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In this week’s parsha, the history of the Jewish people commences. Until this time, we studied about the creation of the world and the story of humankind, but now we focus on Abraham, the founder and patriarch of our people. Amazingly, the Torah introduces him in a very unassuming manner, by simply telling us that G-d commanded Abraham to depart from his land (Genesis 12:1). In contrast, in the previous parsha, Noah, the father of mankind, is presented as “righteous and whole-hearted”. This is all the more puzzling when we consider the many wonderful, miraculous stories that we know of Abraham’s early years. Why doesn’t the Torah relate them? The answer to this question defines the essence of our Jewishness.
Who is greater? He who performs a righteous deed because he is commanded by G-d, or he who does so because of the inclinations of his own heart? At first glance, you might think that the latter is superior, but our sages teach that the man whose action is prompted by the command of G-d is on a higher level, for he sublimates his will for the sake of his Creator. Moreover, when one’s action is based on one’s own inclination, then one is subject to change, for while today he might find pleasure in doing something, tomorrow that very same deed may leave him cold. There is no permanence to his act. But when a man is motivated by G-d’s command, then no matter where life takes him, whether he be challenged by storms or calm, whether he be enveloped in darkness or showered with light, his commitment will remain constant. That which occurred during Abraham’s early years, was the result of his own feelings and thoughts and not G-d’s command, and therefore, in presenting him, the Torah does not make reference to it. Our parsha introduces Abraham with the simple yet stirring words: “Lech Lecha...” “Go for yourself”. Thus the first Jew is commanded, to look within himself, to dare to be different, to defy the world and live by the Word of G-d.
G-d challenges Abraham through ten different tests, and as he passes all of them, he creates a great spiritual gene bank for all of us, his descendants. Even as Abraham, we perform our mitzvos because G-d spoke, and in every generation we are fortified by the knowledge that we have the ability to pass those tests for Abraham paved the way for us. But there remains a puzzling question. In the opening verses of our parsha, G-d promises Abraham “I will make you a great nation and you will prosper”. The obvious question that arises is, if G-d promises that the Patriarch will benefit, then why is it considered a test?
But even when G-d promised great blessings for the fulfillment of the commandments, Abraham acted solely for the sake of G-d and never thought of personal gain. As it is written: “So Abraham went like G-d spoke to him...” This is the key element in serving G-d - the ability to overcome our personal needs and desires and bow to His will. This trait of our father Abraham has been integrated into our psyches. No matter where life has taken us as a people, whether we bore the yoke of slavery and oppression or lived in freedom and had to battle assimilation, we clung tenaciously to our Torah and it is that faith and that ability to sublimate our will for the sake of G-d that has enabled us to survive the centuries and remain Jews no matter how great the odds were against us.