With this week’s portion, the story of the Jewish people begins with this simple passage: “The Lord said to Abram: Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
Abraham’s appearance is almost startling: Who is he, and why has he been called by God? Why must he leave his home, and where is the new land? And why does he heed the call?
Abraham’s response is immediate: “Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him…. Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.”
What sort of religious faith is represented by the immediate response of Abraham to God’s call? What must it take for someone to leave everything and (almost) everyone familiar and dedicate oneself to the pursuit of a promise?
While he does not abandon his wife Sarah, he does leave his father’s household. While he does not leave behind his possessions, he does leave his native land. There is a clear break between the past and the future. Abraham does not say goodbye, does not settle his accounts, does not make necessary arrangements for whatever legal and communal affairs require his attention. He is called and he responds.
It is difficult for moderns to comprehend the conviction that motivates such radical steps. We are uneasy with such faith, which we often call “blind.” We are unsure about “instant conversions,” and we look disapprovingly on religious zeal that celebrates God at the expense of rejecting one’s own family.
Within our own community, we sometimes forget that the “return to observance” on the part of many young Jews is accompanied by a coordinate disparaging of the non-Orthodox homes and synagogues in which they were often raised.
And yet we revere Abraham as the beginning of the line of the Jewish people, recognizing something essential in his attitude despite some questions we may have about his actions; he represents a truth and a faith. His truth is the knowledge that after years of reason and debate, after philosophical speculation and mystical immersion, after all pursuits of ideological consistency, faith is ultimately an affirmation of heart and soul more than of mind. We cannot reason our way to God; we can only respond to God.
And Abraham’s faith is a faith in the future, not only for himself (“and you shall be a blessing”) but for all of creation (“and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you”). To leave behind the past is only possible when one becomes committed to the future.
The model of Abraham teaches that all Jews are indeed disciples — not of any human being, but only and especially of God. To be a Jew is always to be on the way “to the land that I will show you.”