Parshat Lech Lecha – What was Abraham searching for?

Whoever continues reading the story will be surprised.

An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Orthodox Jewish worshipper prays at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week’s Torah portion, Genesis 12:1-17:27, begins with a Divine directive to the forefather Abraham (Abram), “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house.”
In order to begin a new chapter in the history of humanity and prepare the foundation for Am Yisrael – the nation that in the future will receive the Torah and the moral mission of being the Chosen People – there first must be a disconnection and departure from the idolatrous past. But where was Abraham commanded to go? The reader does not know, and truth be told, apparently neither does Abraham. The destination is phrased as, “Go forth... to the land that I will show you.”
In what direction does a person turn who is supposed to walk somewhere but does not know to where? He goes to where his legs carry him. An important message is conveyed by this: Sometimes a person just has to get up and take a first step. Even if the destination is not completely clear, that first step bears great significance.
Whoever continues reading the story will be surprised.
A few verses later, we read that Abraham knows very well where he has to go.
“And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son... and they went to go to the land of Canaan...”
(Genesis 12:5) Abraham goes to Canaan; that same land promised later to Abraham and his descendants – Eretz Yisrael.
But how did he know that is where he was supposed to go? This question preoccupied many of Torah commentators and was answered by many. There are those who said that God showed him the destination, and others who said that Abraham understood this on his own. We will examine the words of the midrash which offers a surprising answer: “Rabbi Levi said: At the time that Abraham was walking about Aram Naharayim and Aram Nahor, he saw [people] eating and drinking and lazing about. He said: May I have no portion in this land. Once he arrived at the promontory of Tyre, he saw [people] engaged in hoeing at hoeing time and weeding at weeding time. He said: If only I had a portion in this land.
The Blessed Holy One said to him: ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’” (Breishit Rabba 39:8) What is the midrash telling us? Abraham did not know where to go. He traveled through many countries and examined the behavior of their inhabitants. In certain places, he saw great economic abundance which led the inhabitants to pass their days in pleasurable and hedonistic pastimes. Instead of joining the celebration and choosing to settle in these lands, he chose to distance himself from them. Only when he came to the Land of Israel and saw the inhabitants preoccupied with their work without time for unruly behavior, did Abraham chose to settle in this land. God agreed with him and promised the land to Abraham and his descendants.
Abraham searched for a place in which to settle. He understood that there is a specific land in which he is meant to settle, but he himself chose the criteria. They were moral criteria. Abraham searched for a place that did not have too much abundance, the kind that leads to decadence and an unruly life. He preferred a place where one must work to live, to weed out thorns in the field and hoe the land to work it.
We do not have to look that far back to understand this.
We are all familiar with the stories of the early settlers in Israel in the previous and the 19th centuries. These were idealists who did not shy away from hard physical labor; people who saw work as a challenge, but excelled just as much if not more in having high standards of morals, values, integrity and humility.
These were the kinds of people that Abraham could relate to. This was the kind of place he searched for, and found. And of course, he was right. This was the land God intended for him and to which he was sent.
We live today in a society of abundance, which historically speaking is a rare phenomenon. We live in a society that does not have time because it is so busy with enjoyable leisure activities. When we read about Abraham and the values he held dear, we as his descendants must take these values and build our lives based on them. Then, we will not only be Abraham’s descendants, but we will be those who follow in his footsteps.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.