Trial and struggle

To a certain extent, the first two parshot in the Torah are tragic narratives, dealing with the fundamental failings of man. In contrast, Parshat Lech Lecha begins a series of joyful parshot. From this Parshah onward we enter a different reality, one that focuses on man’s triumphs and achievements.

The central characters of these parshot – Adam, Noah, and Abraham – are more than individuals: They are symbols as well. Adam is a symbol of mankind’s failed first trial, about which the Torah summarizes, “And God regretted.”1 Noah is a symbol of failure as well – this time, of mankind’s second trial – and his parshah concludes in a similar fashion, with the story of Noah’s personal downfall and the story of the downfall of the generation that built the Tower of Babel.

Our sages comment briefly on these failures: “There were ten generations from Adam to Noah…ten generations from Noah to Abraham.”2 All the generations in between are disregarded not because they are unimportant (if they were unimportant to us, we would not talk about them), but because, in the final analysis, they are failed generations. Only here, in Parshat Lech Lecha, does a new story begin – the story of Abraham, of the triumph of man.

Abraham’s story is not just the story of a perfect tzaddik who “walked with God,” raised righteous children who learned in yeshivas, died peacefully, and all was well. The story does not end that way at all. Abraham’s children were not all tzaddikim, and certainly did not all attend yeshivas. In what sense, then, is Abraham’s story about the triumph of man? The answer is that it is the story of a man who followed a path that included trials, struggles, and setbacks but, in the end, succeeded in achieving his goals. In light of this, we can confidently consider ­ Parshat Lech Lecha the first in a series of joyful parshot.


The Parshah begins with a trial. Commenting on this trial and on similar trials throughout Genesis, our sages say, “The experiences of the patriarchs prefigure the history of their descendants.”3 Because of this, it is important for us to understand what a trial is and what it means to withstand a trial. Although both Adam and Noah are our ancestors, the Torah never implies that we should follow their example in any regard. Abraham, by contrast, is our exemplar; we attempt to emulate his conduct, following his path in the process of building our character.

The Mishna states, “Abraham our patriarch was tested with ten trials, and he withstood them all.”4 Logic dictates that Abraham’s trials became increasingly difficult, for a person who withstands a difficult trial will not then be tested with an easier one. Despite this, the trials did not necessarily increase in difficulty in terms of the physical suffering they entailed. After all, the very first trial – “Go forth (lech lecha),”5 in which Abraham is told to pack his bags and move elsewhere – is much more difficult and complicated than the trial of “Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says,”6 which does not entail physical strain. The increasing difficulty of the trials, then, is in terms of the spiritual effort required of Abraham: Each trial becomes more personal, more poignant, and more internally challenging than the preceding one. Each one of the trials cuts more deeply into Abraham’s soul and demands a more profound inner and spiritual sacrifice.

A comprehensive view of all of the ten trials shows that Abraham is required to sever – albeit gradually and progressively – all of the ties between him and other people, between him and things that he is connected and close to. And he indeed does so, with all the difficulty that this entails.

First, he must leave his home and family, and separate from his friends and relatives and from everything with which he is familiar. Abraham is instructed to go forth “from your land” – i.e., his homeland, where he knows the language and the customs; “from your birthplace” – i.e., his own private sphere, not necessarily related to physical space; “and from your father’s house” – i.e., his family. Abraham must detach himself from all the components of his life and personality.

Later on, there is a famine in Canaan, and Abraham is forced to leave his new home as well, even though he had arrived only recently. In Egypt, his wife is taken from him, and he does not know when she will return; Pharaoh does not give him an address or a date. He is told to cast out his eldest son Ishmael, and he does so.

The tenth trial – the akiedah – is the most difficult trial of them all. It is many times more difficult than the previous trials because it requires that Abraham do two things at once: First, he must kill his son Isaac, who is “your son, your only son, whom you love,”7 and who is also the offspring promised him by God. Second, he must perform an act that is far more serious and difficult, beyond the private-personal crisis of losing his only son. It is the ultimate crisis of faith for Abraham – he must kill and sacrifice a human being, something that Abraham has stood against all his life.

Nullifying the “why”

Upon examining the trial of lech lecha, several puzzling questions immediately present themselves. God says to Abraham:

Go forth from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation. I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you, and through you all the families of the earth will be blessed.8

At first glance, this command does not appear to be so terrible. God tells Abraham to go forth, promising to lavish blessings upon him if he does so. What could be better?

The question is only exacerbated when this trial is compared to that of the Akeidah. It is interesting to note that the two trials share certain expressions (“go forth,” “that I will show you,” “that I will point out to you”), and they are stylistically similar in several practical details as well. Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between the trials. In the Akeidah, there is no promise attached to the trial; there is only the command to perform the Akeidah, without providing any reason, incentive, or assurance. Here, alongside the command to “go forth” there is a long list of blessings. Today, people frequently leave their home countries – whether it is the Land of Israel or another country with fewer problems – to pursue the mere possibility of finding prosperity elsewhere. Their explanations for their departure are characterized by uncertainty, by the words “perhaps,” “possibly,” and “maybe.” People often move overseas even when they know that they will only find partial blessing, and not complete blessing. Here, however, God promises Abraham that he need only go away, and he will have all that is good. What more does he need?

