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Why Avraham?

Rav Ezra Bick


     In this course, we will be concentrating, for the most part, on the midrashim in the Midrash Rabba that concern the life of the avot, the patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaacov, and the matriarchs, Sara, Rivka, Rachel, and Lea.  Some of these midrashim will be concerned primarily with the narrative "pshat," interpreting the story itself, and some will be concerned primarily with the ideological premises and conclusions of the narrative.  The first kind would place this course in the Tanakh department, while the second kind would locate it in the Jewish philosophy department.  Since departments in the VBM are less than virtual, I do not have to actually worry about that problem.  Actually, I suspect that a great many of the midrashim that we will discuss belong in both categories.


  1. Master of the House


     Today we shall conveniently start at the beginning, the first midrash of parashat Lekh-Lekha.


God spoke to Avraham: Go you from your land ….  R. Yitzchak began… This may be compared to one who was travelling from place to place, and he saw a burning mansion.  He said: Is it possible that this mansion is without someone responsible? The owner of the mansion looked out at him and said: I am the master of the mansion. 

So, was our father Avraham saying: Is it possible that the world is without someone responsible? God looked out at him and said: I am the master of the world.  (Midrash Rabba 39,1)


     The first question we have to ask is: what is this midrash doing here? How is it connected to the opening verse cited at the beginning.  The answer is clear.  The verse says that God spoke to Avraham.  The midrash says that God said to Avraham, "I am the master of the world." The midrash is clearly trying to provide an underlying meaning to the statement of the Torah that God spoke to Avraham.  It is true that God told Avraham to go to "the land I shall show you." The midrash is saying that beyond the particular command God has given Avraham in this statement, it is essentially equivalent to an announcement – I am Here, I am the master of the world.


     But there is a prior question that must be asked.  Why does the midrash make this claim? What, in fact is the midrash trying to explain? The crux of the midrash appears to be not so much God's answer as Avraham's question – Is it possible that no one is responsible for the world? Why does the midrash place this question in Avraham's mouth?


     I believe the midrash is trying to answer a simple and pressing textual question.  Our parasha begins abruptly with God speaking to Avraham? The question that concerns the midrash is why, why Avraham? Why after so many years of apparent alienation and lack of communication between Man and God does God suddenly speak to Avraham.  Nothing in the few verses at the end of the previous parasha of Noach, which discuss Avraham's birth indicates that there is anything special about this individual.  The midrash wants to know what was it about Avraham that led God to speak to him.


     The answer of the midrash is, even before analyzing the details, a very interesting one.  God spoke to Avraham because Avraham spoke to God.  Avraham searched and found God, and therefore God CONFIRMED Avraham's conclusion.  Is it possible that there is no one responsible for this world, Avraham asks?  In light of that question, God cannot remain silent, and so, He peers out from the hidden recesses where He has been "hiding" and discloses Himself – I am the master of the world.


     This sets a pattern, which the midrash will trace many times in the life of Avraham.  God does not disclose to Avraham what he has not already more or less concluded on his own.  Avraham reaches out to God and then God confirms what Avraham has discovered.  I will, if time permits, cite one other example of this before concluding this shiur.


     The important question now is: Just what sort of discovery has Avraham made? The question asked – is it possible that there is no master to this mansion? – arises from what type of investigation, what kind of personality?



  1. Moralist or Metaphysician?


Many of us remember from childhood the midrash that describes how the young Avraham searched the world for the supreme power, and first worshipped the moon, as queen of the night.  Then, seeing how the sun banished the moon, he transferred his allegiance to the sun and worshipped it all day.  But when, at the end of that day, the sun set and the moon and stars returned, he concluded that there must be a power above the celestial objects, and so, from step to step, he finally discovered God.  This midrash is cited by the Rambam in the Yad Ha-Chazaka (Hilkhot Avoda Zara 1,3; see also The Guide to the Perplexed 2,19 and 1,63) as an example of what the Rambam considers to be the proper way for Man to know God – in other words, Avraham was a sort of philosopher who logically discovered God by analyzing causation within nature. 


(This midrash describing Avraham as examining the sun and moon is found in the Midrash Ha-Gadol, Bereishit 11,28.  A similar story is recounted in the Yalkut Shimoni in the context of a dispute between Avraham and the wicked idolatrous king Nimrod, who worships fire, which Avraham counters with water, which is carried by the clouds, which are dispersed by the wind, etc. Neither of these stories is found in the Midrash Rabba).


