Avraham and Hashem spoke many times. We find that after the instruction to leave his birthplace, something happens that never happened before:
וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹ-ים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham fell on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)
Avraham learns a glimpse of the future; marked by the sign of the covenant of circumcision.
Avraham stumbles in recoil, as though he were burned. The stumble is unique to this command – Avraham doesn’t fall over at any other time Hashem speaks to him. Why had it never happened before?
Why had it never happened before?
R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that until a command is delivered, there is no counter-deficiency in not complying. But once he received such an instruction,he was defective, and literally could not stand in God’s presence in such a state.
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.
The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less that absolute, perfect dedication and diligent moral consciousness. Yet the standard of absolute perfection is a long way away from anything less than that, and perhaps out of reach as well. It’s a big leap to make.
But improvements can be gradual and incremental. So long as a person is not ready to for more responsibility, it doesn’t count against them – it’s perfectly reasonable to not be ready.
But when the moment arrives that they are ready, yet they are content to stay put, the burden counts against them – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.
Always chase more responsibility, and demand a higher standard of yourself. Moral consciousness is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t run before you can walk. One step at a time is an effective strategy.
Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham is the immense challenge to abandon all he grew up with:
לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the house of your father, to the land which I will show you”. (12:1)
The sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave your home, then the neighborhood, and only then the country. Why does the story focuses on where is to leave, rather than where he is to go, and in a strange order?The Nesivos Shalom explains that Hashem’s actual command to Avraham was that he discard the negative characteristics endemic to these places. Our environment is instrumental to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have.
The Nesivos Shalom explains that the essence of the command was to discard the negative influences he was exposed to in these environments. He was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision.
The circles of our environments are central to our development. The closer the circle, the greater the effect of exposure.
The home environment is more influential than a neighbourhood, which itself is more influential than a country. The easiest to discard is the place. It’s harder to transcend where you come from. And it’s hardest to forget what you learnt from home.
The Sfas Emes explains that a mark of great people is to actively seek challenges and opportunities that test their qualities. Avram was the first person to intuitively understand the vision of moral consciousness humanity could exhibit. But he’d have to show it, and that couldn’t happen in the stagnant place he grew up.
Who and what we surround ourselves with have a key influence on our development. We need to actively make sure that they are good influences.