Additionally, the trial of lech lecha was not actually the first trial. It was preceded by another trial, which is not explicitly recounted in the Torah but which appears in the Midrash.9 In that trial, Abraham had to cast himself into the fiery furnace in Ur Kasdim as a result of his refusal to worship idols. Abraham was willing to give his life rather than disavow his belief in one God. After such an experience, what is the difficulty of lech lecha? It seems absurd: After Abraham was ready to sacrifice himself for the sake of his God, he is told, “I have seen that you are willing to die. Now I will put you to a greater test: Are you also willing to change your place of residence?”

The answer to these questions is twofold. First, as we have stated, the trials are in ascending order in terms of inner, spiritual difficulty, not in terms of their physical demands. It is true that suffering martyrdom for the glorification of God’s name is incomparably more physically difficult than moving to a different land. Nevertheless, when a person dies for the glorification of His name, he knows why he is doing it. Granted, this kind of martyrdom is a great and praiseworthy act, a trial that not everyone has been able to withstand. Furthermore, over the course of history, those who elected to die as martyrs were always regarded as extraordinary examples. At the same time, martyrdom was never an entirely uncommon occurrence. As it says in the Midrash, recounting a dialogue between two Jews who were sentenced to death, “‘For what are you going out to be stoned?’ ‘Because I circumcised my son.’ ‘For what are you going out to be burned?’ ‘Because I kept Shabbat’.”10 A person who is prepared to die for the glorification of God’s name possesses an inner certainty; he knows that this is the absolute truth. He knows for whose sake he is about to die, and he knows for what purpose he is giving his life.

By contrast, the trial of lech lecha lacks this element. Abraham receives an order, but no justification or reason is provided. If one wants to be a God-fearing individual, why can’t this be accomplished in Brooklyn? Is it impossible to be a God-fearing person in Charan, in Ur Kasdim, in Akkad, or in Shinar? Is there something wrong with those places? Why must Abraham, or anyone else, uproot himself from his home in the service of God?

Thus, the trial here pertains not to the physical strain but to the lack of inner justification, of a sense of meaning and purpose. In the trial of the fiery furnace, Abraham does not have to change what is in his heart. He has a clear purpose and absolute inner conviction. Here in Parshat Lech Lecha, however, Abraham has no inner reason, and the question is to what extent he is willing to change himself, to renounce his personal beliefs, in order to accept upon himself God’s kingship. Why should a person get up and leave – even if he is promised blessing and success – if there is seemingly no rhyme or reason for doing so? Nullifying the “why” is the challenge here, the true test of the trial of lech lecha.

Setting out with no destination

There is also a second aspect to the trial of lech lecha, which appears to be the essence of the difficulty, and which is found in the command’s second part: “to the land that I will show you.”

Abraham sets out without an address, without a destination. This is much more difficult than severing personal ties. When Noah builds an ark, he certainly knows why he is making it. Hence, his assignment is not referred to as “the trial of building the ark.” It is a clearly defined assignment: He must build an ark over the course of 120 years and thereby save himself from the imminent worldwide catastrophe. But when Abraham leaves his home, he sets out for the endless horizon with no apparent goal or destination whatsoever.

It is very difficult to accept the idea that one must proceed without a destination. This is fundamentally different from the self-sacrifice that was required of Abraham earlier. When he is told to go to a place “that I will show you,” then even if he has absolute faith in God, he is inevitably beset with a powerful personal question: “Where am I going?” “For what purpose?” If God had said to Abraham, “Go the land of Canaan,” then even if he had not wanted to go specifically to the land of Canaan – which does not seem to have been a place of widespread piety – it would not have been the least bit difficult for him to have gone. He could have gone anywhere – even to Sodom. But to go without a destination, to “a land that I will show you,” means to go without the anticipation of arriving at a certain place. Knowing where one is going lends a certain peace of mind, the particular location notwithstanding. God says to Abraham, “You are going.” “Where to?” “You will find out; you will be told.”

No end

This trial is a personal dilemma faced not only by Abraham. It exists in many spheres, recalling the words of our sages cited above: “The experiences of the patriarchs prefigure the history of their descendants.” Our lives are structured so that everything has a purpose, everything has a point where it begins and a point where it ends. Hence, doing something that has no known end can cause real anguish.

Thus, for example, one of the most frustrating things in the realm of Torah study is that there is no point at which one can say that he is finished learning. Because of this daunting infinite nature of Torah, students often create artificial endpoints for themselves. Throughout Israel, there are many batei midrash where students train to become rabbinical judges. Most of the students know that the program will not necessarily benefit them financially – they are not guaranteed a job after finishing the program. Why, then, do they enroll in such a program? In many cases, it serves to fill an emotional need: A student can feel that he is not going about aimlessly, getting nowhere. A person who dedicates his time to Torah study for five years or ten years accomplishes nothing practically but the experience of having sat and learned. And if he decides to extend his learning for another year, what does he gain? Again, only the experience of having sat and learned for one more year. A person who studies at a university for far fewer years receives a diploma. To be sure, a university diploma is not always worth more than a yeshiva diploma; even an expert in ancient Roman literature cannot always use his degree to make a prosperous living. Nevertheless, a diploma or a degree gives a student a goal to strive for. The student proceeds systematically from one well-defined station to another on the way to the ultimate goal of achieving a degree. Upon reaching the first station, one continues on to the next, and one knows where one will arrive at the end. When there are no clear stations along the way to a distinct finish line, the lack of a goal becomes a pressing problem: What is the purpose of all of this? What will happen in the end?

