Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Avram is certainly regarded as a spiritual giant - someone who was willing to sacrifice everything in order to properly serve God. It seems justified to assume that he was not particularly interested in material gain. Yet, when Hashem commanded Avram to set out for the Land of Canaan, he promised him the "American Dream":

And I shall make you a great nation, and I shall bless you and make you famous; and you shall be a man of blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I shall curse; and all the families of the Earth shall be blessed through you.

Why did God use fame and fortune to entice Avram to leave his home? Was this really his motivation in heeding the call of prophecy? This doesn't seem to square with anything else that we know about Avram, or about prophets in general.

An examination of the first verse of our Parasha may lead us to a better understanding of Avram's situation:

And Hashem said to Avram: "Go forth from your land, your birthplace and the house of your father, unto the land that I will show you."

Why did Hashem describe Ur Kasdim with three different terms ("land", "birthplace", and "house of your father"). On the surface, this seems superfluous. All of these words refer to the same location!

The fact that Hashem used three terms to identify a single place tells us that there are three different dimensions of the place that were significant to Avram. It was, first of all, his land. He derived part of his sense of political identity and "belonging" from it, in the same way that many of us say "we are American." This experience was a mutual one. Avram had a feeling of connection with the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim, and they felt a connection with him as well.

Second, it was the place where he was born and raised; he was familiar with it. He possessed an understanding of its culture, customs and mores, and was comfortable moving about within it.

Finally, his family lived there. He had social connections in the area and was well known among the people. Avram was by no means a stranger in Ur Kasdim.

Why were all these things so important to Avram? After all, he was not a teenager going away to college for the first time. He was a seventy-five year old man!

We must remember that, since his youth, Avram had dedicated himself to sharing the philosophy of monotheism with as many people as he could. He believed that because he was a member of the community of Ur Kasdim - familiar with its ways and recognized among its citizens - he had a better chance of succeeding in that environment than in any other. If he had been an outsider, he reasoned, the likelihood of his preaching having any influence would have been drastically reduced.

There was another powerful incentive for Avram to remain at home. As long as he was in Ur Kasdim among relatives and neighbors, securing a livelihood was not problematic for him. He had all of the business and familial connections that he needed.

This was a crucial factor insofar as his spiritual mission was concerned. After all, part of what was so impressive about Avram was that, despite his wealth, he was fully devoted to a unique religious outlook and way of life. We witness examples of this phenomenon all the time in the world of commercial advertising. Celebrities, and not homeless men, are the ideal spokespersons for new products. This is because the average person has a natural tendency to respect the views of attractive and successful individuals. We can understand then that, were Avram to become poor, he would risk losing his credibility in the eyes of potential students.

Thus, Avram wasn't interested in the material or social benefits of living at home for their own sake. Nor was he drawn after the fame and fortune that God promised to give him. Rather, he was simply concerned that becoming a wandering, impoverished and anonymous nomad in the Land of Canaan would undermine his efforts to reach out to others.

Hashem therefore informs Avram that he need not worry. He will be blessed with financial success and his reputation will be extolled throughout the land. Avram was assured that the spiritual mission to which he had devoted his life would not be compromised by his departure from Ur Kasdim.

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