AVRAHAM: THE FIRST WHAT?
Rabbi David Walk
Last week I wrote about the choseness of the Jewish people. This week I'd like to address the problem of why we were chosen, through our ancestor Avraham. The issue seems to be crystal clear to many observers. If we conducted a survey amongst Jews (many Christians would say that it was grace, or arbitrary.), I think that the answer we'd get most often would be that he was the first to accept monotheism. However, this answer isn't tenable based of the text of our Bible. Adam, Chanoch, Noach and Shem all seemed to be monotheists who preceded him. So, the answer must be found elsewhere, but the verses don't seem very helpful. Midrashic literature thrives on these lacunae (Look it up!). I'll present just one of many options, but I'd like to suggest as well that a careful reading of the text gives us a very beautiful response to this critical question.
As I said there are many Midrashim describing courageous acts by Avraham which explain God's granting of the eternal covenant to his progeny. Some of these are so famous, like smashing the idols in his father's idol shop, that many people think that they appear in the Biblical text. However, the one Midrash I want to present is very different. When Avraham was commanded to: 'Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father's house to the land which I will show you' (Genesis12:2), the Midrash asks To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: "Is it possible that the palace has no owner?" The owner of the palace looked out and said, "I am the owner of the palace." So Abraham our father said, "Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?" God looked out and said to him, "I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe (Breishit Raba 39:1)." This is the teleological or reason from design support for the existence of God. That part is fine, but why is this symbolic palace on fire?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the
But what happens when we look at the verses, unvarnished by these rabbinic glosses and fables? I believe that we can get the same perspective. God tells Avraham to leave his home and homeland, without clear instructions about where he is to go or what he is to expect upon arrival. This is so very different from the instructions given to Noach. Noach is told to build an ark, a very arduous task, but he is given very specific instructions and he understands that by building this boat he and his family will be saved from imminent inundation. Avraham is given no such assurances. The upside of following God's command is very nebulous. He is told that he will be a blessing for all mankind, but what does it mean that he will be a blessing? What does he get that he will bestow upon others? Therefore it must mean that the reward for listening to God, is listening to God. The reward for being good is being good. Avraham is being told to buy into a new rubric for life without tangible payment. Of course, if I have faith in God, I believe that working hard to have a better world will give me the greatest compensation, namely a better world for me and my progeny, and that's cool.
Avraham is being let into life's greatest secret. The greatest rewards aren't bestowed from an outside force, they are generated internally by my own efforts and exertions. This is, of course, the basis for the many rabbinic teachings about performing God's instructions for their own sake (lishma), and the famous statement: Do not be as servants, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as servants who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the reverence of Heaven should be upon you (Pirkei Avot 1:3). There may be a great lollipop at the end of the road, but that's not why we travel that road. We travel it because it's the right road, and I couldn't live with myself if I eschewed it.
We call this attitude Gemillat Chesed, a life filled with acts of loving kindness. Avraham in the mystical spheres represents Chesed. These acts are the greatest kindness, because they are only performed out of love. Love for humanity, love for God, love for doing what's right.
Avraham taught us that the awe of God isn't because of what the Deity may do to me or for me. It's just because God allows me to be a partner in the enterprise. We like the company.
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