I think that the midrash we are examining from Bereishit Rabba tells a different story.  In order to understand the picture of Avraham depicted by the midrash, we must understand the parable, the story told first.  (As we shall see many times in the future, the use of a "mashal," a parable, to illustrate a point, is a favorite method of the midrash).  A man is travelling from place to place and sees a burning mansion.  He asks, in wonder, can it be that there is no one in charge of this mansion? How does this story apply to Avraham?  The midrash, in my opinion, is claiming that Avraham searched for God not in the realm of the metaphysic, but in the moral.  He is travelling from place to place (as we have been told in the conclusion of parashat Noach) and sees the world aflame, injustice rampant, without any attempt to impose order or justice.  His soul cries out – can this be the true state of affairs, a house in flames without anyone in charge, no one to put out the fire?


     In other words, the burning mansion = the world.  "Burning" = disorder, falling apart, and, most importantly, a loss of purpose and even the ability to fulfill that purpose.  The owner of the house = not only an owner, but the man who should be concerned about the fire and whose apparent absence, or more particularly, complaisance, is striking and amazing to the traveler.  In the case of the world, Avraham is searching for an owner who will put out the fire, someone who is not only capable of doing so – that is obvious to Avraham, but will also shoulder the responsibility to do so, for it is clear to Avraham that the "owner" should not abandon his "house."


     If this is correct, the character of Avraham that singled him out from all mankind was moral, not merely his high moral standards in his personal life, but his demand that the world reflect morality and law and justice.  It is not so much that Avraham is kind and generous, as the fact that he cannot accept that the entire world should not fulfill those same qualities.  The question, "Is it possible that the world is without someone responsible?" should not be read as a theoretical query, but as at least half a challenge, aimed at the God he knows is there but who appears to have abandoned the world.  This quality, the readiness to challenge injustice, to force justice to come to the fore, is what made Avraham unique.  Since this is the basis for the history of the Jewish people and the history of Divine intervention in the world, of the entire story of Torah and redemption, it places morality and the elevation of morality above all endeavors of this world, at the heart of our very existence.


     This interpretation is borne out strikingly by another midrash a little later in the Bereishit Rabba.


 R. Azaria in the name of R. Acha began: "You loved righteousness and hated evil; THEREFORE God your God has anointed you with oil of joy above all your fellows" (Psalms 45,8).  R. Azaria explicated this verse in relation to Avraham.  When Avraham our father stood to plead for mercy for Sodom, what is written? – "Far be it from you to do this thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked" (Bereishit 18).  R. Acha said: (Avraham argued) You have sworn that You will not bring a flood on the world, so why are you being deceptive with Your oath? A flood of water You will not bring but a flood of fire You will bring?!? If so, You have not fulfilled Your oath!

R. Levi said: "Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?" (ibid).  If you desire the existence of the world then there cannot be judgement, but if you desire judgement, then there can be no world.  How can You grasp the rope from both ends?!? You want both a world and judgement.  Pick one of them; but if You do not relent a little, the world cannot endure.

God said to Avraham: You have loved justice and hated evil… above all your fellows. 

Who are "your fellows?" From Noach until you have passed ten generations; but I spoke with none of them except for you.  (BR 39,6).


     There are two things to notice here.  First is the verse, which serves as the cover-text for this midrash.  "You loved righteousness and hated evil; THEREFORE God your God has anointed you with oil of joy above all your fellows."  This verse states explicitly (once you accept that it is speaking about Avraham) that God chose him because of his moral qualities, specifically his unswerving identification with righteousness.  Secondly, what is the prime example of this identification? Of course, the actual story of Avraham and Sodom took place many years after God initially spoke to him.  The midrash intends this as an example of Avraham's basic attitude.  The moral traits that Avraham exhibited at Sodom were the qualities that made him stand out "above all his fellows." As the example makes clear, Avraham was willing to challenge God in His role as "judge of all the world." Avraham takes responsibility for the moral existence of the world, and presumes to give God advice on how to run it.  The first explanation of Avraham's argument to God (R. Acha) is even more striking than the second.  Avraham accuses God of deception! And this trait is precisely the reason why God chooses him above all others in ten generations. 


     [The midrash gives two different interpretations of Avraham's statement to God concerning Sodom.  They represent two very different kinds of arguments.  I leave it to you to explicate the difference.  The question you should answer – and I will be happy to hear from anyone in writing – is, what is the logical AND moral difference between R. Acha's interpretation and R. Levi's.  Eventually, when we get to the Sodom episode, we will return to this midrash].


  1. I am the owner of the world


What is the connection between the answer of God to Avraham's question in the midrash, and the verse to which this midrash refers?


The midrash is commenting on the first verse of parashat Lekh-lekha.  "God spoke to Avraham, Take yourself from your land, and from your birthplace, and from the house of your father, to the land that I shall show you." The question that the midrash is answering is, as I explained above, why? Why does God address Avraham specifically.  We have seen the answer.  But the parable of the midrash continues.  If Avraham's life prior to this episode is the question, Is it possible that the world is without someone responsible?, then God's answer – which we know is "lekh lekha," Go! – is the equivalent of the answer in the midrash, "I am the master of the world.  How is this so?


