One of the great Chassidic rebbes, accompanied by his disciples, once went to watch an acrobat attempt a dangerous feat: tightrope walking, with the cable suspended extraordinarily high off the ground. The rebbe watched the exhibition with tremendous concentration for an extended period of time as the tightrope walker risked his life. The students, for their part, were curiously puzzled as to why their beloved and venerated rebbe was spending so much time – time that they knew was extremely valuable to him – watching a circus spectacle.
“This man,” the rebbe rhetorically asked them, “walks on the tightrope for what purpose? Perhaps he is guaranteed a large sum of money by the organizers of the event. Maybe he’s looking for celebrity and notoriety instead of wealth and he believes that this will bring about his renown. But now – right now – as he walks so high above us, suspended as it were between heaven and earth, do you know what he’s thinking? He’s not fixated on the fame and fortune that await him. Right now, his focus is concentrated and fixated on one thing: successfully staying atop the rope and making it to the other side.”
The rebbe continued, “People are also walking in this world atop a very thin line, between that which is permitted and that which is forbidden, between that which is ethical and that which is not, a fine line between truth and anything other than the truth. His obligation is to carry out his life-mission with dedication and precision. He needs to be concerned about ‘making it to the other side.’ To carry out your duty in life requires a singled-minded determination; you must ignore the reward and praise that awaits you at the end of the road.”
Among the ten trials of Avraham was the trial of Lech Lecha: at the age of seventy-five to leave the land in which he was born, to abandon his father’s household with its false beliefs, and to travel to an unknown land. Unquestionably, this was an incredibly difficult task; however, the challenge is almost dwarfed in light of the promises that the Almighty made to him: “Go alone for yourself… to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation; I will bless you, and I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing…” Rashi, quoting our Sages, explains further:
As such, was it really such a trial? If the Almighty told you that all your dreams would come true if you would follow Him to His Chosen Land, how long would you hesitate? Where’s the “trial” for Avraham, when he’s told about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, offers a fascinating insight into Avraham’s behavior. It’s true, the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh writes, that Avraham was promised fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams; however, the real test was seeing why Avraham would go to the Promised Land? Would Avraham go to bring about the fulfillment of all the Divine promises? Or would he go to Eretz Yisrael simply because that was what he had been commanded to do by the Almighty?
What does the Torah teach us? “So Avram went as Hashem had spoken to him…” The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh elaborates: “With this [statement], the Torah [itself] testifies as to the righteousness of Avraham, for his travel was not for the aforementioned promises; rather, it was [simply] to fulfill the will of Hashem.” The fruition and fulfillment of the Almighty’s guarantees were meaningless to him; all he wanted to do was what God wanted him to do.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, as well, makes a similar observation:
In contrast, the Torah says (in the continuation of the verse), “and Lot went with him. And Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Charan.” Lot joined Avraham on his journey to the Land of Israel; however, Lot’s expedition was unlike Avraham’s. Whereas Avraham had no intention other than fulfilling the commandment of God, Lot’s motivation was slightly less l’sheim Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven). The Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, writes, “[Lot] didn’t go in order to separate himself from his father’s household; on the contrary, he went [solely] because he didn’t want to leave Avraham.” Perhaps Lot was driven to go along with his uncle because “Avram was seventy-five years old,” childless, and who would inherit his estate, if not his beloved nephew Lot?
While we’re clearly cognizant that we cannot give anything to God – He doesn’t need or lack anything and He is not dependent upon us in any way – perhaps our Torah study and mitzvah-observance reflects our desire that God repay us for our “self-sacrifice.” Such an attitude, though, is anything but ideal. As the Rambam writes, “One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the mitzvos… not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true, and ultimately, good will come because of it.” Focus on the tightrope and “good will come because of it.”