To the Land

And God said to Abram, "Go out from your country, from the place of your birth and upbringing and from your father's house to the Land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1)

To the Land / The House and the Mountain / The Master of Prayer

Abraham could no longer remain in Nimrod's kingdom. He was being called. How exactly Abraham experienced God's call we cannot know. But it was an experience that had the absolute certainty that is the mark of true prophecy.

To attain his destiny, Abraham had to abandon not only his physical place of birth but the entire civilization and culture he had grown up in. He had to leave his father Terach's house. For as the house of an idolater -- one who worshipped intermediate powers and man-made objects -- this house could not serve as a model for the House whose foundations Abraham now had to lay in order to rectify creation, namely the Holy Temple that would be built as the centerpiece of the Land to which he was journeying.

Abraham was not merely moving to a more congenial alternative location. "And God said to Abram, Go -- Lech Lecha": the Hebrew phrase literally means: "Go to yourself". Abraham's journey was into inner space -- the world of spirit.

Yet it was at the same time most definitely a journey to an actual physical territory -- the Land of Israel. For the spiritual teaching that Abraham brought to the world was not to retreat to some fantasy heaven detached from eating and drinking, making a living, having a family and other earthly realities. Abraham's mission was to show that the Living God is found in and through the practical details of everyday life just as much as in the outer reaches of the cosmos and the heights of the spirit.

Abraham's teaching had to be lived in an actual country where real people with practical needs and problems would submit to a set of rules and guidelines that would be applied in real, everyday life. This would demonstrate to the world that when we strive to bring God and spirit into the tiniest practical details of our lives, this brings the highest blessings to ourselves and to the entire world. Abraham would "command his children and his household after him to keep the way of HaVaYaH, to practice charity and justice" (Genesis 18:16).

The House and the Mountain

It would be inappropriate to categorize Abraham and the other founding fathers, Isaac and Jacob, as "nature-lovers," "environmentalists" and the like. Yet their lives and example are of profound significance as we seek to understand Judaic teachings about how to relate to nature and the environment.

The essential mission of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to rectify Adam's sin of "eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil". This had left in humanity a deeply-ingrained attitudinal flaw that makes people view this world as merely a playground for pleasure and enjoyment rather than as the springboard for spiritual ascent. Reckless pursuit of personal gratification leads to the relentless self-seeking of a Nimrod. This must lead sooner or later to the destruction of human life on earth. Today we indeed see that our future is threatened precisely because of the environmental destruction being wrought through greed, excess and waste.

In order for humanity to survive and attain our exalted spiritual destiny, this attitudinal flaw has to be rectified in the actual lives of real people. In order to live, we have no option but to eat and consume other natural resources provided by the earth. The question is how we will do this: wisely and carefully, or greedily and foolishly? It is human nature to join together socially and organize cooperatively in order better to exploit the environment and provide more effectively for our needs and desires. How can our societies go about satisfying everyone's needs without letting people's greed destroy us all?

Human life centers on houses -- the buildings, buildings and more buildings that make up our cities. It is therefore primarily within the house, the home and our other buildings that we -- as individuals and as members of families and other social groups -- have to rectify the basic flaw of putting all the focus on material consumption rather than on spiritual growth.

Accordingly it was Jacob who completed the founding fathers' preparations for the ultimate rectification of this basic attitudinal flaw. For it was Jacob who taught the world the concept of the Temple as a House. The Holy Temple is to serve as the prototype of the rectified, sanctified house -- the house that will be a healthy unit in a viable urban civilization -- a place in which people's activities are organized in a way that enables them to fulfil themselves and satisfy their various needs in full harmony with God, with nature and with each other.

Various aspects of the Holy Temple correspond to a human house and home. The sacrificial altar upon which animal and vegetable offerings are brought corresponds to the table at which we eat our meals. The inner chambers of the Temple and especially the Holy of Holies correspond to the intimate spaces in our homes that we use for interacting with each other or being by ourselves.

The Temple -- the rectified, holy House -- was and is thus destined to be the showpiece of the country promised to Abraham and his descendants in order to establish an exemplary society of humans living in perfect harmony with God, nature and each other.

Yet for Abraham the vision was still a Mountain. In order to lay the foundation for the rectified House that Jacob was to build, Abraham first had to go out of the house -- away from civilization -- to the Mountain.

"And he moved from there towards the mountain -- this was east of [literally 'before'] Beth El, the 'House of God'... and he built there an altar to HaVaYaH and he prayed in the name of HaVaYaH" (Genesis 12:8).

All his life, Abraham was constantly journeying steadily closer to his Mountain -- the summit of personal spiritual perfection. And this very journey was quite literally a journey towards the actual Temple Mount. It was there that Abraham was to face the supreme test of his life when God told him to sacrifice his son. There he instituted for all time the concept of sacrifice -- setting aside personal gratification in order to serve a higher spiritual purpose.

But in order to reach this Mountain where the rectified House -- the Holy Temple -- would be built, Abraham first had to go away from houses, towns and cities. Abraham left his father's house, rejecting the city civilization of his time with its accompanying vice and corruption.

