In the course of one’s spiritual travels, a person encounters situations which can only be overcome with a struggle, and which may even cause one to fall. Nevertheless, since all phases of life’s journey are guided by Divine Providence, we must realize that the purpose of every experience is positive. Even when we fall, we are being given an opportunity to borrow an expression from our Sages (Cf. Makkos 8a.) to descend in order to ascend.
Why must a person face such challenges? Two reasons are given:
a) To bring out the power of one’s soul. As long as a person remains untested, he can “get by” without having to tap his core. When, by contrast, one faces a fundamental challenge, it becomes necessary to call upon one’s spiritual resources in order to succeed.
b) In the process of overcoming a challenge, a person recognizes and thus elevates the sparks of G-dliness contained therein. For all existence is maintained by G-d’s creative energy; that energy is hidden within the world’s material substance. As a result of this “hiddeness,” challenges arise. By overcoming these challenges, a human reveals the true G-dly nature of existence.
Avraham’s spiritual journey contained such challenges. Shortly after he entered Eretz Yisrael, he was forced to descend to Egypt, described as “the nakedness of the land.” (Cf. Genesis 42:9, 12.) The very name of the land, mitzrayim, is related to the word meitzarim, meaning “boundaries” or “limitations.” (Torah Or, Va’eira, p. 57b ff.)
And yet even Avraham’s descent brought him blessing. He left Egypt “very rich in cattle, in silver, and gold.” (Genesis 13:2.) Moreover, this wealth came from spiritual effort; Avraham had elevated some of the sparks of G-dliness invested in that country.
Four mornings during the work week, I get up at 4 a.m. and by five, I’m picking up my son David at his place so we can go to the gym together and work out for 60 or 70 minutes before getting ready to commute to our jobs. Although that sounds like a really early hour to go through such exertion, we encourage each other and one of us always helps the other one to do the best we can. Some days are better than others, but we both know that only through hard work can we move toward our goals. David is suffering from a number of physical disabilities he incurred during his service in the Marines, and I’m just plain getting older. We both have our challenges to overcome, but thankfully we don’t have to go the course alone.
As Rabbi Touger’s commentary on this week’s Torah reading teaches, we also encounter a number of spiritual challenges in our lives, all of us. While working out physically is a choice (I could choose to be lazy, eat what I want, become ever larger, and damage the quality of my life as I continue to age), it really isn’t if I want to remain healthy and even to improve my physical condition as I get older. The same goes for spiritual growth.
But if you think getting up at four in the morning just so you can start sweating by five is no fun, imagine making yourself face, not just traditional Bible readings and devotionals, but challenges and conflicts both within yourself and your understanding of God, and outside of yourself in the world of religious dialog (to put it politely). Sometimes, I’d rather face any machine and any exercise I could possibly work with at my gym than spend five minutes wrangling with some “attitude” in the religious blogosphere.
As I mentioned though, those challenges don’t have to be externally driven. I’ve got enough internal challenges to last me for a good, long while. How exactly do the blessings in the Abrahamic covenant bind the Christian to God in covenant relationship? What effect does the New Covenant have on the Abrahamic for a Christian? Why does or doesn’t the Mosaic covenant factor into the line of other covenant blessings for the non-Jews in the church? Other people seem to think the Bible and what is says is a “slam-dunk” as far as what it all means. For me, it’s an endless adventure story wrapped in darkest mystery that has inspired me to the heights of ecstasy and driven me to miserable despair.
A person’s spiritual quest should not be a lonely journey. On the contrary, one of the hallmarks of personal development is an increasing capacity to inspire others. Avraham surely gained such an ability, as our Sages comment (Sotah 10a.) with regard to the verse, (Genesis 21:33.) “And he called in the name of the G-d of the universe”: “Do not read ויקרא (‘And he called’), read ויקריא (‘And he had others call’).”
This concept is also reflected in the changing of his name from Avram to Avraham. (Ibid. 17:5.) Rashi (In his commentary to that verse.) explains that Avram implies merely “father of Aram,” while Avraham alludes to the Hebrew words meaning “father of many nations.” The change implies that Avraham had been given the potential to inspire and influence all the nations of the world to begin striving toward spiritual goals.
“It is not good that..man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18 ESV) Although Rabbi Touger suggests that the “not alone” part in Abraham’s case, was his ability to teach and to inspire others to call out to God, it implies (for most of us, I think) that we should seek out companionship, not just to inspire them, but so that they can inspire us, much like my son David and I inspire each other. Avraham Avinu was the father of many nations, not just the Hebrews, and according to Paul, this was through his seed.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.
-Galatians 3:16 (ESV)
Paul explains that we Christians too can call Abraham our father because of our relationship with his seed, the Jewish Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was never alone. He was always teaching. He was surrounded by his disciples. He was surrounded by multitudes of those who were desperate. He was the shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel. I can’t recall the source (and a quick Google search doesn’t reveal it), but I seem to remember a principle in some corners of Judaism saying that a teacher will learn as much from his students as they will from him. I don’t know if this could be applied to Jesus, but perhaps it can be to those who came after him.
As one who has taught (albeit in a rather small setting) before, I can certainly say it is true of me.
As you may know from my comments in my Days series, I have been inspired, or maybe challenged is the better word, to seek out a more traditional Christian fellowship venue. This is with the idea that I not only can learn and be supported by my fellow believers, but that I also have something of value to give back. What that is may be apparent to my blog audience, but it remains to be seen if a face-to-face group of Christians will agree.
There’s only so much encouragement I can give and receive via the web. At some point, like Abraham, I must leave, at God’s command, what is familiar and comfortable to proceed into the unknown. Abraham trusted God with everything he had, and it was accounted to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:3) Abraham’s example teaches me that it is not good that I be alone and that risk is part of the “business” of faith and trust in God. Abraham took everything he had, his family, his entire household, and all his possessions, and followed God to a land he never knew.
What a person believes about himself and his abilities is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A person who does not consider himself “important” will not free himself from negative habits.
Believing you are inferior, untalented, unimportant or incapable, influences your abilities. If you view yourself as unable to do things, you will be unable to do them. On the other hand, if you see yourself as talented, capable, and important, your self-concept will open up powers and talents that would have otherwise remained dormant.
Hardly anyone utilizes his entire capabilities. We can accomplish much more than we realize. By raising the perception of your capabilities, you will accomplish more.
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #618″
A week from today, I begin the first step on a journey into a land that, while not entirely unknown, seems rather alien to me after so many years. One difference is that I don’t take with me everything I have. Certainly my family will not be accompanying me on the journey. Unlike Abraham, I walk alone, with only the promise that it will not always be this way.