Why Avraham?

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley





Parashat Lekh Lekha


Why Avraham?


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



1 Now Hashem said unto Avram, “Get you out of your country, and from your kindred, and from your father's house, unto the land that I will show you.  2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you will be a blessing.  3 And I will bless them that bless you, and he that curses you will I curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (Bereishit 12:1-3)


Most of us recognize the dramatic opening of our parasha.  Hashem calls upon Avraham (at this point, referred to in the Torah as Avram) to leave his familiar surroundings, his ancestral homeland, and his family.  Even though the Torah mentioned Avraham briefly at the end of last week’s parasha, it is in our parasha’s opening that Avraham makes his grand entrance onto the Biblical stage, influencing forever the course of world history. 


Our first introduction to Avraham tells us of two things – both his intended journey and his ultimate destiny.  Hashem makes four promises to Avram: “Ve-e’eskha le-goy gadol,” I will make you into a great nation, “ve-avarekhekha,” and I will bless you, “va-agadla shemekha,” and I will make your name great, “ve-heyei berakha,” and you will be a blessing.  Although the exact destination of Avraham’s journey is not yet clear, the purpose is - Avraham and his descendants are to blossom into a great nation that will become a shining light and a source of blessing for the entire world. 


However, as much as the Torah revealed in these verses, what is most striking and glaring is what we are not told.  The Torah does not tell us anything about Avraham’s life story before he was selected by Hashem to fulfill this mission.  Nowhere are we told what Avraham did to merit this divine chosenness.  The Torah speaks only of Avraham’s future, but says nothing about Avraham’s past. 


To appreciate the difficulty that this textual lacuna poses, consider that the Torah proposes more than just Hashem choosing Avraham over his contemporaries.  What is occurring at the beginning of this week’s parasha is no less than the most radical change in the relationship between the Divine and the world since creation.  Until now, Hashem focused on maintaining a direct relationship with all of humanity.  Whether it was the initial attempt to provide Adam and Chava with everything, to commanding Adam and Chava in Gan Eden with just one requirement, His communications with Kayin during his failures and frustrations, and then the effort to restart during the generation of Noach, when the expectations (which developed in Jewish thought into the “sheva mitzvot bnei Noach,” the seven Noachide commandments) were made more explicit, the understood subtext that underlay all of these stories was clear – these are the expectations that Hashem had of the entire world, not a select group of individuals.  Now, after the failure at the Tower of Bavel, Hashem abandons the idea of making any more attempts at relating to humanity on a universal scope.  Instead, Hashem decides to choose a particular person capable of carrying out His vision for the entire creation.[1]


Given the radical transformation that occurs at the beginning of the parasha and the consequent importance of this choice for all of human history, we would have expected that the Torah would provide us with an explanation of why Avraham was the person who merited being charged with carrying out this new mission.  Later, when Hashem deliberates whether or not to inform Avraham of His intention to bring judgment upon Sedom for their misdeeds, we receive the first hint of an answer:


17 And Hashem said, “Shall I hide from Abraham that which I am doing; 18 seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? 19 For I have known him, to the end that he will command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.(18:17-19)


In other words, what distinguished Avraham from the others was not that he was necessarily the most righteous individual of his time.  Instead, he was distinct in his willingness to inform the world of the Divine message of “righteousness and justice.” Most importantly, his efforts to do so began at home.  Unlike the efforts of many, who attempt to “spread the word” through strangers, Avraham realized that unless he could inspire his own family members of the Divine truth, all his other accomplishments would be for naught. 


Most people are aware of the attempts by the midrash to fill in the gaps in the historical record.  In various places (Bereishit Rabba 38:13 and Pesikta Rabbati 21, among others), the Rabbis describe Avraham’s formative years in Ur Kasdim.  What emerges from their efforts is an inspiring picture of a young man who combined at an early age (3 according to some, 40 according to others) intellectual and spiritual precociousness with tremendous courage and strength of character.  The stories tell about his discovery on his own of one God, confronting his father’s idolatrous way of life (in a scene reminiscent of Gidon’s breaking of his father’s idols in Shoftim 6), and his willingness to die – in a fiery furnace no less – for his monotheism (drawing on another Biblical precedent – the story of Chanania, Mishael and Azariya in Daniel 4).  That these stories are meant to be taken as more than rabbinic hyperbole is noted when we consider that the Rambam cites them with considerable detail in his discussion of the laws of idolatry in his legal work, the Mishneh Torah (Avoda Zara 1:2-3).  Those familiar with this work know that it is a halakhic, legal work that only rarely includes aggadic midrashim or historical recollections. 