When a person finishes a series of concerted actions with something tangible in his hand, he has the feeling that he has accomplished something real. In contrast, the lack of clearly defined objectives and goals inherent in the nature of Torah study makes it a very difficult world in which to thrive, and poses a real problem for proponents of intense, long-term Torah study.

Walk before Me

In truth, the act of setting out without a clear goal or destination evokes the Torah’s dictate to “follow God your Lord.”11 One may know one’s starting point, but not where he will arrive. There is no assurance that if one sits for a certain period of time, then he will become wise, God-fearing, or pious. The only instruction is to “follow God” or, as we read in Parshat Lech Lecha, “Walk before Me.”12

Others have discussed how the command “Walk before Me” is a greater test than “Follow God your Lord.” The latter instruction is akin to saying to someone, “Follow me; I will go ahead and clear the way for you.” But when God says to Abraham, “Walk before Me,” in effect He is saying: “Clear your own path; find your own way. You have no assurances.”

“Walk before Me” is a life problem. There is an aspect of Abraham in each one of us, and each one of us faces the same situation that ­Abraham faced. Sometimes, one stands to lose everything for the sake of walking on God’s path – one’s land, one’s birthplace, and one’s father’s house; sometimes, it is not as difficult as that, but there is always an aspect of “I will go, and I will not receive anything for it.” Naturally, one prefers that everything have some quantifiable end, at which one could state that he has become a little more holy. But God promises nothing of the sort; He just wants us to start walking – whether it is following Him or before Him.

Indeed, the Jewish people’s excellence lies precisely in this quality:

Israel demonstrated real greatness… For they did not say to Moses, “How can we go out into the wilderness without having provisions for the journey?” Rather, they had faith and followed Moses. Of them it is stated in the traditional sacred writings: “13Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, ‘I remember for you the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’.”14

They simply went. The Jewish people traveled in the wilderness without a known destination, a fact that, in the end, drove them crazy. After all, they were eating manna, drinking well water and, outside of their internal quarrels, had no serious problems. So what was bothering them? The major trial over the course of forty years was the feeling that they were going around in circles: “And we circled Mount Seir for a long time.”15 They were frustrated by the seemingly endless nature of their journey. They were driven mad by the lack of a point, an address, some kind of structure in their circuitous path.

The command to “go forth” is not only an instruction, but a description of how a person should go forward in life. We learn from Abraham that this is the way one must proceed, as Rabbi Judah HaLevi put it, “I will not question, I will not test.”16 That is how one follows God: without a destination and without an aim. God’s great call to man, the first call and the last, is a call without a destination. God says, “go forth,” and one must get up and go, without knowing where one will arrive, without knowing one’s objective, and without ­knowing one’s aim. This path, with all its difficulties, is the proper path for the beginning of a person’s life, for that is how Abraham’s story begins. Despite all the blessings and promises, this is Abraham’s first trial that appears explicitly in the Torah: to follow God and not to question; to go, without the comfort of physical space to call his home.

On this path, there is only one real request that Abraham makes throughout all the trials – and it is an eminently reasonable one: that he should know that it is God who is speaking with him, that it is He who is instructing him to go forth. Abraham needs only the assurance that God is always with him to justify his actions. Following God is the point; it justifies itself.

The truth is that, often, when a person follows God – whether through mitzvot, prayer, or diligent Torah study – something changes within him. The stone softens, the iron cracks, something happens. However, there is no assurance that a particular series of godly actions will lead to these formative changes. We know that if one follows God, this naturally leads to inner development – in one’s self-purification, refinement, and connection to God – but there is no guarantee that this will happen.

If a person feels that he is not ready for this call, then perhaps he is not yet ready for Parshat Lech Lecha as well. He is still languishing in Parshat Noach, sitting with Noah and his concerns – to drink or not to drink; to do or not to do. The story of Noah is completely different from that of Abraham. Noah, as his name implies, is the type of person who rests (nach); all he wants is to be at ease (noach).

In order to be like Abraham, one must be willing to depart “from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house,” each individual according to his capacity. Every person must undertake this departure, some in a very real way, and others for whom it is only a partial departure – but a departure nonetheless.

One who follows God, by his very nature, cannot be found in his land, in his birthplace, or in his father’s house. Psalms 135 states: “O house of Israel, bless the Lord; O house of Aaron, bless the Lord; O house of Levi, bless the Lord; you who fear the Lord, bless the Lord” (19–20). There is a “house of Israel,” a “house of Aaron,” and a “house of Levi,” but there is no “house of you who fear the Lord.” Ultimately, those who fear God have no house. They follow God.