A Man Who Needs No Introduction
Abraham's father, Terach was a god merchant - he had an idol factory where the family made statues. Sometimes he set up a stall in the market to peddle the divinities. One day, when it was young Abraham's turn to mind the shop, a woman came in holding a dish of grains. Turning to Abraham she said: "take this food and serve it to the gods," and left. Instead, Abraham took hold of a large stick and ran around the place smashing stone as he went. When he had finished, Abraham put the stick in the hands of the largest idol and sat down to admire his work. Upon returning to his business, Terach was shocked to see his merchandise in shards.
"Who did this!" he demanded. Said Abraham, "Father, I must tell you what happened. A woman came to the store bearing a meal for the idols. Naturally, I brought the food over to them, but you know how these gods are - they started fighting amongst themselves, each one trying to get to the food first. Well, the scene turned ugly and this biggest idol took a stick and smashed all the other gods!" Grabbing Abraham by the shirt, Terach yelled "Who are you trying to kid? Idols can't shout and kill! They're only stone carvings!" "Ahhhh," answered Abraham, "now, you've got it."
This story of Abraham challenging the idolatrous practices of his family is just one of the well-known episodes about the early years of the first patriarch. Some people are surprised to learn that this tale does not actually appear in the Torah. Neither does Genesis relate Abraham's intuition that above the sun and the moon there must be a greater power controlling the universe. Abraham's discovery of God and rejection of all other options for the existence of the world besides a Creator, are all part of rabbinic literature. The above episode is a free translation from a report appearing in Bereishit Rabba chapter 38. Did that story actually happen? It is possible of course that midrashim of the Sages are historically accurate. Abraham could have survived being thrown into Nimrod's furnace - another tale of Abraham's loyalty to God. Legends about him could have been passed down through the generations of Abraham's family or could have been transmitted by God to Moses at Sinai as part of the Oral Tradition.
The third possibility is that Rabbi Chiya the son of Ada (who relates the above tale) made these stories up to embellish the character of Abraham impressing upon us the greatness of this man's faith, and conviction in the existence of God. Development of biblical themes or events is part of the rabbis' job. Starting with a verse from the Torah, the Sages add meaning, description, opinion, all in an attempt at providing a persuasive interpretation of God's word. Naturally, saying that the rabbis invent their own ideas about the Torah is threatening to the authority of transmission as well as to the concept that the Talmud uses divinely taught methods of exegesis to discover hidden meanings behind the text. The problem becomes serious when the text under examination is an excerpt from the legal portions of the Torah. When discussing a narrative, however, it seems more acceptable to believe that rabbinic additions are ornamentations. The first question that is generally posed about any midrash is: what prompted its author to write his anecdote. We'll handle that point rather easily, but it will lead us to a far more difficult issue.
The matter at hand is quite simply the introduction of characters in the Torah. There are three personalities in early history who stand far and above all of their peers. Noach is the first of these and when he is singled out for salvation, the Torah says, that in contrast to everybody else, "Noach found favor with the Lord" (Genesis 6:8). The story of the flood begins this way: "This is the line of Noach. Noach was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation" (6:9). So, we understood God's reasoning when He tells Noach that while all life on earth will perish, "I will establish My covenant with you, you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives" (6:18). This family is chosen from the sinning masses to live because its patriarch is righteous.
The Torah's third exemplary character is Moses and his selection, too, is prefaced with episodes illustrating his leadership, compassion, and sense of responsibility for his fellow Hebrews. The second chapter of Exodus relates three vignettes which show Moses defending the underdog. Moses' courage is first displayed when he kills an Egyptian taskmaster who is beating a Jew (2:11). Later, Moses attempts to intervene in a fight between two Hebrews, telling the offender "why do you strike your fellow?" (2:13). Lastly, upon fleeing Egypt for Midian, Moses defends the daughters of Yitro from the rudeness of the neighboring shepherds (2:17). It seems that the Torah includes these stories in order to emphasize that Moses was a natural leader. When God then appears to Moses, in chapter 3, to charge him with the task of leading His people, the reader understands why God has picked Moses. The introductory events explain that Moses was special.
