in last week’s Torah portion, there is no description of his righteous character. Rather, our story picks up with God’s Lech Lecha revelation to Abraham. Abraham, who is undoubtedly a key figure in the history and destiny of the Jewish people, takes center stage with hardly a word of introduction. From the surface level of the text, his background remains shrouded in mystery.
Though the Torah itself does not describe to us Abraham’s early years, the Midrash tells of a fascinating story from his childhood. This story has much to tell us about Abraham’s relationship with his father Terach, and his quest to discover God. The Midrash writes, “Terach was an idol manufacturer who once went away and left Abraham in charge of the store… Abraham took a stick, smashed the idols and placed the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terach returned, he asked Abraham what happened to the smashed idols. Abraham told his father of a woman who came in his absence to make an offering to the idols. The idols then argued about which one should eat the offering first until the largest idol took the stick and smashed the others. Terach exclaimed this to be impossible, that the idols are only lifeless statues with no knowledge. Whereupon Abraham responded, “You deny their knowledge, yet you worship them!” (Genesis Rabbah 38.13). This Midrash alludes to the fact that Abraham was a child who clashed with the culture of his day. He was the son of an idol manufacturer and lived at the epicenter of all-things polytheistic, yet ironically, it was he who carved a place for monotheism in his time.
Abraham’s yearning and active search for religious truth, along with his absolute rejection for idol worship, was what led to God’s Lech Lecha revelation. God responded to Abraham’s search with the command, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”(Genesis 12:1) He wastes no time in fulfilling the divine command, as the verse immediately after relates, “And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.”(Genesis 12:5) However, here we encounter an intriguing question: God in His command did not give Abraham specific directions as to the location of his destination, just “to the land that I will show you.” How then did Abraham know which way to travel, and why did he proceed to the Land of Canaan?
Italian Biblical commentator and author of the Sforno, Rabbi Obadiah ben Jacob (d.1550), explains that the Land of Canaan was the natural choice for Abraham to set out for on his journey, because the land was “well known to them (the people of Abraham’s time) as a land prepared for contemplation and the worship of God.” The Land of Canaan, according to the Sforno, was the go-to address for spiritual growth for all who sought to experience a deeper understanding of God.
This explains why Abraham did not hesitate to set his spiritual compass to Canaan, as many others had before him—including his own father, Terach. Toward the end of Parshat Noach, the Torah relates that Terach gathered Abraham and the rest of his extended family, and began the journey to travel to the Land of Canaan. The reason for this journey is not made clear; however, we do know that the final destination was not reached. As the verses thereafter inform us, Terach and his family only made it as far as Charan and then proceeded to settle there (Genesis 11:31-32) Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the Chief Rabbi of Efrat, on these verses poses a fascinating idea, and suggests that perhaps history is guilty of unfairly viewing the personality of Terach in a somewhat negative light. Rabbi Riskin cites an opinion of Nahmanides (the Ramban), a leading medieval Jewish scholar, which asserts that from the time of Adam through the days of Noach, the belief in monotheism was preserved in the Land of Canaan. Rabbi Riskin then posits, “If this is the case, it seems logical to suggest that Terach was someone who had come to believe in the One God… and therefore he set out for the Land of Canaan…” (Torah Lights, Bereshit pg 84) And therein lies the redeeming quality overlooked by history: Terach, the idol manufacturer, at one point in his life acknowledged the emptiness of idol worship and set out for Canaan in order to further discover and dedicate his life to the monotheistic One God. Therefore, writes Rabbi Riskin, Abraham was not breaking ranks with his father’s belief system when he journeyed to Canaan, but was in fact continuing in his footsteps and completing Terach’s journey.
It becomes clear that the difference between father and son, when explained from this perspective, is not most stark in regards to their religious belief system, for both came to see the true God. Rather what forever separates the two was their willingness and ultimate ability to complete the journey to find Him. Terach may well have begun with good and lofty intentions of leaving his past as an idolater behind, but his journey was tragically brought to an end when he was distracted by the enticements of the land of Charan. However, in this week’s portion, at God’s urging Abraham picks up where his father left off and completes the journey to Canaan. And from this we can take a powerful message: The difference between success and failure is dependent upon the often disregarded qualities of determination, constancy and commitment to purpose. Intelligence, originality, creativity, and passion are all important and necessary qualities which will help you make a mark in this world, but it’s the consistency and steadiness of focus that will ultimately take man to his goal. And while it is undoubtedly praiseworthy, it is simply not enough to set out on a journey armed with the best of intentions. In order to make it truly count, you must also reach your destination.
It’s no coincidence that the Torah chooses to teach us the lesson of the importance of constancy within the context of Abraham’s journey to the Land of Canaan, the modern day Land of Israel. Certainly Olim (immigrants) in present times can relate to the oftentimes up-and-down nature of their own personal journey to the Israel, as no doubt each individual experience is not without its challenges. But through commitment to purpose, the Jewish people are continuing in the Lech Lecha journey of Abraham, and one by one, we are reaching our destination.