And yet, these sources do not answer the question; they beg the question.  If knowing Avraham’s biography is of such central importance, why isn’t it presented in the Torah text? Why aren’t we told of all of his accomplishments and formative experiences?  Here is how R. Soloveitchik zt”l formulates the question:


The story of Abraham’s early years - how he found God - is not recorded in the Bible ...  We would have liked the Chumash to tell us about his sleepless nights when he was struggling with himself, when he began to rebel against pagan society, when he left that society.  But we know nothing about him until a mature age...  (Abraham’s Journey [NJ, 2008], pp.  19, 41-43, 45-48)


The Ramban (11:28) was the first of the commentators to address this difficulty.  He answers that the Torah did not wish to give a voice to the philosophical arguments and religious disputations that were part of Avraham’s early, formative years.  R. Yoel bin Nun develops a different idea.  If the Torah were to give a reason why Avraham was chosen before our parasha, it would appear that the act of Hashem’s choosing Avraham was a onetime act based on his earlier actions.  Instead, the act of choosing was a continuous process, granting additional significance to every action Avraham takes in Sefer Bereishit. 


There is one final question that must be answered – why did the Torah begin the process of moving to Canaan last week with Terach, Avraham’s father, and then restart it this week with Avraham? The Ibn Ezra suggests that, in fact, Hashem’s command to Avraham, “lekh lekha,” occurred earlier, and when Avraham set forth, his father and family accompanied him from Ur Casdim until Charan, where they settled.  However, Avraham continued forward until he reached Canaan.  The Ramban strongly disputes this understanding.  He asks why this is not recorded, and argues that Terach’s migrations were for purely personal reasons.  Therefore, when Charan turned out to be a welcome respite, he chose to stay there rather than continue forward. 


We will conclude our study with R. Soloveitchik’s attempt to reconcile the two opinions:


Ibn Ezra says that Terach went in response to the divine command that Abraham received from God...  If we accept this interpretation, we can solve another riddle.  Our Sages stated that Terach repented and embraced the new faith his son was preaching...  However, what we miss is the story of Terach’s conversion...  when did it happen?...  According to the Aggada, Terach was the one who informed King Nimrod of Abraham’s abusive and blasphemous treatment of the hallowed images and idols...  Later - I don’t know how long it took - the same Terach saw the light and realized that Abraham was right...  This was a tremendous change in Terach.  What prompted Terach to act so strangely?...  Surely the great revolution in Terach’s thinking was precipitated by doubts, soul-searching, and reappraisal.  In a word, it was the transformation of a ba’al teshuva that was responsible for the decision to abandon Ur in Chaldea...  When the command of lekh lekha came and Abraham began to pack his bags, he realized to his great surprise that his father’s bags had already been packed long before.  Father and son, hitherto locked in mortal combat, joined hands and together started out on a great march towards Canaan.  Nachmanides challenges the position taken by Ibn Ezra...  I believe the question can be easily resolved ...  Since he [Abraham] felt obligated to give him respect and to revere him, he made it appear to outsides that the one who had taken the initiative was not himself but Terach...  In spite of his good intentions ...  Terach did not succeed.  He did not reach the destination ...  He had not succeeded in transforming himself totally.  He still had great fears and doubts ...  (Abraham’s Journey, pp.  52-5)

[1] Running counter to this approach, the nineteenth century Chassidic thinker, the Sefat Emet, cites a tradition from the Zohar that the call “lekh lekha” was not, as the straight forward reading of the pasuk implies, a private call solely to Avraham.  Instead, it was a universal call for all to hear.  According to this amazing insight, in essence, Hashem was holding an open casting call; the offer of “I will make you into a great nation” was made to anyone who was willing to listen.  Based on this understanding, the Torah is, in fact, revealing to us the reason for the selection: “And Avraham went as Hashem had spoken to him” (12:4) – of all the people in the world, he was the only one who listened to what Hashem told him and acted accordingly.