Answer the Call, Realize Your Destiny
In parshat Lech lecha we are introduced to Avraham Avinu in a very curious way. After learning in last week’s parsha that Avram’s father, Terach, had taken the whole family from Ur Casdim and traveled to Charan, our parsha begins with Hashem telling Avram to leave his family in Charan and travel to the land that God would designate for him. In this narrative, we learn nothing about Avraham the man, or why he was spoken to and chosen by God.
This is quite bizarre, especially in light of the fact that in Parshas Noach, the Torah did make a point of saying that Noach was a righteous and pure man (6:9), and this is why God chose him to save humankind from the Flood. Why doesn’t the Torah text express anything at all about who Avraham was and why Hashem chose him to be the father of the Chosen People?
The Maharal of Prague (d. 1609) saw great theological significance from this. When God chose Noah to save the world from the Flood, it was specifically BECAUSE Noah was righteous. But God did NOT choose Avraham to be the progenitor of Am Israel BECAUSE he was righteous. If Avraham’s selection had been due to his righteousness, then one might logically argue that as soon as Avraham’s progeny ceased emulating their ancestor’s righteousness, their selection as the chosen nation could be revoked. But that is precisely the point: Because the basis of Israel’s selection was not predicated on any particular deed or behavior, it is a selection that is irrevocable. This is why the Torah says nothing about Avraham’s righteousness.
Persecuted and hounded for beliefs
One clearly sees very important theological underpinnings in the Maharal’s approach. The medieval Christian world strongly maintained the theology of supersessionism – or, replacement theology – that God had revoked the chosen status of the Jewish people and instead conferred chosennes upon Christians. The Maharal’s Torah is therefore a polemic, demonstrating from the Torah text that the selection of the Jewish people was an irrevocable one, countering the Christian argument of the Jews’ replacement.
By contrast, the Ramban (13th cent.) takes a non-theological approach, based on the rich midrashim that fill in the blanks of the early parts of Avraham’s life. According to these midrashim, Avraham was persecuted and hounded for his monotheistic beliefs. He had concluded early in his life that there is really only one God, and that no thing or person other than God should be the object of worship.
His beliefs were deemed an affront to the culture of his time and place and he was therefore forced to flee Ur Casdim with his family. Ramban suggests that the reason why the Torah doesn’t detail any of this back story is because “the Torah does not wish to detail the ideologies of idolaters or the faith disputes between Avraham and the Chaldeans.”
Theological vs Logical
This is almost the opposite of the Maharal’s thought. For the Ramban, instead of teaching a theological stance about the Jewish people’s chosen status, the Torah seeks to sidestep any stories about theological disputes. The Ramban seems to be arguing that Avraham in his early life didn’t even have the opportunity to display righteousness.
He had arrived at a belief in a unitary God based on logically looking at the world around him. As soon as he tried to preach his beliefs, he was hounded and persecuted. How could he invite people into his tent when he was a social pariah?
Had the Torah prefaced why God chose Avraham, one might have thought that the main part, the very basis, of the Jewish people’s selection is their faith. But in reality, the main thing that God seeks and takes pleasure from the Jewish people is manifest in the second part of Avraham’s life, when he had the freedom to interact with his neighbors without persecution.
In Canaan, he could spread his wings of righteousness and demonstrate how a Jew behaves with Chesed and openness to his fellow man. That is the basis of our selection as the Chosen People, not our logical conclusions about monotheism.
This is an important lesson for all of us. Every Jew needs a certain degree of education and an understanding of the Torah and its faith claims. But the true manifestation of what it means to be a Jew is not to be found in the classroom or the Beit Midrash. Rather, only when a Jew can turn all of those teachings into practical behavior does he or she truly demonstrate their Jewishness.
When we can interact with our fellow human beings with kindness and demonstrate Hashem’s desire for humanity to live for a higher purpose, it is then that we are living Judaism. When the story of our lives is written, the highlights will not be from our earlier years when we were in grade school or yeshiva, going over the vitally important Torah texts that lay the foundation for our future lives.
Rather, our chronicles will focus on our deeds, and how we succeeded in making an impression on others in our circle of influence. Unquestionably, our religious upbringing colors and sets the stage for our behavior in our future life, but this religious education is only the preparation for the real goal of the Jew. Just as Avraham’s later stages in Canaan are richly depicted and his earlier years of theological struggle are overlooked, so will be the case in our stories when they are documented before God.
Hearing the call of “Lech Lecha”
After citing the Ramban’s question, the Sfas Emes (d. 1905) makes an insightful point based on the Zohar. To answer why the Torah doesn’t inform us of Avraham’s righteousness at the beginning of our parsha, the Sfas Emes asserts that God’s call to Avraham of “Lech Lecha” – “Make the journey,” is itself a demonstration of his righteousness.
In fact, that call of “Lech Lecha” is made to every single human being.
What made Avraham different is that he actually heard the words “Lech Lecha” while everyone else ignored the call. In life, Hashem is constantly calling out to each of us, “Lech Lecha,” go to your station, reach your destiny, arrive at where you ultimately belong to achieve your purpose. There is nothing more righteous than hearing the call of “Lech Lecha” and acting upon it.
Acting upon the call of “Lech Lecha”
The irony for our modern times is that sometimes our inability to spread our wings and realize our destiny is not because we are stuck in Ur Casdim, persecuted and hounded by the idolaters of society. Rather, our inability to act may be because we feel trapped within the confines of the Jewish community and its often overbearing strictures. We may hear the call of “Lech Lecha,” but feel powerless to act upon it because we fear what people within our community will think of us.
We shudder from trespassing the social norms that have been established in Jewish communities, where staying within the confines of the walls of the “shtetl,” as it were, is sometimes promoted over going out and making a difference in the larger world. The lesson of our parsha should be: You cannot realize your destiny until you act upon the call of “Lech Lecha.” Your life will only be actualized when you can go to where you can be yourself. Sometimes, that requires one to leave behind one’s family and the culture from which they hail.
The “Lech Lecha” call of your family and friends may be completely different from yours, and what works for them may not be your destiny. Ultimately, if we follow Hashem’s unique call of “Lech Lecha” for each of us, both we and the world we are meant to improve will be all the better for it. May we merit to hear the call so that we can usher in the Redemption speedily, bb”a.