His Own Man
“Individuation!” That was Leon’s opening statement of the evening.
“No! To me, it was more like an adolescent’s rebellion,” countered Richard.
Simon had a far different take on the matter. “The man was a nonconformist, by nature. He just had to do his own thing.”
If you have been following this column for the past several weeks, you know exactly what’s going on here. It is the third session of the mini-course I gave long ago on the subject of the basics of the Jewish religion. Three young adults showed up for the course: Richard, Simon, and Leon. The text was the book of Genesis, Bereshit.
The assignment was to read this week’s Torah portion, Genesis 12:1-17:27. For the first two sessions, I had merely asked the class to read the biblical text. This week, however, I added a little extra. At the end of last week’s session, I told them that our Sages had long ago noted that the story of Abraham contained ten trials, or tests, to which he was put. “Abraham our father was tested with ten trials, and he withstood all of them to make known how deep was our father Abraham’s love of God.” (Pirkei Avot 5:4).
I asked the class to read both this week’s and next week’s assignments with an eye toward identifying and enumerating these ten trials.
Despite their very different personal styles, which we have already encountered in our previous columns, all three agreed that the first trial was contained in the very first verse of this week’s readings.
“The Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” They unanimously declared that this was a difficult demand indeed. Leaving the surroundings with which one was familiar from birth to set out to an unknown destination was a challenge worthy of being called a trial.
I pointed out to them that not every commentator agreed with this point of view. Some have argued that one or two trials, only implicitly hinted at the end of last week’s portion, constitute the first trial or two. However, I told them, they could take comfort in the fact that their assessment coincided with that of Maimonides. Abram’s first test was to leave home.
But what basic concept of Judaism is being taught here? Richard and Simon felt that this test was just a reflection of Abram’s natural tendencies. He was innately antisocial, argued Simon, and was merely acting out his instinct.
Richard had somehow calculated, erroneously, that Abram was a teenager and no more than the first example of an adolescent runaway. He found his home environment oppressing and, so, struck out to find his own destiny.
In neither view was a basic Jewish concept being taught.
However, Leon was again, characteristically, on to something. “We are being taught here,” he said, “that Abraham’s task was to individuate, to see himself as having a unique task in life, to transcend the limitations of his cultural background. He was being assigned the task of self-discovery, as it were, although he was being given the promise of Divine blessing to help him find his special path in life.”
The basic Jewish concept here is that we are not to be blind conformists. We are not to identify ourselves in terms of those around us. There is a place, a necessary place, for authentic individual differences.
Leon gave me an opening to share with my little group a fascinating epigram attributed to the mid-19th century Hassidic sage, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk:
“If I am I because you are you, And you are you because I am I, Then, I am not I And you are not you.
But, if I am I because I am I And you are you because you are you Then I am I And you are you.”
“I cannot be myself if I am merely imitating you. That’s just blind conformity. I have to find what is unique in me, what are my God-given gifts and talents, and I must express them. Then, I am I and can achieve my life’s mission.”
This is not a teaching with which all Jewish leaders would agree. But this was the view of the very creative Rabbi of Kotzk, and he was neither the first nor the last to assert this teaching.
A short while after the demise of the Rabbi of Kotzk, a very different sort of Rabbi echoed this thought and found a basis for it in our very text, the opening verse of Parshat Lech Lecha.
He was Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, and this is a quotation drawn from his extensive and erudite commentary on the Five Books of Moses:
“Lech Lecha literally means, ‘Go to yourself.’ Find your own path. Be ready to choose the lonely path which will separate you from your land, your birthplace, your father’s home. Be ready to separate yourself from all the connections that you have formed to this point. Lech Lecha, go at it alone. If the ideology of the multitude is not true, be prepared to worship God alone. How would we, the Jewish people, have been able to exist, and how can we possibly continue to exist, had we not inherited from Abraham our father the courage to be in the minority, even in a minority of one?”
Judaism teaches that one must question truths that have long gone unquestioned. It also teaches that one must trust the answers he discovers and be ready to live by those answers even in the face of the opposition of the vast majority. Abraham was but the first to exemplify this basic Jewish concept. Leon came upon it himself.
And so our third class session on the basic concepts of Judaism came to a close.