Here's a fantasy to indulge in. A lawyer knocks on your door and announces you've inherited a family estate you knew nothing about. The only thing standing between you and your landed fortune is proof of identity, which you gladly offer, and the inheritance becomes yours.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev notes that our parshah's story of Abraham is like that, but the other way around. In this case, God knocks on Abraham's tent flap and announces, "I have taken you out of Ur … to give you this land as an inheritance."
But God doesn't ask Abraham for his driver's license to prove who he is. Instead, it's Abraham who asks God for proof: "How do I know I am inheriting it?"
We normally inherit from our fathers, so Abraham wants to know if the land of Israel is not only a gift from God, but something that his father, Terach, also left him.
How could that be? Abraham abandoned everything his father stood for. Were a lawyer from Ur to appear with news that Terach left Abraham anything, we'd be very surprised; and what would it be, anyway, a bunch of idols?
Why does Abraham even care? The land is the land, a treasure. Take it and run.
Abraham's a convert, the first in our history. What other people has a convert as primal parent?
Apparently, conversion is something to be proud of. But, this convert, who left a home of rampant idolatry, has not forgotten his father. Abraham expects that even Terach has something to leave him, something tied up somehow in "the land."
God takes him seriously. It is God, after all, who employed the noun "inheritance" in the first place. We must imagine God's joy at finding Abraham attentive enough to notice.
So God offers proof — but a strange proof. "Your offspring will sojourn in a land that is not theirs. They will be oppressed, enslaved for 400 years, but after that they will leave."
How does that show Abraham that the land of Israel is connected to his father? Obviously, the land is not Terach's to give. So what does Abraham inherit from Terach that comes along with the land, and how does God's response allude to it?
Before answering the question, we need to know that the Talmud likens Abraham in Ur to the Israelites in Egypt. In fact, the Mishnah instructs us to begin our Seder with "an account of Israel's degradation."
"What degradation?" the Talmud wonders.
Samuel identifies it as Egyptian servitude. Not so, says Rav, his debate opponent. Servitude, for Rav, is the idolatry of Ur. The former is physical, the latter spiritual. But they are similar starts in life: Finding themselves estranged where they were, both Abraham and the Israelites had to trek through a wilderness to get to the place God intended.
Now, we understand God's response to Abraham. God explains that to fully appreciate the gift of the land, his descendents will first have to be estranged among idolaters, just as Abraham was. Abraham rightly concludes that what Terach bequeathed, unknowingly, was precisely this childhood estrangement, without which he, too, would never have sought out the land in the first place.
Terach's part of the inheritance was to provide the circumstances that led Abraham to move on and find it.
The Israelites, Abraham's heirs, will have the same growing up to do. Not being Abraham, they need Moses to lead them, but they, too, will have to mature sufficiently to choose their inheritance and travel to it.
Abraham's experience in Ur and the Israelites' encounter with Egypt are the spiritual inheritance of every generation. "The land" need not be real estate, per se. As many Chasidic teachers have insisted, it is wherever we need to go spiritually, if we are to inhabit the place God has in mind for us.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York.