We are told that our father Abraham underwent ten tests over the course of his lifetime, and that he passed all ten tests. Though there is no consensus on what those ten tests were, we do know that the first was at Ur Kasdim, where Abram (as he was then known) was thrown into a fiery pit for his refusal to pay homage to the idols of that society. He survived that furnace, and emerged not only physically unharmed but also committed to his monotheism. In addition, we know that the second test Abram faced was God’s command to LECH LECHA, to “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
As we know, he passes that test as well.
So why do we hear so much more about the second test than the first? In fact, the Torah is almost totally silent on the first test, the only mention being a quick reference in Lech Lecha to UR. It would seem that surviving a fiery furnace would warrant more attention than a journey, a departure from one’s home. And yet the fiery furnace is barely mentioned and comes to us mostly through midrash. Why?
One scholar believes that the trial at Ur Kasdim was barely mentioned because that experience was of Abram’s own choosing. He was an iconoclast in his own day and time, and his devotion to monotheism required that he be willing to give up his life for his belief. On the other hand, this scholar claims, the command to “go forth” comes directly from God, and that makes that test even more important because it was divine. Therefore, it is worthy of more time in our text.
I want to propose a slightly different reason. I think it’s clear that being willing to stand in a fiery furnace is a BIG test. I’m not sure too many of us could do it! But that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it was GLAMOROUS. A little like the trials of Hercules or some other spectacular super-hero. In contrast, the journey that Abraham undertakes is one that is on-going, and not the least bit glamorous. In fact, he doesn’t even know where he is going—God tells him “go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Now there’s faith! No sense of what that end destination might be. And the Torah tells us, “And Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him.”
Think about how hard it is to leave one’s childhood home. No matter how much we might resist the strictures of our parents and older adults, there is a certain safety in being someone’s child and in remaining a child. There is safety in what we know, in being cared for. No doubt Abram felt that safety as well, even though he must have hated living in a land of idolaters.
But that isn’t all. Abram doesn’t simply leave his childhood home. He leaves without any knowledge of what his destination might be. That journey is one of seeking, not one of exile (like Adam and Eve), and the mystery of that journey demanded enormous faith of Abram.
So much of life is like this, isn’t it? Life often feels like a journey whose end is uncertain, where even the mileposts along the way might not be marked for us. Where we are headed somewhere, and we often don’t know exactly where. Where we might have even less information than Abram did—remember that God tells him that he and his descendents will be blessed, and that his enemies will be cursed.
Unlike Abram, we never know whether blessings or curses follow us as we journey on our way. So much of that journey requires a leap of faith, a trust that we will be OK. And, often, if we try to control our circumstances, the “best-laid plans” often go awry—we end up realizing that the more we try to exercise control, the less control we actually have.
Maybe some of you have read or heard about some of the predictions people have made about the future. For example, Charlie Chaplin once said that “the cinema is little more than a fad. People want the flesh and blood of the stage.” Margaret Thatcher once said, “A woman will never be prime minister during my lifetime.” Marconi, famous for his invention of the radio, thought that radios would make warfare impossible. Economist Irving Fiske predicted that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Anyone want to guess what year that was? Yes, it was 1929, actually THREE DAYS before the market crashed. Popular Mechanics in 1959 said that computers might some day weigh less than 1.5 TONS. And my personal favorite: in 1924, Science and Invention Magazine predicted that there would soon be a MATING machine that you and your partner could be hooked into to determine if you’re compatible.
Dealing with mystery is touch and challenging. Under some circumstances, it can be terrifying. I don’t want to minimize that reality. But, sometimes, when we open ourselves up to the mystery of the future, we find that we are truly blessed in ways that we did not or could not imagine.
Let us pray that we can have the faith, like our father Abraham, to trust the future and to go forth . . .
Rabbi David Grossman
Rabbi Joshua Grossman