Our problem, however, lies with Abraham, the middle character. Descendant of Noach and ancestor of Moses, he is selected in Genesis chapter 12, the start of this week's parasha, to be the founder of a great nation. Before we examine the text, a word about our character's name. As is known, Abraham's parents named him Avram - Abram in English. The patriarch's name was changed by God to Avraham (Abraham) as reported in Genesis 17:5. It is customary, based on that verse, not to refer to Abraham by his original name, save when quoting verses in which the word Abram appears. For this reason, I will call him Abraham in my own writing, but will use his earlier name when quoting the Torah. Here is how the Torah introduces Abraham:
"When Terach had lived 70 years, he begot Abram, Nachor and Charan ... Abram and Nachor took to themselves wives, the name of Abram's wife being Sarai... Now Sarai was barren, she had no child. Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Charan, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Charan, they settled there" (Genesis 11:26, 29-31).
This is all the information the Torah gives us about Abraham before Parashat Lekh Lekha which begins the very next chapter:
"The Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Charan" (Genesis 12:1-4)
What the Torah seems to have skipped here is any explanation of why God suddenly appears to Abraham promising him blessings and numerous descendants. The Sages identify this problem and undertake the filling of this lacuna by telling us about Abraham's past. In his earlier years, the midrash reports, Abraham recognized the existence of God, realized the folly of idolatry, even intuited and observed the mitzvot of the Torah, according to some opinions. If all of this is true, then Abraham's choice as patriarch of a grand nation is understandable. But the question remains as a difficulty on the Torah. Why doesn't the Torah, like it does with Noach and Moses, provide some background information to serve as an explanation for God's choice?
The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman 13th century) poses a similar question to the one I have raised and answers (in his commentary to Genesis 12:) that the Torah did not wish to dwell on the abominations that Abraham contested in Ur Casdim. Printing details of his family's and neighbors' behavior would give unwanted publicity for idolatry, a forum to advertise the forbidden practices. I may not fully understand Nachmanides' point here, but his argument seems odd in light of the fact that the Torah does of course list in its legal portions what practices must be avoided because they are reminiscent of idolatry. Leviticus 20:2 for example states "Say further to the Israelite people: Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any of his offspring to Molekh, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt him with stones." We could argue, in fact, that the Torah might have impressed its readers if it showed what Abraham was up against and how he overcame tremendous odds to develop belief in God.
Another commentator, the Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel 16th century) presents a different theory in his work titled Netzach Yisrael (see the 11th chapter). Firstly, the Maharal draws an important distinction between Noach and Abraham. Noach was chosen for his righteousness and for a purpose specific to him (as was Moses); Abraham's selection had tremendous ramifications for his descendants for all eternity. The original communication that God makes to Abraham states this quite plainly - "I will make you a great nation and I will bless you." God wasn't just choosing Abraham, He was choosing a nation from among the earth's families. Were the Torah to state that God's choice of Abraham was based on his righteousness, that would imply that a future relationship with the chosen's descendants is dependent on their continued model behavior. The link between God and the Jewish people, however, is stronger than the character of the nation at any given time - the covenant withstands Israel's sins and strayings. In essence, once the bond was forged, it remains eternal, independent of any conditions.
Starting with the Maharal's initial premise, I would like to build my own theory to answer this question. When God first approaches Abraham, it is true that He is making the first move towards what will become an eternal and complex relationship with this patriarch's descendants. I believe that from the Torah's perspective, the nature of this relationship can be defined in one idea: God commands and Israel obeys. Jews have free will allowing them to choose whether to follow God's laws or not, but all that means is that people decide whether to honor the basis of the relationship or not. The root of the whole association between God and Jew is the Torah - a system of law, with belief, philosophy, and thought attaching a secondary layer of meaning to the basics of behavior.