For most of his long life, Abraham was very much an outdoor person. He lived in tents. Even when recovering from circumcision at the age of ninety-nine, Abraham wanted to be outside: he sits at the door of his tent in the heat of the day (Genesis 18:1). He entertains his angelic guests outside under a tree. Abraham's preferred place to live was out in the wilderness -- the place of vision-quest and prophecy. Abraham's prophecies clearly came to him out in the open -- in deserts, on mountains, under the canopy of the stars, in wild places where birds of pray would swoop down trying to snatch his sacrifices.

Of necessity Abraham had first to separate himself from human society and retreat to raw nature in order to rediscover the Creator. Only by first reconnecting with the Creator in and through nature would it be possible to establish a true foundation upon which to build a rectified man-made society through which humanity will attain its destiny.

As a traveler, a tent-dweller and a sojourner, Abraham well knew that essentially all of us are strangers and travelers in this world. We are visitors dependent upon the hospitality and kindness of God. The visitor understands that not everything in the world is mine to use or destroy just as I please. Things have owners. The stranger is grateful when people share what they have with him. He appreciates the importance of doing the same for others, thereby participating in the divine quality of kindness and generosity that flows through the entire creation.

Thus Abraham provided for others. He dug wells in order to provide pure waters to quench people's thirst (Genesis 21:25-32; ibid. 26:15ff.). He "planted the ESheL [a tree or an orchard] in Ber Sheva, and he called there on the Name of HaVaYaH El Olam, God, Power of the Universe" (Genesis 21:23). Abraham's efforts in environmental maintenance -- developing water resources and planting trees -- were part of his teaching to humanity that nature and its resources are gifts of God. We are responsible to develop and cultivate them. And these are gifts over which it is fitting to call upon His Name and pray!

The Master of Prayer

Abraham sought to draw others after him out of false-consciousness associated with life in the man-made environment of the city. In the words of Rebbe Nachman:

Abraham would come into a city and run about crying, "Woe! Woe!" and people would run after him the way they chase a madman. He would argue with them at length, trying to show them they were all caught up in a profoundly mistaken way of thinking. He was quite familiar with all the arguments and rationalizations they used to justify their idolatry. He used to demonstrate the falsity of their ideas and reveal the truths of faith. Some of the young people were attracted to him. He never even tried to draw older people closer because they were already firmly entrenched in their false beliefs and it would have been very hard to get them to change. It was the younger people who were drawn after him: they ran after him. He would go from city to city and they would run after him....

(Tzaddik #395)

The picture of Abraham presented here by Rebbe Nachman is reminiscent of the hero of the Rebbe's story of "The Master of Prayer". The Master of Prayer was a mystic who deliberately took himself away from cities and other places of human habitation in order to commune with God.

Once there was a Master of Prayer. He was constantly engaged in prayer and singing songs and praises to God. He lived away from civilization. But he would visit inhabited areas regularly and spend time with people -- usually those of low status, such as the poor. He would have heart to heart discussions with them, speaking about the purpose of life. He would explain that the only true goal is to serve God every day of your life, spending your days praising and singing to God.

He would speak to someone at great length, motivating him. His words entered the other's heart, and the person would join him. As soon as the person agreed with him, he would take him and bring him to his place away from civilization.

For the Master of Prayer had chosen for himself a place far from human habitation. A river flowed there, and there were fruit trees whose fruit he and his followers would eat. He was not at all concerned about the clothes people wore.

The Master of Prayer's way was to visit inhabited areas and spread his ideas, convincing people to emulate him, serving God and constantly praying. Whenever people wanted to join him, he would take them to his place away from civilization, where their only activities would be praying, singing praise to God, confession, fasting, self-mortification, repentance and similar occupations. He would give them his books of meditations, prayers, songs, praises and confessions, and they would occupy themselves with them at all times.

Among the people he brought there, he would find some who had the ability to lead others to serve God. He would allow such individuals to visit inhabited places and also bring people to serve God. This way the Master of Prayer constantly spread his teachings. He constantly attracted people and took them away from civilization....

The Master of Prayer and his men lived far away from civilization. They would spend their time engaged only in prayer, song, praise to God, confession, fasting, self-mortification and repentance. For the people he attracted to God, fasting and self-discipline were better and more precious than all worldly enjoyment. They would have greater pleasure from fasting or self-discipline than from all worldly pleasures.

"The Master of Prayer", Rabbi Nachman's Stories pp. 279ff.

The ensuing lengthy story of how the Master of Prayer set about rectifying the "Country of Wealth" can be seen as Rebbe Nachman's parable about the overall rectification of human society that started when Abraham abandoned the city civilization of his day and set off on his journey to the Land.

It is noteworthy that for the Master of Prayer, as we have seen in the above brief extract, one of the first steps in redeeming people from the false consciousness engendered by the city was to take them out to his place amidst nature. For it can be easier to find God amidst natural, God-created surroundings than in the man-constructed city environment.



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