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The Three Journeys of Abraham

The Three Journeys of Abraham


A sizable portion of the book of Genesis is devoted to the life of Abraham, the first Jew. Most curiously, however, we first meet Abraham rather late in his celebrated life: the first event of Abraham's life described in detail by the Torah occurred when he was seventy-five years old!

By that time, Abraham was able to look back upon a lifetime of fruitful--indeed unprecedented--achievement. As a young child, his inquisitive mind discerned a greater truth implicit in the workings of the universe, and he came to know the One G‑d. A lone man pitted against the entire world, he battled the entrenched pagan perversity of his time, bringing many to a life of monotheistic belief and morality.

But then came an event of such significance that it eclipses the first seven and a half decades of Abraham's life. An event that marked the forging of a new phenomenon--the Jew--and redefined the journey of life.

The event was G‑d's call to Abraham to "Go to you, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you." Now that you have realized the full capacity of your conscious powers, go on to you. I will show you a place that is the essence of your own self, a place that lies beyond the land, birthplace, and father's house that you know.

Instinct, Environment and Reason

The countless factors involved in making us what we are can be generalized under three categories: the natural, the impressed, and the acquired.

We begin life already programmed with the drives and inclinations that form an inborn psyche and character. Then begins, from the moment of birth, the influence of our environment, as parents, teachers and peers impress their manners and attitudes upon our souls. Finally, a third and overriding influence comes with the attainment of intellectual maturity: man, alone among G‑d's creatures, has been granted an objective intellect with which he can, to a great extent, control the stimuli to which he is exposed and the manner in which they shall affect him. With his mind, he is empowered to develop himself beyond--and even contrary to--his genetic and conditioned self.

This is the deeper significance of the words "your land, your birthplace and your father's house" in G‑d's call to Abraham. Eretz, the Hebrew word for land and earth, is etymologically related to the word ratzon--will and desire; so your land also translates as your natural desires. Your birthplace--moladtecha--is a reference to the influence of home and society. And beit avicha, your father's house, refers to man as a mature and rational being, forging his mind-set, character and behavior with the transcendent objectivity of the intellect. (In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidism, the intellect is referred to as the father within man, since it is the progenitor of, and authority over, his feelings and behavior patterns.)

By conventional standards, this constitutes the ultimate in human achievement: the development of one's natural instincts, the assimilation of learned and observed truths, and the remaking of self through the objective arbiter of mind. In truth, however, the intellect is still part and parcel of our humanity, remaining ever subject to the deficiencies and limitations of the human state; while it may surmount the confines of the inborn and the impressed, ultimately, the intellect is never truly free of the ego and its prejudices.

But there is a higher self to man, a self free of all that defines and confines the human. This is the spark of G‑dliness that is the core of his soul--the divine essence that G‑d breathed into him, the image of G‑d in which he was created. The eretz that G‑d promised to show Abraham.

[This explains the order in which the terms land, birthplace and father's house appear in the verse. When a person embarks on a journey, he first leaves his (father's) home, then departs his city (birthplace), and only then leaves the borders of his land; yet in our verse this order is reversed. According to the deeper meaning of these terms, however, the order is accurate: first a person departs from his base instincts via his education and environmental influences; these, in turn, are overruled by his faculty for objective reasoning; finally, he is called upon to transcend even his rational self in his journey to the divine essence of his soul.]

In his journey of discovery, Abraham must obviously depart the land, birthplace and father's house of his native Mesopotamia; he must obviously reject the pagan culture of Ur Casdim and Charan. But this is not the departure of which we are speaking in the above-quoted verse. For Abraham received this call many years after he had renounced the pagan ways of his family and birthplace, recognized G‑d, and had a profound impact on his society. Still he is told: Go! Depart from your nature, depart from your habits, depart from your rational self. After rejecting your negative, idolatrous origins, you must now also transcend your positive and gainful past. Reach beyond yourself, albeit a perfected self.

Human perfection is simply not enough. For anything human--even the objective, transcendent intellect--is still part and parcel of the created reality, ever subject to and defined by it. Yet G‑d invites us--in His first command to the first Jew--to experience that which transcends all limit and definition: Himself.

But first we must go to you. Go away from your finite self, to come to the you that only G‑d can show you--the you that is one with Him.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
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Anonymous uk October 22, 2015

Abraham's Three Journeys This article focuses on something that is often overlooked in telling this story, viz. that
Abraham was at an age when he had achieved so much that he could reasonably have been expected to slow down and wait for the end. Instead, he is summoned to
uproot himself and face even greater challenges. This really makes me face up to my own problem; I am aged 84 and quite restricted by disability and poor health so that it is difficult to retain a sense of meaningful life. I haven't worked out a solution
but if Abraham was called to such a demanding task at his great age, surely the
'Silver-surfers', like myself need to search for the divine purpose in age, its accompaniments and the situation in which we find ourselves. One thing is certain
eternal rest is for after death. There is still more that we can do if only we search. Reply

Anonymous london October 12, 2010

If you are the one reaching than its not beyond yo there is a part of our self that is deeper than "you".

there is the you that wakes up every day for your nine to five job and who has a set routine.

there is a deeper part of yourself that comes out, for example, at a time of crisis or great joy. Reply

Anonymous Melbourne October 30, 2009

Question What do the last 2 lines about you and self mean?

Is it possible to reach beyond yourself? If you are the one reaching than its not beyond you? Reply

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