Abraham Departed From Self to Self

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Abraham departed

G-d said to Abram: “Go to you, away from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”

Genesis 12:1

What drives a man to leave his “land, his birthplace, and his father’s house” for an unknown destination? Yet driven we are, in search of something more than what our parents, teachers—indeed our very nature and genes—have to offer. Our lives are a ceaseless search for identity, having rejected the inborn and acquired identity of our birth and youth.

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.[1] A lone man pitted against the entire world,[2] battled the entrenched pagan perversity of his time, bringing many to a life of monotheistic belief and morality.[3]

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,[4] 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”—molad’techa—is a reference to the influence of home and society. And beit avicha, “your father’s house,”[5] refers to man as a mature and rational being, forging his mind-set, character and behavior with the transcendent objectivity of the intellect.

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.[6]

In his journey of discovery, Abraham departed the “land, birthplace and father’s house” of his native Mesopotamia; he must have obviously rejected the pagan culture of Ur Kasdim 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 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 an address by the Rebbe, Shabbat Lech Lecha 5750 (1989). [7]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber.


[1]  As Maimonides describes it, “No sooner was [Abraham] weaned—and he was but a child—than his mind began to seek and wonder: How do the heavenly bodies circle without a moving force? Who turns them? They cannot move themselves! Immersed amongst the foolish idol-worshippers of Ur Kasdim, he had no one to teach him anything: his father, mother and countrymen, and he amongst them, all worshipped idols. But his heart sought … until he comprehended the truth and understood the righteous path by his sound wisdom, and came to know that there is one G-d … Who created all, and that in all existence there is none other than Him. He came to know that the entire world erred…  “At the age of forty, Abraham recognized his Creator … He began to debate with the people of Ur Kasdim and take them to task, saying: ‘This is not the way of truth that you are following.’ He smashed the idols and began to teach the people that it is only fitting to serve the One G-d … When he began to defeat them with his arguments, the king wished to kill him; he was miraculously saved. He departed to Charan and continued to call in a great voice to the world, teaching them that there is One G-d….” (Mishneh Torah, Laws Concerning Idol Worship, 1:3).

[2]  This is one of the definitions of “Hebrew” (Ivri), which means “on the other side”; Abraham was called “Abraham the Hebrew” because “the entire world was on one side, and he was on the other side” (Bereishit Rabbah 42:13).

[3]  Genesis 12:5; Rashi, ibid.

[4]  A literal translation of the Hebrew lech lecha (commonly rendered “Go thee…”.

[5]  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.

[6]  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 on to transcend even his rational self in his journey to the divine essence of his soul.

[7]  Sefer HaSichot 5750, pp. 96-100.

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