Now Abraham may have intuited the existence of God on his own, he may have come to the realization that worshipping wood and stone is meaningless, but what is really relevant to the Torah's presentation of Abraham is how he responds to God's commands. When Abraham obeys God's order to leave his homeland and travel to a new country, destination unknown, he exhibits his willingness to follow the word of God and that is precisely what is critical for the development of Judaism. Generations later, following the revelation at Sinai, Abraham's great-grandchildren respond to God's commandments with the famous phrase of NA'ASEH VE-NISHMA - we will do and obey (Exodus 24:7). Thus, when the Torah introduces Abraham in Genesis 12, it describes his connection to God as a prototype for the future. The standard expression for this idea is MA'ASEH AVOT SIMAN LE-VANIM - the history of the patriarchs foreshadows the future of their sons.
Tradition distinguishes between somebody who is told to perform a commandment and fulfills this responsibility, and another person who does the action even though he is under no obligation to do so. Our first thought might be to consider the latter's behavior more commendable - the former had no choice, he's merely following orders, whereas one who chooses to serve of his own volition should be lauded for choosing the noble way without instruction. Nevertheless, the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) considers a person who submits to the will of God greater than one who chooses his actions through his own calculations. Abraham may have believed in the existence of God which according to Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon 12th century) is a commandment (see Sefer HaMitzvot #1). He may have smashed idols in his youth thus fulfilling a biblical command appearing in Deuteronomy 12:3 to "cut down the images of their gods." But with this behavior he was acting LIFNIM ME-SHURAT HA-DIN - above the requirements of the law, because he was never commanded to serve God.
What Parashat Lekh Lekha emphasizes by its construction is that God gives Abraham a commandment - and he does it. That is exactly the formula that God wants from this man and his descendants. It is not important that he is righteous like Noach, or compassionate like Moses, but that he recognizes that the will of God is supreme. Here is God's reflection about Abraham a few chapters later in Genesis: "Now the Lord said, 'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do [with respect to Sodom], since Abraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him? For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him'" (18:17-19). The purpose of Abraham's selection is quite clear.
Now, given the reason for choosing Abraham and his ability to place God's desires above his own, what possible introduction to this man could we expect the Torah to give? It would be ridiculous for the Torah to state: And Abraham son of Terach was extremely obedient and respected that the Lord knew best. What evidence would we have to substantiate that? The only way to show that Abraham could follow commandments is to demonstrate him doing just that. This is why Parashat Lekh Lekha starts with a commandment and its fulfillment. The first three verses set the tone for the next 60 or so years as Abraham continues to do God's bidding up until the last of God's requests - the AKEDA, the near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22.
Still, we might ask why God challenges Abraham with tests to see if he can handle the terms for a relationship - why Abraham and not Nachor or Charan (Abraham's brothers) or anybody else of that era? There are several possibilities. Perhaps God really did approach other characters with commandments but these were unwilling to suppress their own goals in favor of God's will. This might be the meaning behind the famous midrash telling of God's attempts to sell the Torah to various nations, who all turn Him down until Israel accepts the challenge. Maybe we only hear about Abraham because he was the only one willing to buy into the system of command and obedience.
Secondly, it is not so easy to dismiss the rabbis' stories of Abraham's rejection of idolatry as fiction. The tradition that our ancestors came from such an environment is extremely old, dating back at least to the generation of Jews who entered the Land of Israel. In his farewell address to the nation, Joshua tells the people "Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: In olden times, your forefathers - Terach, father of Abraham and father of Nachor - lived beyond the Euphrates and worshipped other gods" (Joshua 24:2). Even a slight rebellion by Abraham might single him out for divine attention.
The Torah's goal at the start of Parashat Lekh Lekha is to report the nature and consequences of first contact. Abraham's obedience is what made his relationship with God a successful one. The implications for the receivers of the Torah are obvious: following Abraham's model will insure a strong and smooth tie with the Lord.