A common theme in Jewish life is the "rags to riches" story. A person is born and brought up in modest surroundings, with simple parents. The story then might continue in a number of ways. One is that he leaves school at sixteen, becomes a barrow boy in the market and some years later is the chairman of a large business corporation. Another is that from his local school he wins a scholarship to Oxbridge and eventually becomes a famous scientist.

This pattern of leaving one's background in order to conquer new frontiers has many variations. It is intriguing the way that although, of course, this is not restricted to Jews, nonetheless it is a typically Jewish story.

Perhaps this is all because the same pattern is seen in the life of first Jew, Abraham, the hero of this week's Torah reading (Genesis 12-17). G‑d tells him "Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you."

The Sages explain that this is really the basis of life for the Jewish people as a whole, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. Of course, economic advance is only one example. In more general terms we move out of our past, step by step, into a new and unbounded future, defined only as "the Land which I - meaning G‑d Himself - will show you."

What did Abraham leave behind? Three different aspects of his origin. The first was his "land." The Sages explain this does not mean simply a geographical area. The term "land" suggests also the basic, earthly ground of one's character. In order to advance, this basic nature often has to be transcended, especially if one is seeking spiritual goals.

The second term, "your birthplace," suggests all the limitations of one's environment. We Jews are undeniably affected by the cultures in which we live. Sometimes the typical rags to riches story describes a person becoming thoroughly a part of that culture in a very successful way: from barrow boy to the House of Lords. Yet at this point there is the challenge to transcend the limitations of prevailing culture and to be able to be oneself, as a Jewish man or woman, maintaining Jewish values. As a number of people have achieved, one will be able to eat kosher food with Royalty.

The third phrase is "your father's house". This can be understood quite literally as home background and early education. While in most rags to riches stories there is an important debt to something that was gained at home and in school, even more so is there a leap beyond. This is yet more obvious when considered in spiritual terms. The path of Jewish discovery leads to exciting new territories of the spirit, quite different from anything one has experienced before: for example, the joy of Torah study.

Thus each one of us is Abraham or Sarah, leaving our natural limitations behind and advancing to the Land which G‑d Himself will show us. This means the physical Land of Israel, and also every kind of new domain to which G‑d leads us. There we can truly discover the untold wealth of what it means to be a Jew.1