Parashat Lech Lecha 5778
On a Mission from God
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Avraham lived in interesting times. He had to overcome myriad challenges just to survive - but mere survival was never his goal. Avraham had a vision, a mission: His goal was to spread knowledge of God, both “horizontally” and “vertically” – to his own generation and to future generations. Sometimes, though, Avraham faced challenges (referred to in rabbinic tradition as “tests”) that seemed diametrically opposed to his overarching goal.
The midrashic narrative describes Avraham’s impossible situation: He was forced to make the choice between worshipping the false gods of his father and his king (Nimrod), which would enable him to survive but would be a public display of hypocrisy that would undermine his monotheistic message, or become a “burnt offering,” standing firm in his rejection of polytheism even to the point of martyrdom. No matter which path he chose, his mission seemed doomed before it even got off the ground; when Avraham chose martyrdom, he sacrificed not only his life but the future of his mission. The nascent monotheism movement appeared doomed to die with him.
Avraham was thrown into the furnace; God intervened and saved his life, but Avraham was forced to flee. He resettled in a new town, where he was far more successful: His message was well-received, and his “movement” gained considerable momentum. Inexplicably, just at that point God called upon him to relocate once again, to abandon what he had managed to build, to pick up and travel to an unknown destination.
With no heir, Avraham’s prospects for future success seemed bleak. How would he leave his mark on future generations? In successive Divine revelations, Avraham is told that he will succeed, and that even though it seems impossible, he and his wife will have progeny: His ideology, his mission, would live on. Just as he had miraculously survived the fiery furnace, so would his belief in God be miraculously sustained.
Even after arriving in the Promised Land, Avraham is continually put to the test. When he is pulled into local geo-political conflicts, he goes to war and bests an army that had defeated a confederacy of kings. He travels through hostile lands, where the challenges he faces range from religious to political to military to sexual, yet he and his wife emerge unscathed.
An impartial actuarial assessment of the probability of Avraham and Sarah’s survival would have given infinitesimally small odds in their favor. No one would have predicted that, despite the trials and tribulations they faced, Avraham and Sarah would eventually die of natural causes at advanced ages, after bringing an heir into the world - just as no one could have predicted that Avraham would walk out of King Nimrod’s furnace unharmed, or that Sarah would escape the clutches of Pharaoh and Avimelech, that Avraham would survive the war against far superior military forces, or, for that matter, that their son Yitzchak would rise from the altar to which he had been bound.
Individually, each of these events is impossible; collectively, they form a paradigm for what would one day be known as Jewish survival. The life and times of Avraham and Sarah were so “interesting,” so miraculous, because they were the forerunner, the harbinger, and the model for Jewish survival.
We – individually and as a nation – have survived, and will continue to survive, simply because it is the will of God. We have a role to play in world history; we are all on a mission from God. Like Avraham and Sarah, God keeps us alive, energizes and invigorates us in miraculous ways and in the face of insurmountable odds and impossible choices. Like Avraham and Sarah before us, we are tasked with spreading knowledge of God “horizontally” and “vertically.” If we were to attempt to calculate our chances of success, we would do well to heed the lesson our own history teaches us: Our existence is based on factors that are impossible for the human mind to calculate. Like Avraham and Sarah, we, their children, are here today only because it is the will of God. In our case, the only rational explanation is miraculous.
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2017
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