Avraham spoke to God many times without incident. But just one time, in the conversation where God instruction Avraham to leave his birthplace, something unusual happens:
וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham fell on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)
Avraham recoils as though he were burned. This sort of reaction to God’s presence is unique – nothing like this happens any other time.
What made Avraham fall?
In this conversation, Avraham got a glimpse of the future in store for his descendants, a covenant marked by the sign of circumcision.
R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that before something is required, there is no deficiency for not complying. But once the obligation exists, we are liable. Avraham didn’t have to circumcise himself before God told him – how could he know? But the very moment God gave the instruction, Avraham was physically defective and literally could not stand in God’s presence in such a state.
R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.
The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of.
But improvement is gradual and incremental. So long as you are not ready for more, it’s not your fault you’re not there yet.
But when the moment arrives that you can do more, and remain content to stay put, the burden counts against you – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.
Yes, chase more responsibility, learn more, and demand a higher standard of yourself. But the moral life is a marathon, not a sprint. One step at a time is an effective strategy too.
Don’t run before you can walk.