The Test We All Face
Parashat Vayera, Genesis 18:1–22:24
by Rabbi Russ Resnik
Abraham’s decades-long dialogue with Hashem reaches its climax in Genesis 22, with the Akedah or Binding of Isaac. As at the beginning, the Lord sets Abraham on a journey with a simple two-word command: “Lekh l’kha—get going!” (Gen 22:2, cf. 12:1).
Rashi takes this phrase literally as “Go for yourself,” meaning “Go for your benefit and for your good”—although it’s hard to see how that’s going to work out when God is telling Abraham to “Go” and offer up his son Isaac. I’ll take the phrase even more literally and suggest, “Go to yourself”, that is, go to become the self God means you to be. Abraham is our forefather, our guide, and the first thing we learned about him in our last parasha was that he must journey. Now, in his later years he must journey again to fully be the self God made him to be. I call this the Essential Journey:
- It starts with a word from God.
This is not the “spiritual journey” of pop culture. It's not an expression of the Morality of Self-Fulfillment, which Barna.com calls "America's new moral code," with the credo, “the best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself.” No, the best way to find yourself—the essential way—is the journey of response to God’s word.
This journey teaches you to trust God.
God doesn’t say—as we sometimes do—“just trust Me.” Instead, He repeatedly proves himself to Abraham. He appears repeatedly along the way to reassure and redirect him and finally, as our parasha draws to a close, to reiterate His promise of life and blessing (Gen 22:16–18).
- With this trust you can become who you're meant to be.
A while back my friend Chad Holland of King of Kings Congregation, Jerusalem, posted on his Facebook page, “We should realize that God tells Moses that His name is ‘I Am’ a few verses after Moses asked God, ‘Who am I?’ It is more important to know who God is than who we are, as our identity is in Him.” True enough, but it’s equally clear in Scripture that our God-given identity becomes character—who we really are from the inside out—through the journey of trust. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and finally all Israel take this essential journey.
The stories of Genesis speak to us today because they trace this primal journey of identity formation. Family theorist Salvador Minuchin wrote, “Human experience of identity has two elements: a sense of belonging and a sense of being separate.” Our identity is a finely tuned balance between belonging and being distinct. The journey provides separation—“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house” —and it also brings us to where we really belong—“to the land that I will show you.” Remember, we’re not talking about the pop spiritual journey that’s so often rooted in hyper-individualism. Our journey supports connection and community, even as it explores new horizons. Abraham’s journey wasn’t about himself, but about forming a new family that would bear blessing for all.
As Chad points out, our identity is in God. It’s a gift to us through our union with Messiah Yeshua. But for lots of younger people that I know, the challenge is to own the identity they learned about from their parents and religious upbringing, and often they never do. That’s how someone can seem to be a strong and committed believer throughout childhood and adolescence, and then drop it all as a young adult. We embrace identity through the realities of journey, through walking with God as Abraham did. Identity tested through the journey becomes character.
That’s why this journey is essential, so let’s remember these three lessons from Abraham’s story:
1. This journey starts with a word from God.
Messiah Yeshua calls us not just to sign up, show up on Shabbat, not even to do various good deeds in his name—all worthy pursuits—but to “Follow me.” This is faith—active trust in a God who actually communicates directly with us. God’s word can take us by surprise, but we can also seek it out by listening through prayer, contemplation of Scripture, and anticipation that God will speak (usually not audibly, but clearly enough). Hashem says Lekh l’kha twice to Avraham, once at the beginning of his journey, and again near the end. Hearing God’s directive isn’t a one-time thing, but a lifetime endeavor. Stay fresh, keep to the journey, listen for the word.
2. This journey teaches you to trust God.
We won’t overcome our anxiety and unbelief by sitting in our rooms repeating, “I trust God; I won’t fear.” We learn to trust in God as we go forth “to one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen 22:2). The journey depends on God showing us the way, and this grows our trust, which in turn grows our courage. The journey teaches us not to fear, because wherever it leads us, God is there.
3. With this trust you can become who you’re meant to be.
In our families and congregations, we can reflect the anxiety and risk-aversion of the surrounding culture, or we can encourage exploration and boldness. If a younger person or someone you’re leading or mentoring asks tough questions, don’t freak out, shut down, or lecture. Let them be wrong, and even fail, now and then, and trust God to lead the way forward. Be not afraid! But trust . . . for yourself as well as them.
When Messiah Yeshua said, “Follow me,” he didn’t mean just this once, but from now on. If we have a walk with Messiah Yeshua that is risk-averse, predictable, too secure, we might really not be walking at all. On the other hand, if life in the Medicare years still feels a little shaky and insecure . . . this might be exactly what Hashem intends to train us in trusting Messiah.
Trust grows along the journey, as Avraham discovered in last week’s parasha. Now this trust is fulfilled through another journey.
Wasn’t Avraham avinu declared righteous because of actions when he offered up his son Yitz’chak on the altar? . . . and the passage of the Tanakh was fulfilled which says, “Avraham had faith in God, and it was credited to his account as righteousness.” James 2:21, 23 CJB