The prophet Isaiah once proclaimed to the People of Israel reeling from crisis, “Look to the rock from which you were cut… look to Abraham.” Studying his trailblazing path and character are empowering for actualizing our own potential, since what we discover about Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, we can also discover in ourselves.
Unfortunately, the start of the book of Genesis flies past in a haze in the shadow of the busy holiday season and Abraham passes in a flash. Over the next few weeks, I hope to share some insights to keep him in the headlines.
When ‘go’, really means ‘keep going’
The title of this week’s parashah is “Lech lecha,” opening with God’s command to Abraham “To go,” to the Promised Land, and when we think of Abraham it’s hard not to do so as the start guy to our epic story, however as midrash points out, God’s command to Abraham is not said at the beginning of his great journey from the idolotary of Ur Kasdim to the Land of Israel, but rather many years later to give it a kickstart.
At the end of the previous parashah, Noach, Rashi quotes midrash that Abraham had convinced his family to leave the city of his birth after a brush with the Warlord Nimrod, who had thrown him into a furnace after he stood up against the local pagan culture. Witnessing God’s protection of Abraham in the fire, his family agreed to heed Abraham’s advice to make the great move westwards, yet his father Terach, once himself deeply enmeshed in idolatry, chose to stop half way, and settle instead in the city of Haran.
Cue God’s command to Abraham, “Lech lecha,” not “Go!” but rather “Don’t stop! Carry on!” So what went wrong? Why was Abraham in need of this divine push forward?
Midrash answers that he was stuck in a moral fix, unwilling to continue his journey and leave his ageing father. Even after told to leave, he even pleads with G-d. “How can I tell others to love our father in heaven when I myself have left my own father?” Perhaps, we can muse that someone so pained to leave his own father is the right person to spread G-d’s word. With the world in crisis, and in need of repair, God absolves Abraham of his responsibilities to Terach to complete his own mission, scrambling the order of events, in the Torah to make it appear that he had left only after his own father had died.
Abraham indeed sets off, but the words and the blessing of ‘Lech lecha’ enters his understanding God would partner in him, not only now, but also into the future.
The impact can be seen all the way through this parasha, with an Abraham, superhuman in his achievements, overcoming mighty challenges one after the other. When the armies of the world’s four greatest empires capture his nephew Lot, Abraham sees them off as if brushing off a fly. After a stop start beginning to his journey, suddenly nothing can stand in his way.
In the words of another Abraham, Rabbi Abraham Saba, 15th century Spanish Torah commentator, who endured untold suffering during terrifying expulsions from Spain and Portugal, “The blessing of Lech lecha was to teach Abraham, and all of us who descend from him, that when you have gone as far as you can, Hashem will renew your spirit to enable you to finish that which you first sought out to complete.” In other words, you make the first move, then God will move towards you.
Despite losing his home four times, his two sons taken from him and forcibly converted, Abraham Saba, never let life’s challenges stop him from living out his calling – on one occasion, risking his life to retrieve his own manuscripts, after Hebrew books had been banned. He was caught and spent six months in prison before re writing his works by heart, completing his years, teaching and writing in out in Fez, Morocco.
So, Abraham ‘The Starter’ or Abraham ‘The Kickstarter,’ we may ask what is the difference? For any of us who is in the middle of a journey of one kind or another, with a hundred reasons we should see our hopes as pipe dreams, discovering the mark of Abraham in ourselves offers hope of a powerful renewal. With limits on our time, a sea of cynicism or an ebbing self-belief, tapping into the blessing given to Abraham can present an immense opportunity, to persevere, carry on and succeed.