10/21/2013 01:52 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2013

The Land That I Will Show You

The Mishna says that we are born against our will. To me, this is a fascinating claim, for it presumes (negative) preference prior to birth. It is also an understandable approach. If we imagine that a soul is living a reality of absolute awareness of its creator, and then needs to leave and inhabit a physical body, there could be some push back.

On the other hand, though, every descent must be for a subsequently greater ascent.

This conflict is core to the Jewish belief system. In the book of Bereishis (Genesis), Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people, is called by G-d and told to "go for yourself, from your land, and from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you."

Why would G-d do this? Was there something better about "the land that I will show you" than the land which he was already living in? The Alter Rebbe notes that the Hebrew word for "your land" is related to the word for "your will/desire". As such, the verse would read "go for yourself from your desires... to the desires that I will show you."In other words, the request here is to check your own desires for something grander.

This is much easier said than done. So G-d continues, "... from your birthplace." Leave your natural inclinations, and even "from your father's house." Fathers and mothers are the first teachers of a child. It is frequently they who teach manners and mannerisms, etiquette and knowledge, right and wrong. And G-d tells Abraham to leave all of that.

Abraham listens. He leaves everything he knows behind. He leaves his parents, friends, family, to reach this new land. One would be forgiven for thinking that the land which G-d leads him to is going to be a really fertile place.

Nope. In the beginning, Abraham experiences a famine and needs to leave. When he returns, there are fights with the local shepherds over water rights. It's only after a significant expenditure of time and effort that Abraham finally begins to see both spiritual and material success.

Throughout it all, Abraham never questions or complains. It is obvious to him that if G-d is sending him on a journey, then the end result must be greater than the starting point. And it also makes sense to him that it will not be immediate or automatic. He just keeps on thinking about what it is that G-d wants from him. That is his only concern. And eventually he gets there.

There are many possible lessons from this story. What lesson might you take from this?