God appears to Avraham and launches Jewish history with the commandment: Lech lecha mei’artzecha…, “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace and from the home of your father to the land that I will show you.”
Avraham responds by journeying to the land of Canaan; and the story of our nation begins.
God did not specify the destination of Avraham’s journey. The text, however, indicates that Avraham left his home “to go to the land of Canaan.”
How did Avraham know where to go?
Some authorities, including the Ohr Hachaim, suggest that the question is simply not pertinent. From the outset, God increases Avraham’s challenge by deliberately omitting the journey’s intended destination. Once the patriarch responds and begins to travel to the unknown, however, “it is self-understood” that God then informs him that his ultimate objective is to be Canaan.
Other commentaries, such as the Sforno, claim that the land of Canaan was the natural choice for Avraham to make, on his own, in response to God’s instructions. Canaan was “well known to them (the people of Avraham’s time) as a land prepared for contemplation and the worship of God.” The Sforno goes on to say, however, that although Avraham left for Canaan on his own, he did not stop traveling until God appeared to him in the city of Elon Moreh (also identified as Shechem). That appearance fulfilled God’s promise: “The land that I will show you.”
The most intriguing of all possibilities, however, is actually suggested by the Torah text itself.
At the end of Parshat Noach, Avraham’s father, Terach, embarks upon a mysterious journey with his entire family. Without indicating why, the Torah simply states, “And they [Terach’s family, including Avraham and his family] left from Ur Casdim to travel to the land of Canaan.”
This journey was aborted, however, short of its destination, as the Torah indicates: “And they came to Charan and they settled there…. And Terach died in Charan.”
What was the catalyst for Terach’s journey towards Canaan and what was the purpose of the expedition? Why did it end in Charan?
The answers are shrouded in the mists of history. The Torah gives no indication as to why Terach begins this journey. Nor does the text tell us why the journey ended prematurely.
Perhaps the very fact of Terach’s travels is proof of the Sforno’s suggestion that the land of Canaan was well known for its holiness. Perhaps, as well, the Torah is suggesting that Terach, a man identified within Midrashic literature as a purveyor of idolatry, might have been searching for a greater truth. Could it be that Avraham’s father was not irredeemable, but actually showed a spark of the spirit that would eventually burn full force in his son’s heart?
We will never know for sure.
What we do know is that Avraham’s journey emerges from the text as a continuation of his father’s original quest. The difference between father and son, from this perspective, lies in their ability and in their willingness to stay the course, to complete the journey.
Terach may well have begun with high hopes, but his journey is tragically and prematurely aborted; he is sidetracked by whatever attracts him in Charan. There Terach remains, only to disappear into the mists of history. Avraham picks up where Terach leaves off, completes his father’s journey and changes history forever.
The Torah’s message is clear. Success in life depends not only on originality and inventiveness but also upon the often overlooked qualities of persistence and constancy. What separates Avraham from Terach, on one level, is that Avraham finishes the journey while Terach does not. How many individuals across the face of history have made a real difference simply because they have been willing and able to finish the task?
Points to Ponder
The Torah chooses to teach us the important lesson of “staying the course” within the context of Avraham’s journey to the land of Israel. This confluence of themes is hardly coincidental; the message created could not be more pertinent to our times.
Today’s diaspora Jewish community exists at a time when return to the land of Israel is possible. And yet, for a variety of reasons, some more compelling than others, our personal journeys to our homeland have been voluntary aborted. Like Terach we have decided to remain in Charan at a time when other choices exist.
At the very least, our decisions should create a fundamental tension that courses through our lives. There should be an ever-present dissonance created by the fact that we have decided to remain on the periphery of our nation’s history, while others, in its center, fight our battles for us.
Living with dissonance is not easy, and that might explain why one can currently observe, even within the affiliated Jewish community, a growing apathy to the miracle that is the State of Israel. We care about Israelis; we are concerned for their safety; but in our eyes the State of Israel has, to a great extent, lost its luster. Israel’s existence no longer moves us as it once did.
This growing apathy is reflected in the ambivalence of the “Yeshiva world” towards the state, in the declining spirit of the organized Religious Zionist community in America, and in our growing tendency to make our support of the State of Israel conditional upon its adherence to our political positions.
Perhaps we feel that if we can dismiss the importance of the State of Israel, we can’t be so wrong for living in the diaspora. If Israel isn’t a miracle, then we are not blind for ignoring her.
Time is precious, and we cannot afford the luxury of avoidance. Tension can be productive if it moves us towards positive action.
Perhaps some of us will find the dissonance of diaspora existence today so great that we will resolve it the only real way possible – by making Aliyah; or, at least, by encouraging our children to do so. Short of this dramatic step, however, other opportunities exist as we strive to play a role, however small, in the central Jewish drama of our time.
Political action, missions to Israel, making certain that the State of Israel remains a featured element of day school curricula and other steps must be taken to ensure that we do not sink into the elusive comfort that can be gained through avoidance. We must remember and our children must learn that we live in a time when the dreams of thousands of years are being realized.
Not all of us have the strength or the ability to be an Avraham, but, at least, we must avoid being a Terach. We cannot afford to be comfortable in the diaspora.
By recognizing that the journey is not yet over and that we are not yet home, we will play a role in ensuring that our people finish the journey.
Excerpted from the Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s 'Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha-Bereishit, which can be purchased here.