Judaism: Divrei Azriel: What Did They Do Before Google Maps?
This week’s parsha opens with Hashem's commandment to Avraham Avinu: 'Lech lecha mei’artzecha…', “Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace and from the home of your father to the land that I will show you” (12:1).
Avraham's response was immediate: he gathered his family and they left Charan “to go to the land of Canaan and they came to the land of Canaan” (12:5). A simple, obvious question on these verses is dealt with by many of the commentators: how did Avraham know where to go? The Torah does not record Hashem telling him his destination!
The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh suggests that although Hashem originally did not reveal the destination of Avraham's journey, it is “self-understood” that Hashem filled in this information once Avraham was on his way. However, by initially leaving His commandment vague and open-ended, God was increasing the challenge He presented to Avraham by asking him to travel to an unknown destination.
Additionally, Rashi explains that this was done to make the land of Israel more cherished in Avraham’s eyes and to give him reward for every step he takes. However, since Avraham immediately responded by heeding the words of Hashem, he passed the test and was told the destination.
The Sforno (biblical commentator who lived in Italy) takes an alternate approach. He does not assume that Hashem told Avraham where to go directly, but rather that Avraham figured it out on his own. The Sforno claims that Canaan was well known to the people of that time as a “land prepared for contemplation and the worship of God.” Therefore, it was the logical destination for Avraham after his encounter with God Himself.
Once Hashem appeared to Avraham again (verse 8), after he arrived in Shechem, and told him “to your seed I will give this land,” Avraham realised that he had indeed chosen the correct destination and he settled in that area.
A third explanation is offered by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, based on text of the Torah itself. At the end of parshas Noah, the Torah enigmatically tells us of the journey of Terach and his family (including Avraham) from Uhr Kasdim towards Canaan. However, this journey was never completed, as the pasuk states, “and they came as far as Haran and settled there” (11:31). There is no indication in the pesukim (verses) themselves as to the purpose of this journey or the reason for its abrupt ending. In fact, the entire journey fills only a single pasuk (verse), without any detail or explanation.
Rabbi Goldin suggests that Terach, a polytheist living in a culture of polytheism, was searching for a greater truth. He therefore strove to travel with his family to the “land prepared for contemplation and the worship of God,” as described by the Sforno, in order to explore these thoughts and ideas. However, he never reached his goal. While passing through Charan, Terach became distracted and ultimately settled there, deserting his desires to find a higher truth.
But Avraham stayed the course. He completed the journey. How did Avraham know where to go? Because he had already set off on this journey once before with his father and brothers, only to see it come to an end in Haran. Unlike his father, Avraham fully believed in the theology of monotheism, discovering the one true God and continuing on the mission to find and know Him.
The message to be learned from Avraham is clear. Success in life, in the pursuit of spirituality and ultimately a connection with God, does not depend only on a spark of inspiration, a moment of aspiration. True growth requires perseverance and persistence, vision and implementation. Many experience a spark but greatness is achieved by building the fire.