Recently I bought roses for my wife. There was no particular anniversary or birthday, just a slightly stressful beginning to the week, and so I stopped in Trader Joe’s after a long day of not being home to get some flowers.
Truth is that I have never understood (and probably never will understand) the allure of flowers. They are so temporary, so fragile, so unlike the things that I enjoy in life. But I am happy I bought them. Primarily because they made my wife smile, and that makes me happy.
Secondly, because they provide a great example of a great message we read in the beginning of Genesis, as we recently began the new cycle of the Torah reading. Or rather, the lesson from what’s MISSING from this story in Genesis.
The Torah introduces us to the very first Jew, the father of our nation, Abraham, or as known in Hebrew, Avraham Avinu. Abraham was an amazing individual who was a genius and tremendously influential person. He had self-discovered the one G-d of all of existence and come to understand the truth of reality. He had stood up to King Nimrod, the greatest ruler of the time, and had not only survived, but grown a tremendous following.
Yet, none of the amazing accomplishments of the first seven decades of Abraham’s life are recorded in the Written Torah. We are not offered even a brief description of how righteous Abraham was, or of the great acts of sacrifice he undertook as he taught the world about monotheism—many years before G-d began to communicate with him.
Instead, the story in the Torah introduces Abraham when he was 75 years old, by telling us that G-d commanded him to leave his home, his country, his family and all that was familiar, and travel to the land that G-d would show him.
Don’t you think a better introduction to our forefather is in order? Shouldn’t some of the great moments of Abraham’s life that took place before he leaves Charan, his birthplace, and his homeland, heading towards the Promised Land be mentioned?
Starting the story of Abraham’s life so many decades into his story actually tells us the true story of what made Abraham so unique, worthy of being the first Jew. By “skipping” the earlier stories of Abraham’s greatness, the Torah is teaching us what defines a “Jewish” relationship with G-d.
And, by extension, we discover what distinguishes us, his children, the Jewish nation - from the rest of civilization.
All of humankind is capable of discovering G-d. Any human is capable of living an ethical, and value filled life predicated on a commitment to living the way G-d wants us to live.
What makes us unique is that our primary relationship with Him lies not in our recognition of G-d, and not in our decision to attach ourselves to Him; but in His choice of us as His people.
Abraham found G-d. But that didn’t make him a Jew. Only when G-d found Abraham did we become His nation.
The same is true with the Mitzvot that we do. The primary value of the Mitzvot that G-d gave us is not just in their emotional impact on the wholesomeness of our lives, or on the spiritual buzz they leave us with. Judaism is not just about making the world a better place, with more acts of connection and kindness between strangers. Judaism is not about self-help, or self-fulfillment, although a Torah lifestyle absolutely gives you both of these in abundance.
The true greatness of a Mitzvah is in the fact that this action contains within it G-d’s desire. That He wants us to act this way and follow these laws as His will. The ultimate significance of the Torah we study is not in the lessons it teaches or the inspiration it imparts. Rather it is the act of internalizing the “word of G-d” within our own minds that makes learning Torah so indescribably amazing.
This is why flowers are worth every penny. Not because they make sense, but because they provide an opportunity to do something that doesn’t begin in what I value and enjoy. They are about doing something exclusively for what the person I love gets pleasure from.
Therefore, the Torah leaves out any background information about Abraham’s piety and the many good deeds he did before G-d spoke to him. Instead, it begins with G-d’s first command to, “Go forth from your land,” to emphasize that man’s finite efforts to develop a meaningful relationship with G-d are utterly insignificant in comparison to the connection that is forged by G-d singling out the Jew, and creating a relationship with him.
And this is where our story begins as well. Not when we buy our spouse a present that we wanted for ourselves. Not when we “discover G-d” or when we begin to search for “meaning in life”.
Only when we “go forth”, when we leave ourselves behind, and become His, we truly connect to the One Above.
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