Monday, October 7, 2013

Staying the Course (Portion Lech L'chah)

The difference between success and failure often comes down to spiritual and psychological strength.

At the end of last week's Torah portion, Abraham's father, Terach, sets out from his home in Ur-Kasdim to move his family to the land of Israel.  However, halfway to his intended destination, he settles in Haran.

This week, in portion Lech L'chah, Abraham completes the voyage.  We read: "Abraham took his wife Sarai. . . and they left to go to the land of Canaan--and they came to the land of Canaan."
He leaves--and arrives.

The contrast between the journeys of Abraham and Terach raises an important question: what factors allow the son to succeed where his father failed?  The commentator Ovadiah Sforno tells us that the difference between Abraham and Terach does not lie in their abilities as travelers.  Both were adept and courageous.  But, notes Sforno, Abraham was distinguished by his commitment: "Terach left Ur-Kasdim fully expecting to reach Israel, but the perils of the journey proved too great.  But Abraham, at the very outset, was fortified with a greater level of dedication to his goal, which proved to be the key to his success.  Outwardly, their departures were identical.  But inwardly, Abraham left with a fiery zeal that eventually made the difference months and years later."

I learned this lesson twenty-five years ago, when I spent six weeks backpacking on the Appalachian Trail.  I met many thru-hikers along the way, all seeking to complete the six-month, 2100 mile trek from Georgia to Maine.  I saw some go on to finish the task (long after I ended my much-shorter hike) and watched as others dropped out early--and I noticed that the ones who endured were not necessarily those in the best physical shape.  Some incredibly fit people in their twenties gave up, while others, in their sixties and not in top condition, would make it to the finish.  I learned that attitude--determination, persistence and resilience--mattered more than age and conditioning.

Now, as our fall holy days recede into the past, the challenge facing all of us is to persist on the path of teshuvah that we embarked upon at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  Starting is relatively easy; finishing is hard.  This is where we must muster all of our spiritual and psychological resources to carry on.  As the classic Mussar collection, The Majesty of Man, teaches, pursuing our undertakings "with a powerful desire to complete them can spell the difference between the unfulfilled aspirations of a Terach and the satisfaction and success of an Abraham."  May we follow in the footsteps of Abraham.

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