Leave Your Country for Your Own Good
It is written, “And the L-RD said to Abram, ‘Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ ” (Genesis 12:1). Commenting on this in the name of the Sages, Rashi says that it means: “For your own benefit, for your own good. It is there that I will make you into a great nation, whereas here you will not merit having children. Also, I will make your character known to the world” (Bereshith Rabba 39:2).
We see here that G-d promised great favors to Abraham, contrary to the ordeal of Isaac’s sacrifice when G-d told him, “Take your son, your only one, whom you love…” (Genesis 22:2) without promising him anything in return. We should therefore understand the meaning of this trial to “Go … from your land.”
The following questions come to the fore:
1. Why did G-d command Abraham to leave Haran, since there “he succeeded in converting people, in bringing them to a knowledge of G-d” (Bereshith Rabba 39:21)? Moreover it is written, “and he proclaimed there the Name of the L-RD, G-d of the Universe” (Genesis 21:33), concerning which our Sages have said: “Do not read vayikra [and he proclaimed] but vayakri [and he made others proclaim]”(Sotah 10b). Hence if such was the case, why did Abraham have to abandon his religious activities? If it was in order to receive his reward in Eretz Israel, we cannot say that it was trial, since that would have been for his own benefit.
2. Why, furthermore, is the narrative not in chronological order? It should have first stated “from your father’s house,” followed by “from your relatives,” and then “from your land.” The commentators have already noted this inversion.
To explain this reversal in the logical order of the passage, the Sages have said: “If a person feels an uncontrollable urge to sin, let him go to a place where he is not known, wear black clothing, and do what he desires there” (Kiddushin 40a). Concerning this, commentators have stated: “One must not be mistaken and think that he will sin elsewhere, but rather that his black clothes will bring him to restrain his desires and repent” (Tosaphot in the name of Rabbeinu Chananel). The fact is that he will not be bothered in a place where nobody knows him, and he will then be capable of repenting and correcting himself, for no one will come to remind him of his past sins. It was the same for Abraham when G-d told him: “Go for yourself from your land,” for elsewhere – where no one knows you – you can progress better in your service of G-d, which is not the case here, near the perverted King Nimrod and his entourage. You will not be able to serve G-d in the house of your father either, for there you are prevented from doing so. And even if you manage to overcome the pressure of these heretics, they will never come to appreciate your deeds.
Abraham did not hesitate for a moment. He immediately assembled all his family and “the souls they made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5) – meaning all his followers – and they quickly left in accordance with G-d’s command. Thus it is written, “So Abram went as the L-RD had spoken to him” (v.4), for G-d’s word constitutes a command.
From here we learn of Abraham’s great piety and humility. In fact, he could have remained pious, even among those heretics. He could have overcome their influence and pressure for his entire life, especially since all his deeds were motivated solely by his love for G-d and he did not seek out publicity or renown. He could have therefore told himself that in spite of the opposition of his surroundings, he was going to stay in his land without deviating from his chosen path. Yet Abraham didn’t ask any questions after G-d spoke to him. He immediately left Haran and headed in the direction of Eretz Israel, for he knew that if G-d commanded him leave his land and his father’s house, He had His reasons for it.
The First Reason: Abraham knew that he had no reason to fear that he himself would be influenced by his wicked environment, however all the people that he and his wife Sarah had converted were not yet at that level – they were not yet at the point of being able to overcome the trials of their surroundings and that era – and they risked returning to their wicked ways if they stayed. He feared this for good reason.
The Second Reason: Abraham understood that his role was not to serve G-d secretly and in private, but on the contrary, in broad daylight – in plain view and full knowledge of all – so that everyone would witness his deeds. In fact this is exactly what he did, as the Rambam states: “His sole aim was to correct people from the error of their ways and to make them understand the there is but one Creator. It was to bring them to a knowledge of G-d” (Hilchot Akum 2:2-3).
