By R. Sunnie Epstein, Director Welcoming Shuls Project, Eshel
Our Parsha begins as G-d instructs Avram to leave all that he knows from the past – his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house. He is called to completely cut himself off from all that has occurred in his life up to this point. But is this really even possible? Can one’s past actually disappear? We know that Avram took the people of his household and a certain amount of property with him. Was there anything else that he retained from his past that would impact upon his future as he set off on a new direction?
According to midrash, Abram’s father, Terach, was an idol worshipper, while his son was an idol smasher. Abraham is portrayed as a young man, pure and good, who conjured everything including his faith in God out of thin air. No credit is given to any past events in his life. Chapter 12 begins with Abram being told to leave everything behind, to seclude and distance himself from all that is not right with Ur Chaldees in incrementally increasing degrees of separation.
If there was nothing to leave of value, this would not be hard. But was this really the case? Is a complete reboot from nothing even possible for us as humans, with our memories and interactions with all the elements of our lives? How do we hold onto what was positive and constructive as well as formative, if we discard all that we were and did, never to look back or consider its impact on our lives?
The rabbis of the Talmud continue to fill in missing pieces of our narrative. It teaches that when Avram was born astrologers came to Nimrod and proclaimed that this child was dangerous to the future of his fiefdom (Baba Batra 91a). Nimrod attempted to buy Abram from his father for large amounts of gold and silver but Terach refused this horrific notion and hid his son and his wife in a cave for three to thirteen years. Could it be that this seclusion in a cave allowed Abram the space and opportunity to come to realizations about himself and about God? Does this midrash point to Abram’s early awareness of how different he was from those around him?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches about this difference:
Abraham was commanded to leave behind the sources of both tradition-directedness (“your father’s house”) and other-directness (“your land, your birthplace”). He was about to become the father of an inner-directed people. His entire life was governed by an inner voice, the voice of God. He did not behave the way he did because that is how people had always acted, nor did he conform to the customs of his age.
The classical commentators read the double verb, lech lecha, to mean, go for your own sake. Avram leaves in order to sustain and develop an inner directedness that began in a cave in Ur Chaldees where the pressures of his father (tradition-directed) and the pagan society (other-directedness) could be quieted enough for him to hear his still small inner voice. This movement of the self from the limits of the tribe and from normative society meant becoming something quite different.
In the opening to Hilchot Avodah Zara (Laws of Idolatry), the Rambam teaches that Avram’s purpose in life was defined by the many prior generations. He recounts human history as a series of moral and imaginative thresholds that impact upon individual initiative and destiny. Generations of humans were attracted to the wonders of the sun, moon and stars and ultimately forgot that these were created entities and began to believe that they themselves had inherent power and so, were worthy of worship.
In the Midrash, we are taught that from an early age, Avram did not believe in these visible “powers” of nature and felt there was something else – another force that was responsible for all that is – G-d. As such, he was the first monotheist. One can only imagine how lonely it must have been for him to try to forge his unique way, different from all those around him, denying what he had grown up hearing all around him.
Anyone who has gone through such a significant coming to terms with self must feel empathy for him as a human being in this situation – the potential for isolation and disorientation it conveys. Everyone else was acting on broadly accepted truths that he could no longer continue to believe. He was compelled to leave, to search for and take on an authentic identity and existence.
Nehama Leibowitz explains “he was wandering in his mind” during this time, amplifying Rambam’s notion of his “wandering in his heart,” trying to process all that he had heard and learned along with his questions until he found a truth he could accept. He had already arrived at a point where he was ready for God to instruct him to go forth and craft a new reality for himself – this was the result of everything he had been through.
Avram had discerned that the generations of looking outward toward superficial appearance and the tradition of maintaining that outlook did not work for him. In making this discovery, he had to reformulate his reality and consider what it meant to live his life authentically. Looking inward, he was able to consider how to move to a different sort of outer-directedness, namely, God-directedness. As he did so, he would begin a new tradition-directed family for future generations of monotheists. By doing so, his place in general history, as well as Jewish history is singular, pivotal and irreplaceable.
Abram teaches all of us to look inside and claim our authentic selves. In so doing, we pull from our past and find ways to seek the quiet privacy of our inner cave. And upon coming out, we are more readied and prepared to live authentically and honestly, helping to shape our place in a better and more blessed world.