Perhaps the Western world’s most common experience when attempting contact with an entity greater than ourselves is the dreaded phrase: “Your call is very important to us.” In these words, all too often, is a sentiment that simply does not inform the painful experience that follows—a seemingly endless holding period before there is even a semblance of a chance of anything we might recognize as customer service. These days, when we do receive attention immediately, we are often shocked and surprised.
It was not quite this way in the ancient world. Certain great individuals actuallyreceived calls initiated by a greater entity, and this week we encounter the first call to a founder of the Jewish people, Abram.
In Genesis 12:1–3, we find the earliest indication of God speaking to Abram. The Torah narrates God’s first command to him thus:
The Eternal One said to Abram:
“Go forth from your land,
your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and it shall be a blessing I will bless those who bless you,
and I will pronounce doom on those who curse you;
through you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Rabbi Menahem Recanati, an Italian Torah commentator (late thirteenth to early fourteenth century) with a decidedly mystical bent, explained this verse this way:
“Abraham our ancestor, peace be upon him, was born on the other side of the river, as it is said (Joshua 24:2): ‘In olden times, your ancestors were settled on the other side of the river . . . ’ God uprooted Abraham from the place he was planted and planted him in an internal place, in Eretz Yisrael, for there blessings could fall upon him” (Commentary of Rabbi Menahem Recanati on Genesis 12:1, s.v. vayomer[Jerusalem: Machon Zichron Aharon, 2000]).
According to Recanati, the call to Abram was, in essence, a call for him to uproot his life—both physical and internal—and move on. Abram, settled comfortably in his place of origin across the river, was static, but God needed to uproot him so he could become dynamic—to change and renew and innovate.
The individual words of the call to Abram stress this in no uncertain terms. Consider what the Torah notes Abram is leaving behind: his land, his birthplace, and his father’s home. To live in a “land” is to know it—its commitments, its strengths and weaknesses, its customs, its symbols, and its people. Travel to another culture quite different from your own, and you know the feeling of refreshing strangeness and wonder, but also of serious discomfort and major disorientation that accompany such a transition. It takes years to feel at home in a new land, and even those who make such a transition successfully speak of it as extremely stressful.
The word “birthplace” intensifies for the reader the great feeling of alienation Abram experienced, for no new land can ever fully replace one’s birthplace. In an ancient context, one’s birthplace was the place of parents and grandparents, and came with a certain familial status affiliated with it. In your birthplace, you knew the layout of the town, the clan power structure, how the crops worked, whom to trust, and whom to avoid. Leaving a birthplace behind rendered a person disconnected and powerless, without a clear picture of how to live life in a strange and different cultural milieu.
Finally, what greater symbol of comfort and protection could there be than one’s “father’s home,” (or in more modern parlance, one’s home of origin) with its well-known relationships, rules, and protection? But Abram had to leave even this behind to face a new and unknown set of relationships, and build a new home himself without any support from his family. This was a tall order, and required him to look inward for the strength to create and innovate a new life for himself.
For all these losses, what was it that God promised Abram? God will (eventually) show him a new land, make him a mighty people, bless him and magnify his name—and he will be a blessing. God will bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him, and will make him a source of blessing for all the families of the earth. These blessings are, surely, all quite poetic and desirable. And yet, they are nonspecific in the extreme. For the many highly specific losses God has just asked Abram to inflict on himself, the benefits are remarkably under-defined.
Abram’s call, then, is a call to depart the standard way of life, to uproot his settled life, to innovate, to take risks, and to try something new. God asks him to set out on a journey where he does not know its end and can only hope it will result in concrete blessings. And in his risking everything, Abram is able to move beyond where he might have stayed in his life and establish a people that still lives on thousands of years after his death. Without his willingness to risk everything, we would not be a people today. And ironically, through becoming uprooted, Abram loses one kind of settledness only to find a greater, more long-lasting sort of permanence.
Contrast this with another first call to leadership, God’s call to Moses in Exodus 3. At this point in Moses’s life, he is about as un-“settled” as one can be. He begins his journey as a discarded infant, floating alone on a tiny basket in the Nile; he stays in Pharaoh’s home, but has to flee when he kills an Egyptian overseer torturing an Israelite; it is then that he becomes a full nomad, moving with his flock ceaselessly from place to place. Only when Moses is so far out of civilization in the desert that he is all alone, is ready to hear God’s call to him. It is then that we read (3:2–6):
An angel of the Eternal appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush.
He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.
Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight;
Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”
When the Eternal saw that he had turned aside to look,
God called to him out of the bush,
He answered, “Here I am.”
And [God] said, “Do not come closer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place on which you stand is holy ground!”
“I am the God of your ancestors—
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Note the astounding difference between Moses’s call and Abram’s. While settled Abram must pick himself up, disconnect himself from what surrounds him, and set out on a new path; Moses, who has not stopped moving in years, has to slow down and connect with what is around him. Though fire normally moves constantly, jumping from bush to bush to light a greater blaze and eventually burning, this fire is different—rooted in the ground and not moving on or dying. And once Moses first indicates his attention by saying Hineini, (“Here I am”),
God’s first call to him is to cease his movement (“Do not come closer!”) and remove the very things he most needs to continue his constant motion—his shoes. It is only after Moses has stopped his movement, and noticed the sacred ground beneath him, that God can add the final point that fully roots him back into his tradition: “I am the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Moses’s call, then, is a call to settle down, to cease running, to return to and maintain a tradition handed down to him over the generations. God wants him to stop moving so quickly, to see what the world around him has to offer, and to recognize holiness before it burns itself out without his noticing. Moses, the ultimate nomad, needs to stop and smell the roses, and through this action, he, too, can activate his covenant with God and ultimately save the Jewish people.
All of us have moments when we need to heed the call of Abram: to run farther, to uproot what is too settled, to innovate and embrace what is new, scary, and exciting. And all of us also have moments when we need to heed the call of Moses: to stop running, to recognize what is sacred right there next to us, to kick off our shoes and revel in all the good that has been handed down to us from generations before. Even our synagogues and institutions face this bifurcated call on a regular basis. Our tradition has always balanced such dual poles: valuing creative innovation, and at the same time treasuring inherited tradition. And unlike with customer service, both these calls are, indeed, very important to us.
Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, Ph.D., teaches Rabbinic and Second Temple literature at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.