If you’ve ever tried borrowing somebody else’s pair of eyeglasses, you would immediately notice that they don’t work for you. Every pair of eyeglasses has a specific prescription that is unique to the specific pair of eyes belonging to the specific person for whom they were made. Nobody else can see properly with those glasses.
This is true of eyeglasses, and this is true also of life’s struggles and challenges.
The Arizal taught that every soul which descends into the world is charged with a specific mission, a particular tikkun (“rectification”) which it is to achieve. No two people have the exact same personality traits, skill sets, strengths, or weaknesses; no two people face the exact same circumstances; and no two people are presented with the same challenges – because every person has something special and unique to achieve during his sojourn here on earth.
The “Bookends” of Avraham’s Tests
This concept sheds light on the remarkable story of Avraham Avinu, the father of our nation, which we read this month. Not coincidentally, the Torah’s account of Avraham’s life and experiences revolves around “tests.” From the moment Gd first spoke to him and commanded him to leave his homeland, until his final and most striking test – his preparedness to slaughter his beloved son, Yitzhak – Avraham faced numerous difficult challenges. As the Mishnah in Avot (5:3) famously teaches, “Our patriarch Avraham was tested with ten tests, and he withstood them all.”
Intriguingly, these tests are “bookended” by the well-known phrase, “Lech lecha” – literally, “Go forth for yourself.” It is with this expression that Gd commanded Avraham to leave his homeland and resettle in the Land of Israel (Beresheet 12:1), subjecting him to the grueling test of relocating in a new land and living as a foreigner. And, it is with this expression that Gd commanded Avraham to travel with Yitzhak to Mount Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice (22:2).
What is the particular significance of this phrase – “lech lecha” – that it was selected as the “bookend” of our patriarch’s tests?
The commentators explain that Avraham’s tests were given “lecha” – for him, for the purpose of his realizing the unique, singular purpose for which he came into this world. “Lech lecha” means that this was a personal, tailormade challenge through which Avraham would achieve his special “tikkun,” the one that nobody else could achieve.
The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) adds that this explains why Gd commanded Avraham to go “from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s home.” These three expressions, the Ben Ish Hai writes, correspond to the three dimensions of the human soul – nefesh, ru’ah, neshamah. Gd was hinting to Avraham that by fulfilling this command, he would be realizing the full potential of his soul, thereby fulfilling his unique purpose.
This fundamental teaching is crucial for us to understand, for several reasons. One has to do with the way we look at the people around us.
People often become overly critical and disdainful of others who fail to meet their own standards. There is a certain snobbery that sets in when we see people who are not as careful about the things that we ourselves are very careful about. It behooves us to remember what the Arizal taught – that no people face the same challenges. What is fairly simple and self-understood for one person is a difficult struggle for the other. What for one person is an integral part of religious life that doesn’t require a second thought is a challenge for somebody else. We will never fully understand why people speak and act the way they do. We will never fully understand the mindset, the background, the pressures and the struggles of others, just as others will never fully understand our own internal workings.
This deep meaning of “lech lecha” can profoundly enhance our respect and esteem for the people around us, by reminding us that every person faces his or her unique challenges, tailor-made for that person’s unique purpose in the world.
But there is also another lesson we can learn from this understanding of “lech lecha.”
Rashi writes that this expression implies “lehana’atecha” – that Avraham’s compliance with this command would be “for his benefit.” The Rebbe of Slonim explained this to mean that it would be to Avraham’s benefit because he would thereby realize his purpose, achieving the unique “tikkun” which he was to achieve. It is by meeting these challenges that Avraham would enjoy the “benefit” of self-actualization, accomplishing what he had come into the world to accomplish.
This expresses the second significant aspect of “lech lecha” – the notion that life’s challenges are presented to us for our benefit, to help us grow and achieve. Whenever we face any sort of “test” in life, we must remember what Rashi here teaches us – “lehana’atecha,” that as hard as it might be to see how, this is to our ultimate benefit.
In fact, this might be the significance of the use of the verb “lech” (“walk,” or “go forth”) in the context of Avraham’s tests. The purpose of tests is to help us “go forth,” to propel us forward, to spur a process of growth. We might say that periods of challenge catalyze “growth spurts.” We normally associate this term with the rapid growth of adolescents. But Avraham went through a “growth spurt” at the age of 75, when Gd commanded him to leave his homeland and settle in Eretz Yisrael, and he experienced yet another “growth spurt” at the age of 137, when Gd commanded him offer his beloved son as a sacrifice. This is the function of life’s tests – to move us forward, to help us grow and achieve.
This concept is expressed in the Hebrew word for “test” – “nisayon.” We are familiar with the usage of the word “nes” to mean “miracle,” but this word also refers to a flag waved up high. For example, when Moshe made a copper snake for the people to look at after being bitten by a snake, so they would be healed, he placed it “al hanes,” high up on a post, like a tall flag (Bamidbar 21:9). Tests elevate us, raising us to heights we could never achieve otherwise. If life was always smooth and easy, without ever demanding perseverance, hard work, patience and discipline, we would never grow. We need life’s challenges and struggles to lift us up, so we can rise as high as possible.
The Two Greatest Challenges
Finally, these two “lech lecha bookends” represent what are perhaps the two greatest challenges we face as religious Jews.
The first is the need to leave our “birthplace,” to give up our bad habits and change our routines. Over the years, we invariably will develop inappropriate practices that are very difficult to stop. For some, this is an actual addiction, such as alcohol, gambling, and technology. Others need to struggle to observe halachot which they were not taught to observe as children. Another common example is the difficulty many adults have giving up childhood pastimes such as gaming and following sports, which consume valuable time. Gd’s command to Avraham to leave his birthplace signifies the enormous challenge of change.
Avraham’s second “lech lecha” challenge, the test of akedat Yitzhak, represents the challenge of sacrifice. None of us are ever called upon to make the kind of sacrifice that Avraham was commanded to make, but nevertheless, we often need to make very difficult sacrifices. Businessmen need to sacrifice profits for the sake of Shabbat and holidays, and, often, for the sake of ethics. Parents need to sacrifice for their children’s religious education. We all must sacrifice to assist the needy and support our institutions. Some of the most important, and most impactful, sacrifices that we make involve giving up something we want because of our values and our religious commitments. These sacrifices are very difficult, but they are what lift us up and help us achieve our unique purpose.
Being Worthy Heirs of Avraham Avinu
One of the dangerous “idols” of our generation is that of comfort, ease and convenience. People today are accustomed to accomplishing tasks swiftly or easily, at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse. We are used to having “apps” and advanced technology to make otherwise complicated tasks simple. Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with the convenience; quite to the contrary, technology saves us valuable time which can be used productively and meaningfully. However, the danger arises when we cannot handle challenges or hardships, when we do not want to involve ourselves in anything that requires hard work or sacrifice.
The first words spoken to the father of our nation – “lech lecha” – instructed him to leave his “comfort zone,” to inconvenience himself, to go forth, to work hard, to take on the challenge to live on a higher plane. These words are spoken also to us, the descendants and heirs of Avraham Avinu, each and every day. We must start each day hearing the call of “lech lecha,” summoning us to move forward, to grow, to advance, to accomplish more, to rise higher, to strive for a new level. We are not put here to “take is easy,” to relax, to stay where we are. Hashem puts us where we need to be at every moment so we can progress to the next step, and accomplish something meaningful.
Let us resolve to be worthy heirs of our great patriarch, to continue working and advancing, step by step, even – or especially – when challenges arise. Let us embrace every challenge as another opportunity to grow, to realize our potential, and to soar to greater heights of achievement.