I have always found this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27), especially inspiring and instructive. It is in this parsha that we are told the story of Abraham’s aliyah, of his journey to the Holy Land.
What amazes me, and what readers of the Bible over the millennia have found equally amazing, is the total faith in God which Abraham demonstrated by embarking upon this journey.
God tells him to leave his land, his birthplace, and his family. As if that was not a sufficient challenge, God does not even tell him where he is going. He simply says, “Go!” Abraham does not ask where, but is told, “…to the land that I will show you.” Why? How? These questions do not even occur to Abraham. He does not ask, nor does the Almighty inform him, about the objective for uprooting himself from his familiar surroundings and intimate personal relationships. Abraham is given the assurance of a blessed success, but he is not given a hint as to why he has to venture off into an unknown land and uncertain future in order to achieve this blessing. The question which the reader asks, “Why could he not achieve these Divine blessings in his own homeland,” is a question which Abraham himself never asks.
I used to think that Abraham was the model of perfect faith, which we ourselves could take as an inspiration but could never hope to achieve in our own lives. That is, I used to think that way until…the reunion.
Let me tell you how that reunion came about. In recent years, my wife and I have been privileged to visit Israel frequently, for relatively long periods of time. During these visits, we inevitably encounter old friends, many of whom moved to Israel thirty or forty, and in some cases even fifty, years ago.
One Sunday morning, while drinking a coffee at my favorite Jerusalem sidewalk café, a gentleman sat down at the table next to mine and sipped his coffee while remaining engrossed in a book. I am always curious as to what other people are reading, so I could not resist the urge to peek at the cover of his book in order to ascertain its title. Lo and behold, it turned out to be one of my personal favorites, a lesser known work on the fine points of the Hebrew language by the 18th century philosopher, poet and mystic, Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.
The fellow was immersed in his reading, but I rudely interrupted his concentration by commenting that I knew that book, and that I became familiar with it as a very young man. He lifted his eyes from the page, looked at me carefully, and said, “I know. You and I discovered it together on one of our frequent forays into that old bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan!”
I didn’t recognize him, but he sure recognized me. He was Bernie back then, a classmate in our yeshiva who had moved to Israel soon after we both received semicha, rabbinic ordination. He was now Baruch.
A long conversation ensued, during which we caught up with each other’s lives and with the whereabouts of other old friends who had moved to Israel long ago. It was his idea to organize the reunion.
We met several weeks later. There were five of them, and I was the only “American.” Two of them had gone to Israel to study immediately after high school and never returned to the United States. The other three had made aliyah a bit later, in their early twenties, after college and after marriage.
We spent quite a few hours together, reminiscing about the “good old days,” laughing hilariously and reliving the pranks of our youth. Eventually, the conversation became quite serious as they each, in turn, described their decisions to leave “their land, birthplace and house of their fathers” to come to Israel and create new lives there.
The five of them described five very unique stories about their journeys. Two had become quite prominent rabbis and authors of noteworthy scholarly works. One had been a musician and now earned his living by giving music lessons to retired adults. One was a physician, himself now retired and, coincidentally, taking music lessons from our mutual friend. The fifth was a very successful business man who was able to take advantage of the housing construction boom in Tel Aviv.
These were very different personalities with very different stories to tell. But they had one story in common. Like Abraham, but at a much younger age than Abraham, they each heard God’s call, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
Unlike Abraham, they knew where they were going. But, as one of them put it, “We knew where we were going but did not know what we were getting into.”
Unlike Abraham, they had no Divine assurances that they would be blessed. But they each now felt that they had been abundantly blessed. They each had left family behind, in some cases, never again to see their own parents. But in every case, they built new families—large and diverse, and they all had grandchildren in the Israel army at the time of this reunion.
Not one of them had the slightest regret about their decision, and they all gently teased me for not having chosen the path in life which they courageously chose. I must confess to feelings of guilt and shame, and not a little envy, that I felt in their company that evening.
But those feelings were outweighed by the admiration and respect I felt for them, and for all the many others who, to this very day, follow the footsteps of Abraham and Sarah and take seriously the words of God which open this week’s Torah portion: “Lech lecha, Go forth…v’heyei bracha, and you shall be a blessing.”