Why did God choose Avraham? In parashat Noach, we read: “And Noach was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; with God did Noach walk (6:9). It is only after introducing Noach’s greatness that the Torah tell us that God spoke to Noach and chose him to be saved from the flood. In contrast, in parashat Lekh Lekha, before we know anything about the character of Avraham, the Torah tells us: “And God said to Avraham, Go from your country… to the land that I will show you” (12:1). No explanation is given. But we must ask, why? Why him?
It is in answer to this question that the midrash tells us of Avraham’s early life, declaring his faith in God, destroying the idols in his father’s store, and even being thrown into the fiery furnace by Nimrod. Retrojecting what we know of Avraham’s character from the later stories in the Torah, the Midrash imagines a childhood similarly defined by a strong faith in God, a desire to spread this message, and a willingness to challenge and stand up to those who would oppose him.
This is certainly a reasonable explanation. The Sefat Emet, however, offers a different answer, one which turns the question on its head: “For behold, lekh lekhais proclaimed by God to all people, at all times. Avraham, however, was the only one who heard it.” The question that we need to be asking, according to him, is not why this command was given only to Avraham, but rather why Avraham was the only one who heard it.
How does one inhabit a world where God’s voice is constantly broadcasting? And how does one tune in, how does one hear this voice?
To inhabit such a world, we must first ensure that the reality that we construct is one with God in it. It is easy, especially nowadays, to live in the world in which God is completely absent. When we do well in business, it is because of our ability, or because of luck. When someone recovers from an illness, it is because of medical realities having to do with germs and immune systems. Even if we believe in God, we don’t see God, we don’t experience God, in the world in which we inhabit. This is the modern condition.
The stories of Breishit offer us an alternative. Why, asks the first Rashi in the Torah, did the Torah start with Breishit and not with the mitzvot? To this Ramban responds that he does not understand the question – the purpose of the story is obvious. It is to teach us a foundational principle of our faith: that God exists and that God created the world. And, I would add, following Ramban’s lead, that it is from the future stories in the book of Breishit that we learn our other core religious principles: that we are commanded by God, that it matters to God how we act in general and how we act to one another, and that God is involved in our lives, giving commands, engaging in dialogue, listening to our cries and answering our prayers.
But it is not just about knowing these ideas intellectually, as abstract religious principles. It is about these not being ideas. It is about them being stories, being foundational stories, being the stories that we have heard since childhood, the stories that explain to us how things were and how they work, the stories that consciously and subconsciously shape the world in which we live. Reality is not just “there”; it is a construct of our mind. If we are scientists, then it is science that will create the connective tissue to make a coherent whole out of the world we experience. If the Torah’s stories have shaped our worldview, then it will be those stories that construct our reality. We will not just know that God exists and that God is part of our world, we will experience it in the very reality that we live.
It is in those early stories that we hear three calls that God makes to humans. The first call, first spoken to Adam, is ayekah, where are you? The second call, first spoken to Kayin, is ayeh Hevel achicha, where is Hevel your brother? And the third call is that first issued to Avraham: lekh lekha, get up and go.
If we have truly internalized these stories, if they are our lived reality, then we will inhabit a world in which these calls are being proclaimed to each one of us, every person, every day. Three calls: Where are you? Where is your brother? Get yourself going.
Ayekah? Where are you existentially? Where are you morally? Religiously? Where are you in the socio-economic ladder? Where are you in the world of talents and abilities? Where are you?
Ayei achicha? Where is your brother? Where are the others in your immediate family and your community? Where are Jews who don’t share your religious convictions? Where are Jews who are poor and disadvantaged and marginalized? Where are your fellow human beings? Where are those living in developing countries? Where are those poor and homeless living only a few miles from you? Where is your brother?
And, finally, lekh lekha. Get yourself going. If you have heard these first two calls, then you will know what you have to do. Go to “the land that God will show you.” Go to where God is calling you. And go lekha. Go on the journey that you, and you specifically, are being called to take. You, with your talents, with your passions, with your opportunities – there is a call for you to get going. Answer the first two calls, answer them honestly, and you will know the path that you must take so that you can get to the land that God is showing you.
But living in such a world is not enough. We need something else to be able to hear the call. We need hineini. We need Avraham’s answer when God says: Avraham, Avraham. What is the answer? I am here – I am ready to do what is needed. We need to be the person that when God says “Go” the next verse will say “And Avraham went.” We need to be ready to uproot ourselves, to have mesirat nefesh, to make true sacrifices in our giving of ourselves, if we are to hear God’s call.
Without this, it is not that we will hear God’s call but refuse to response. How could we live with ourselves if we heard God’s call and said “no”? It is so much easier to not hear the call, to just have, what my wife likes to call, selective hearing. The signal is being broadcast, but if we are not trying to tune into the right channel, all we are hearing is noise and static.
Or perhaps we hear something. Something fuzzy. Something that is just enough to get us to make some motion, but not enough to lead to a drastic change. Terach was such a person. Terach didn’t hear God’s call, but he must have heard something. Something inchoate, but which he got enough of a sense of that he started heading in the right direction, he started heading to Canaan. Only, when he went he was always looking back: “And they left with them from Ur Kasdim to go to the land of Canaan.” (11:31). When Terach left, he was looking over his shoulder, back to Ur Kasdim. In contrast, when Avraham left, we do not hear that Avraham left Haran, just “And Avraham went” and he never looked back. No surprise, then, that Terach was not able to make it to his destination: “And he came to Haran and dwelled there.” He had an inkling, but never having heard God’s call, he could not make the sacrifice of “leaving his father’s land.” He gave it some effort, but it was a half-measure, and ultimately he made no significant change. He stayed, more or less, where he was.
I think this is the world that most of us inhabit, vaguely following our religious and moral convictions, but never really seeing them through, never truly hearing God’s call, never giving true mesirat nefesh, and thus never making any real change. A nice contemporary illustration of this comes from the book “How to be Good” by Nick Hornby. There, one of the main characters, David, has been religiously inspired and is making radical changes in his life, much to his wife’s and children’s chagrin. He has just donated some of his family’s computers to a homeless shelter. Here is his response to his wife’s outrage:
‘We have a spare bedroom, and a study, and meanwhile people are sleeping outside on pavements. We scrape perfectly edible food into our compost maker, and meanwhile people at the end of our road are begging for the price of a cup of tea and a bag of chips. We have two televisions, we did have three computers until I gave one away – and even that was a crime, apparently, reducing the number of computers available to a family of four by one third. We think nothing of spending ten pounds each on a takeaway curry . . .’…
‘I’m a liberal’s worst nightmare,’ David says at the end of his litany…
‘What does that mean?’
‘I think everything you think. But I’m going to walk it like I talk it.’
The call goes out to each person, every day. It is for us to inhabit such a world in which this call, in which these three calls, are being broadcast. And it is for us to be prepared to say hineini. Only then will we hear the calls, and only then will we be ready to act on them. Only then will the call of lekh lekha be followed with “and he went.”