In this week’s Torah portion, the history of the Jewish people commences. Until now, in the portions of Genesis and Noah, we studied about the creation of the world and the development of mankind, but now we meet the first Jewish couple: our grandparents, Abraham and Sarah.
The Torah goes into great detail regarding the fine nuances of their lives, for it is written, “Ma’aseh Avos siman l’banim – Whatever happened to our Forefathers is a portent for their children.” Therefore, by studying the lives of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we can better appreciate the meaning of our own lives.
Our forefather Abraham was challenged with ten tests, all of which he passed with great distinction. All the trials and tribulations of future generations are traceable to those tests. If, through our long painful history we remained faithful to God and never lost sight of our calling, it is because Abraham created the character traits that enabled us to prevail.
The very first test with which he was confronted is to be found in the opening verse of the parashah: “Lech lecha – Go for yourself,” meaning, “Divorce yourself from the immoral ways of the world, tap your inner resources, and discover your mission, your higher purpose in life. If necessary, be the lone voice standing up against the world, but stand steadfast in your commitment to Torah … do not compromise!”
If we, the Jewish people, have had the courage to be that lone voice throughout the centuries and have lived by our own ideals proclaimed at Sinai, it is because our forefather, Abraham, paved the way for us; we need only follow in his footsteps.
Finding Our Inner Strength
Commentators teach that when Abraham was tested, he was not given Divine assistance, but had to seek strength from within himself. This appears rather paradoxical. Does not God help us fulfill every mitzvah? Isn’t His guiding hand always there?
But if a test is to be truly a test that will accomplish its goal, then God has to restrain Himself from helping us, even as a parent or teacher has to refrain from providing the answers, and thereby encourage his children or students to research, study, and probe. Therefore, God denied Abraham assistance so that he might unearth the treasures buried within him and create those immortal character traits that would enable his descendants to survive for all time.
Thus, because Abraham was able to pass that first test and depart from his country, from his birthplace, from his father’s house, we too have been able to adapt to those new lands to which destiny has led us throughout the centuries. Because Abraham was able to retain his faith in the face of famine and the terrible ordeal of Sarah’s abduction, we too have been able to retain our faith in days of total darkness, when all appeared lost. Because Abraham was able to respond to the call of God and offer his son Isaac on the altar, Jewish parents have been able to pass the tests of the Hitlers of every generation. Thus, every test that Abraham passed has become part of our spiritual genes. So when confronted by life’s many trials and tribulations, we are not to despair. We have what it takes; our forefather Abraham prepared us well. We need only pray to God for His Divine Providence, summon our energies, our inner reserves and we will pass the test and triumph.
To Be Blessed Or To Be A Blessing
After blessing Abraham, God tells him, “He’yei berachah – “You shall be a source of blessing,” words that imply a higher level of blessing than simply, “You shall be blessed.” Most people seek blessings for themselves, and if given a choice, would opt to be blessed rather than be a source of blessing – receiving rather than giving, being served rather than serving, But the Torah teaches just the opposite: we will attain a greater level of fulfillment if we aspire to be a blessing to others. Our eminent Zeide, HaRav HaGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, z’tl, would often say in Yiddish, “Zolst eemer kenen geibon, un kein mol nisht darfen beiten. – May God grant that you always be in a position to give and never need to ask [for financial assistance].” If we bear this is mind, we will not feel burdened when called upon to serve, and will become a blessing to our families, to our community, and to our people. If we can do that, we will make a difference in the world – and indeed, we will be truly blessed.
God’s Command Or Our Desire
Amazingly, the Torah introduces Abraham in a very modest manner, simply telling us that God commanded him to depart from his land.
In contrast, in the previous parashah, Noah, the father of mankind, is presented as “righteous and perfect [wholehearted].” This is all the more puzzling when we consider the many wonderful, miraculous stories that we know of Abraham’s early years, such as his emergence unscathed when King Nimrod cast him into a fiery furnace. Why doesn’t the Torah relate them? The answer to this question defines the essence of our Jewishness.
Who is greater? He who performs a righteous deed because he is commanded by God, or he who does so because of the inclinations of his own heart? On first thought, you might think that the latter is superior, but our Sages teach that the person whose action is prompted by the command of God is on a higher level, for he sublimates his will for the sake of his Creator. Moreover, when one’s action is based on one’s own inclination, then one is subject to a change of heart, for while today he might find pleasure in doing something, tomorrow the very same deed may leave him cold. There is no permanence to his act.
But when a man is motivated by God’s command, then no matter where life takes him, whether he is challenged by storms or calm, whether he is enveloped in darkness or showered with light, in illness or in health, his commitment will remain constant. That which occurred during Abraham’s early years was the result of his own feelings and thoughts and not God’s command, and therefore, in delineating his character, the Torah does not make reference to it. Our parashah introduces Abraham with the simple yet stirring words, “Lech Lecha … – “Go for yourself.” Thus, the first Jew is commanded to look within himself, to dare to be different, to defy the world and live by the Word of God.
Even as Abraham did, we perform our mitzvos because God spoke, and in every generation we are fortified by the knowledge that we have the ability to do so, for Abraham paved the way for us. But there remains a puzzling question. In the opening verses of the parashah, God promises Abraham, “I will make you a great nation and you will prosper.” The obvious question that arises is: If God promises that the Patriarch will benefit, then why is his obedience considered the fulfillment of God’s Will?
We learn that even when God promised great blessings for the fulfillment of the commandments, Abraham acted solely for the sake of God and never thought of personal gain. As it is written, “So Abram went as God had spoken to him ….” This is the key element in serving God: the ability to overcome our personal needs and desires and bow to His will. This trait of our forefather Abraham has been integrated into our psyches. No matter where life has taken us as a people, whether we bore the yoke of slavery and oppression or lived in freedom and had to battle assimilation, we cleaved to our Torah and mitzvos. It is that faith and that ability to sublimate our will for the sake of our Creator that enabled us to survive the centuries and remain Jews, no matter how great the odds were against us.
Bitter Or Better
You might ask why God imposed painful and difficult trials upon Abraham. Surely, God was aware of his lofty spiritual gifts. The answer can be found in the very word “test.” In Hebrew, “test” is called nisayon, which literally means “to be lifted up,” for in truth, every difficulty, every stumbling block that God places in our paths is, in reality, a challenge through which we can become elevated.
Abraham understood that the hardships confronting him were orchestrated by God for his spiritual development. Therefore, Abraham accepted his trials with equanimity and serenity, and never complained. He transformed life’s problems into windows of opportunity, and from each trial, he emerged stronger and greater, until he became the spiritual giant he was destined to be.
Our dearly beloved father, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi Jungreis, z’tl, would often say that the difference between bitter and better is just one letter. So too, in life everything depends on attitude. One little letter can change everything. The way we react to onerous, trying challenges will either make us better or bitter. This message is especially significant to us today as we are beset by so many unknowns, so many fears. Let us convert our anxieties into challenges for growth. Let us become better and not bitter. This teaching should guide us in every aspect of our lives. Should the challenge be major or minor, big or small, the image of our forefather Abraham should remind us to seize the opportunity to make that which is bitter, better.
If We Will It
God tells Abraham, “Go … from your land, from your relatives, and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abraham leaves and arrives in the Land of Canaan, as it says, “Abram took his wife … and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan.” From the two words “left” and “came to” we can glean a fount of wisdom that can help us throughout our lives. If we demonstrate the will to fulfill God’s command, there is nothing that can stand in our way; we will surely achieve our goals.