“The Caravan of Abraham” by James Tissot, ca. 1900.
“The Caravan of Abraham” by James Tissot, ca. 1900.

Like Abraham, we must leave things behind to move forward

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Genesis 12:1–17:24

The first 11 chapters of the Book of Genesis are filled with disappointment. The goal of God’s creation was a world in which people, having free choice between good and evil, would freely choose good. Adam and his descendants, however, were not up to the challenge.

Just 10 generations later, God began again with a single righteous family. While Noah had an advantage over Adam by showing himself to be righteous in comparison with his contemporaries, he and his descendants also disappoint God.

Taking a new approach, God — rather than asking one individual or one family to be good in isolation — seeks to create a community, a nation, descendants of a God-fearing couple whose members would sustain, reinforce and lift up each other.

At the beginning of the parashah, God calls to Abram (later known as Abraham) completely out of the blue. The Torah portion tells us nothing about Abram’s life, nor why God selects him for what will become a singular and momentous mission.

“Go forth from your soil, and from your homeland, and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you,” God commands Abram. “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2).

Abram doesn’t know why God has picked him for this special purpose. And he has no idea where God is leading him geographically.

While the end result of Abram’s mission, should he choose to accept it, will be very positive, God doesn’t make his decision easy. As if making a journey to an unknown place weren’t hard enough, God reminds the patriarch what he will need to leave behind his land, his culture and his family.

Why does God make Abram’s choice so difficult? Is God testing him — his faith, his commitment, his courage — as God will test him many other times during the course of his life?

Abram does choose to obey God’s command, and he ventures forth into the unknown, along with his wife, Sarai (later known as Sarah), and his nephew Lot. They bring with them wealth and other persons, but they are still a very small group. They are far from being a nation.

The text tells us that Abram is 75 when he leaves Mesopotamia. It is not clear how much time passes from the moment he hears the divine call to the time he actually leaves his home in Haran. Was it a day? A month? Many years? How much time did Abram have to prepare?

When we stand at a crossroads, when we face important transitions in our lives, it often takes us time before we can move on to the next chapter. The death of a loved one, divorce, unemployment, illness — all of these events are jarring. At times, they can be stunting.

It is hard to imagine that Abraham didn’t need time to prepare for his journey into the unknown. While the promise of blessing and a new life awaited him, there was so much that he had to leave behind, and so much that was still unclear about what lay ahead.

All heroes face this challenge. And all, eventually, embrace the ambiguity before them.

As T.S. Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

Abraham starts at the end. He becomes the first Jew when he closes the door on his prior life.

As a result of his courage and faith, he and Sarah give birth to a unique new people (Israel), introduce a radical new idea (monotheism) and establish a relationship (brit, or covenant) that has lasted for millennia and that binds Jews to our God, and to each other, to this very day.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."