By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Last week, Avraham received his marching orders from G-d: “Lech-lecha – go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land I will show you.” Hashem told him to leave all his familiar comfort zones and travel to a yet-unknown destination. Eventually, it would become known as Israel, and Avraham was the original one to whom it was promised. At the time, though, Avraham probably had no idea as to where exactly he was going. But orders are orders, and so he went faithfully.
In the end, Avraham’s great trek would be the fulfillment of his calling as the father of monotheism. He would take on the whole pagan world of the time and succeed beyond his own wildest dreams. By the way, I think we take our Biblical giants too much for granted. We fail to appreciate the immensity of Avraham’s contribution to civilization. What he did was nothing less than single-handedly change the mindset of the world! Believing in one, invisible Creator was a culture shock to the idol-worshippers of the day. This achievement made Avraham not only the founding father of the Jewish people but also the father of all the monotheistic faiths of the world. No wonder a statistical study of history’s “100 Most Influential People” ranked Avraham way on top, far above other faith founders and even way ahead of all the celebrities and pop icons of the day.
According to Rambam, this journey to the unknown was the first of ten tests of faith that the Almighty would impose upon Avraham. Yet the final test, which we read about on Rosh Hashanah and again in this week’s parashah, is considered the supreme test. The Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, the near sacrifice of the son Avraham waited a century to have, generates far more coverage in Torah, in our prayers, and in the writings of commentary.
Why should this be the case? The first test, of Lech-lecha, had a universal impact, while the binding of Isaac was just between a father, his son, and G-d. Somewhere on a secluded mountaintop, far removed from public scrutiny, a personal drama was played out. The journey of Lech-lecha, however, had an almost global audience. Is it not strange that this universal test should not be considered much more important than the personal test of father and son?
May I suggest that a possible answer might be that before we can undertake a universal mission to humankind, we must first understand our personal mission to G-d. Or, to put it simply, before you can change the world, you have to know who you are. If you don’t know yourself, if you don’t recognize your own personal spiritual mission, how can you hope to influence the broader society?
The rabbis taught, “Perfect yourself before you seek to perfect others.” Obviously, this is not to say that we should not try and teach others until we are perfect ourselves (so who is perfect?). What it does suggest is that if we hope to have an impact on others, our call must resonate as authentic and genuine. How can we make an impression on others if we are not credible individuals ourselves? A good salesperson really believes in his product. (Even if he may have talked himself into believing it, sincerity sells.)
The legendary Hillel tells us in Pirkei Avos, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his position,” and an interesting alternative interpretation understands him to mean that in order to judge any person accurately, one should first establish what kind of reputation that individual enjoys in his own makom, in his own city and home. Is there not some truth in Jackie Mason’s jesting about the Jewish husband who is a big mover and shaker all over town, but as soon as he walks through the door of his own house becomes a henpecked schlemiel?
Years ago I came across a one-liner sermon: “Every rabbi has only one sermon – the way he lives his life.” It’s all too true. We can preach from today until next Yom Kippur, but if we don’t “walk the walk” and live the game we purport to play, we will leave our audiences unmoved. The most eloquent orators will fail to make an impression if their listeners know that their message is hollow and isn’t backed up by genuine personal commitment.
So while the story of Avraham’s journey and universal mission appears in the Torah and comes chronologically before the final test, in essence the Akeidah reigns supreme – not only because it was the most difficult, but because our personal commitment and integrity always form the moral basis for our mission to the world. At the end of the day, only these validate the man and his message. And that is the acid test for all of us.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.