|Perhaps the most significant existential question ever asked has been, what am I doing here; what significance does my life have? It will pursue you throughout life even if you don’t want to confront it. Did you ever look up from your desk and say, “what am I doing? Does my life have any purpose? I’m going to die one day and be forgotten; does any of this really matter?” Whether or not you believe in a Creator will affect your answer.
If G-d doesn’t exist, the thought process logically goes something like this. Why am I here? Life is an accident and so am I. On a simplistic level I can explain my existence is a result of my parents wanting to have children, but that doesn’t give me meaning. Ultimately, we are all just accidents and so are our parents, because life, after all, is one big accident. As such, I serve no purpose and will eventually be forgotten; in the grand scheme of things my life is utterly meaningless.
In this week’s Parsha, the alternative approach is presented. The expression, lech lecha, “go for yourself” is used only two times in the entire Torah. The first is when G-d instructs Abraham to leave the comfort and security of his home town and travel to an undisclosed place. The second is when he is given the directive to bring Isaac as an offering. Which “going” demonstrated greater dedication? In order to address this, we need to introduce an essential Jewish idea; no two people ever have the same exact mission or life’s purpose in this world.
The purpose of a soul’s decent into this world is to contribute something no one else can, and each of us is given precisely the circumstances we need to fulfill that mission. As such, a person isn’t randomly born, each has an intrinsic nature. Some are introverts, others extroverts. Some have a natural affinity for music while others are natural athletes. Some are, by nature, independent while others need constant reassurance. Some have a natural proclivity to share and be kind while others suffer from having an innate sense of narcissism, being critical or harboring resentments. These differences are meant to assist a person in completing his or her assigned task and the same holds for the circumstances we encounter regularly which force us to make choices in life. Some people become so bewildered with accepting life on life’s terms that they even complain about the way G-d runs the world; if it would be up to them, things wouldn’t be this way. The response to this way of thinking, even though it might not be emotionally soothing, is what G-d told Abraham. These challenges are “for your good; for your benefit.”
Life might not be going the way you would like, but the beauty of it is that your life has tremendous meaning because, although you didn’t ask for it, G-d might send you a special needs child, a schizophrenic or clinically OCD spouse. The business to whom you were loyal for decades is now bankrupt due to population and market shifts and you have to reinvent yourself at a time in life when you saw the light (of retirement) at the end of the tunnel but then suddenly realized that the light you saw were headlights of an oncoming train heading straight toward you!
The Almighty’s directive to Abraham repeats itself to every Jew. We are instructed to distance ourselves from our land, our birthplace, and our parents’ house in the sense that we must deal with life on life’s terms, not ours. For example, we don’t get to choose the family to which we will be born, and as angry as we are about it, we need to learn not only to deal with it, but to accept that G-d has placed us there because of something beneficial for us. A refrain heard often when supporting children and adults who have special needs siblings is “I was born into the wrong family.” According to what we are saying, it’s the polar opposite; you were especially chosen to be born into your family and be forced to deal with those challenges. The command lech lecha – “go for your own good” – instructs us that if we are to achieve our individual goals, the purpose for which we were created, we must escape the (seeming) limitations in which we find ourselves in the journey of life.
Abraham was told “go for yourself” (lech lecha) two times. In which case did Abraham demonstrate a greater commitment to his life’s mission? Sacrificing a son is far more difficult, but it was a onetime choice. However, the constant struggle against one’s own nature is constant; having to face life on life’s terms for decades shows a greater level of commitment. It’s the difference between a mother who risks her life to run into a burning building to save her child as opposed to the mother with a special needs child who commits decades of her life to her child in order to give him or her the best quality of life she can. The constant visits to doctors, therapists, pharmacies, special need programs, dealing with government bureaucracy, and the time spent petitioning for more public awareness is demanding and draining. A onetime sacrifice versus decades of life, which would you say takes greater commitment? The common denominator of both is that they are forms of lech lecha, going for one’s own good.The struggles of Avraham’s life teach us to constantly continue to move forward, and never give up, even amidst the most challenging times. Realize that who you are and where you find yourself is not accident. The more we consider this, the happier we will be because it gives you what all of us seek in life—meaning. [Sources: Bereishis Rabbah 39:9; Yesod HaAvodah ( Yahrtzeit 11 Marchesvan, 1804–1883) referenced in Nesivos Shalom I pp. 68-70]