And yet, Abraham asked himself some questions: In a new land, would he also be able to convince people to believe in G-d, as he had done in Haran, especially since he didn’t know which land G-d would bring him to? This was a great trial for someone who, during his entire life, had fought for G-d in spite of the opposition he faced along the way. One must not forget that this was the era of the Tower of Babel, the time when peoples were dispersed as a punishment for having separated themselves from G-d and practiced idolatry. Yet Abraham withstood this trial because he knew that it was his duty at the time.
Certainly G-d knew what Abraham felt in his heart, how difficult it was for him to leave his land, and that Abraham was ready to renounce fame to continue his sacred mission. In addition, he feared that the voyage would make him lose his followers, in the way evoked by the passage that states: “the status of one who travels diminishes” (Bamidbar Rabba 11:4), thus diminishing G-d’s renown in the world. Yet to put him to the test, to greatly reward him, G-d commanded that he leave his house and overcome all these difficulties.
It was therefore a test for Abraham to leave his land, and for him it constituted neither a kindness nor a benefit. He had succeeded in Haran, but would he succeed in another land? What kindness or benefit would he gain in a strange land? However Abraham withstood this test, and if G-d says, “For your own benefit, for your own good,” one must do what G-d commands.
And in fact, after having withstood this test and departed from Haran, Abraham realized just how beneficial it was, for as soon as he arrived in the land of Canaan he felt the holiness of that land which G-d had promised to him and to his descendents, as it is written: “The L-RD appeared to Abram and said, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’ ” (Genesis 12:7). Abraham then realized how faithful were G-d’s words when He previously said that he should leave his land “for your own benefit, for your own good,” since there is no greater pleasure for the heart and soul than experiencing the holiness of a place. Hence all the more reason why a person is rewarded for every step he takes in Eretz Israel, a land that surpasses all others in holiness.
More than anything, Abraham rejoiced when G-d told him, “Raise now your eyes and look out from where you are: Northward, southward, eastward and westward. For all the land that you see, to you will I give it, and to your descendants forever” (Genesis 13:14-15). For having withstood his trial, G-d promised Abraham: Your “springs will spread outwards” (Proverbs 5:16), and here also you will succeed in bringing people closer to Me. Because of you everyone will know that the world has a Creator, and “all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you” (Genesis 12:3). You are mistaken in thinking that you will not success here as you did in Haran. Here too everything that you do will succeed, and you will even be able in increase your work.
We now understand the order of the words in the verse (“from your land, from your relatives, and from your father’s house”). This order arises because Abraham was busier outside the house than inside it, in the sense evoked by the statement: “Not study, but practice is the essential thing” (Perkei Avoth 1:17). Abraham was outside for the majority of his time. He was interacting with people, speaking to them; his house had but secondary importance. This is why G-d told him at first “your land,” since being outside in the land was essential to him. The phrase “your father’s house” was mentioned last because it was secondary for him. Without a doubt, that was the reason why this trial was so difficult, for he was attached to that place, to that land, and he wondered if he could ever succeed in a new land. Yet he withstood this trial, and G-d promised him that he could continue his work in his new land.
Abraham was the first to bring people closer to G-d. He proclaimed the greatness of the Creator everywhere he went: “The L-RD, He is G-d! There is none beside Him!” (Deuteronomy 4:35). For future generations as well (since the deeds of the forefathers serve as examples for their offspring), the earth would be purified, as it is written: “I will remove … the spirit of impurity from the land” (Zechariah 13:2). At that time the gentiles will learn from Jews and they will also know G-d, as it is written: “It shall be that at every New Moon and on every Sabbath, all mankind will come to prostrate themselves before Me, says the L-RD” (Isaiah 66:23). It is then that the following prophecies will be fulfilled: “Many peoples and mighty nations will come to seek out the L-RD, the Master of Legions, in Jerusalem” (Zechariah 8:22), “They will come and relate His righteousness” (Psalms 22:32), and “Many nations will join themselves to the L-RD on that day, and they will become a people unto Me” (Zechariah 2:15). Amen, may it be so.