The answer is that Avraham's question is a demand for a world ordered according to the principles of justice and righteousness.  He wants to know why the Master is not doing something, not intervening.  God answers that he is intervening! How? By telling Avraham to begin the journey into the unknown, the journey towards the Land of Israel, towards peoplehood, towards Torah.  God's supervision over the world, which Avraham complains is absent, will be found within the long development of Jewish history.  By starting Avraham on his journey, God is once again asserting His mastery over the world, albeit in an indirect and drawn-out manner.  Justice is, in fact, seriously impaired in this world, and God accepts responsibility for that fact, as He is the master of the world, and, as Avraham later exclaims, the judge of all the earth.  But He chooses to correct that situation not by a show of force, a revelation of His might and power, but through Jewish history, through the actions of men who will fulfill Torah.  In this world, God will be present and in control through Torah, through humans striving to improve the world.  Why God chooses such a laborious and ultimately incomplete method is the mystery of creation and of the election of the Jews.  We know the outline of the answer – it is a basic principle of Judaism.  The world was created so that man should redeem it and himself.  The world can be perfected, but this will not take place by divine fiat but by the actions of man, guided by revelation (Torah), aided by Providence, stumbling on the way, falling and rising.  The Torah is not about a state of perfection but the path to it, a journey (lekh lekha).  Jewish history, the continuation of Avraham's journey to "a land that I will show you," is the PROCESS of the perfection of the world and the establishment of justice on it.


There is one more midrash I would like to examine, closely related to the last point, and immediately following our original midrash in the Bereishit Rabba.


"God spoke to Avraham" – R. Brechiya began: We have a little sister (achot) and she does not have breasts (Song of Songs 8,8).  We have a little "achot" – this refers to Avraham, who "stitched together" (icha) all people of the earth.  Bar Kapra said: Like one who stitches together a tear.  (39,3)


In a short succinct phrase, the midrash summarizes Avraham's life-accomplishment.  He has repaired the "tear." What tear is that? Obviously the tear in the fabric of the world between mankind and God.  Avraham has perceived that God, the master of the house, is absent.  His very question to God is the answer (or least the beginning of the process of the answer).  By searching for God, God is found.  God's answer to the demand for justice is a command, a charge to Avraham to begin creating it.  Avraham is the stitch that repairs the tear.



  1. Note


To be honest, the original midrash that all this was based on, the burning house, can be interpreted differently.  To be more exact, it can be TRANSLATED differently.  The phrase that I translated as burning mansion, "bira doleket," could also be translated as "lit-up mansion." If that is correct, the meaning of the parable is completely different.  The world, in Avraham's eyes, is not a disordered, unjust one, crying out for intervention, but the exact opposite, an ordered, purposeful, designed phenomenon.  This midrash than becomes one of the earliest examples of what was called in the Middle Ages "the argument from design." If one passes a house with the lights on, one can justifiably conclude that someone lives there.  Were the house dark and unattended, we would rightly conclude that it is abandoned.  Avraham, according to this reading, sees that the world everywhere exhibits care and purpose, testifying to the presence of a designer, a master, who lives in the world and directs it even though we do not directly see Him.  The midrash, according to this reading, is exactly what I claimed it was not, a testament to Avraham's philosophic acumen rather than his moral yearning.  Avraham discovers God by following the evidence, rather than challenging Him to disclose Himself.


I cannot reject this possibility.  Of course, the picture I presented is clearly supported by the second midrash we examined.  Furthermore, the use in this midrash of the exclamatory question – can it be that this house has no one in charge? – and the implied necessity for God to answer, point to a challenge rather than a philosophic inquiry.  But ultimately, it depends on the correct translation of the word "doleket." This will not be a rare occurrence in midrash interpretation.  Since many midrashim, like this one, make use of parable to express their idea, we have to have a clear picture of the story of the parable.  A small difference can change the meaning totally.  One of our most important tasks will be to listen carefully to the story of the parable, its imagery and feeling, in order to get at what the midrash is trying to say.  A correct understanding of every word will be crucial and at times we will be hampered by an uncertainty.  One safeguard will be to see the midrash in context of other midrashim in this rich literature, which I have tried to do here.  I leave it to you to consider which interpretation is more cogent in this case, though I have undoubtedly made my own preference clear.  Still, by its very nature, midrash supports multiple interpretation.


Next shiur:

(All references are to the numbering system in the Vilna edition of the Midrash Rabba, which is the most widely available.  There does exist, however, another edition which has a different numbering system).

39,8; 44,4


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