Last week we read how Abraham received his marching orders from G‑d. “Lecha lecha—Go from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house, to the land I will show you.” G‑d told him to leave all his familiar comfort zones and travel to an unknown destination. Eventually, it would become known as the Land of Israel, and Abraham as the one to whom it was originally promised. At the time, however, Abraham probably had no idea as to where he was going. But orders are orders, and so he went faithfully.
In the end, Abraham’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 enormity of Abraham’s contribution to civilization. What he did was nothing less than to singlehandedly change the mindset of the world! Believing in one, invisible Creator was culture shock to the idol-worshippers of the day. This achievement made Abraham not only the founding father of the Jewish people, but also the father of all the monotheistic faiths of the world. No wonder a recent study of history’s “100 Most Influential People” ranked Abraham way on top, far above other faith founders and even way ahead of Madonna, Britney, and the Bills—both Clinton and Gates.
According to our sages, this journey to the unknown was the first of ten tests of faith the Almighty would impose upon Abraham. Yet the final test, which we read about on Rosh Hashanah and again in this week’s Parshah, is considered the supreme test. The akeidah, the binding of Isaac, the near-sacrifice of the son he 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 Abraham, on the other hand, had an almost global audience. Surely, this universal test should be considered much more important than the personal test of father and son.
The answer is that before we can undertake a universal mission to humankind, we must first understand our personal relationship 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 sages 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. (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 believes in his product (even if he had to talk himself into believing it . . .).
The legendary Hillel tells us in Ethics of the Fathers, “Do not judge your fellow until you have reached his place (makom),” 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 who, as soon as he walks through the door of his own house, becomes a henpecked shlemiel?
Years ago I came across a one-liner that had a profound impact on me personally: “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 talk” 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 Abraham’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 person and his or her message. And that is the acid test for all of us.