Rabbi David Walk
If I had my way, I'd like the answer to my title question to be 'Because I told you to!' But that didn't work with my kids either. So, now I have to write an entire article trying to answer this question. But that's okay because I'm always looking for topics for these weekly pieces. And this week is the best week to ask this question, because we are introduced to Avraham the first true believer. We want to try and understand how he arrived at this belief.
The exasperating truth is that the Torah itself gives very few clues to solve this conundrum. At the end of last week's Torah reading we quickly hear of Avraham as part of the genealogy culminating the Noach story. However, it's a bit of a cliff hanger. We've learned precious little about him, and we have to wait a week to really get to know this newly mentioned character. But there is no hint as to why he should be ready to listen to God's command to 'go forth from your home.' There are many famous Midrashim which sally forth into the fray to explain that he watched over his father's idol store, or was thrown into a fiery furnace by King Nimrod or saw a burning mansion with the Divine owner calling to him. The text itself maintains a strict silence on this burning question. There are, therefore, a plethora of answers to my query.
Over time I have found the most appealing approach is that of Maimonides. There are two rabbinic traditions which he tries to reconcile. One is that Avraham discovered the truth about God when he was three, which means that this discovery was somehow an innate intuition. The other opinion is that Avraham came to this realization at the age of forty, which represents a long intellectual journey of discovery. Here's what Maimonides says: Once Avraham was weaned (at age three), he, as a child, began contemplating and thinking day and night, and wondered how a celestial sphere could follow a fixed path without being directed. If so, who directed it? Surely it would be impossible for it to rotate through the heavens on its own! Avraham did not have a mentor, rather he was immersed amongst the foolish idolaters of Ur Casdim, where everyone, including his mother and father, served idols, as did he. In his heart, however, he continued to contemplate, until he realized the way of truth and understood the ways of righteousness from nature, and knew that there is a God who directs the spheres, created the world, and besides whom there is none other Abraham was forty years old when he recognized his Creator (Laws of Idolatry, I:3).
There is another appealing approach expressed by the Sfat Emet stating that the Torah does give us all the information that we need. The instruction to 'leave your land' was broadcast generally to the world, but went unheeded by everyone but Avraham. He claims that this injunction is broadcast everywhere all the time, but only Avraham understood the importance of the message. There was no other eureka moment. Unlike the other positions listed, in this case we don't have to make up other information. Basically belief in God is based on revelation. The one who hears, believes. The rest of us, perhaps, must check our ears.
So, we have Avraham discovering God in nature, through intellectual investigation, and by means of the Divine call. However, that still leaves another venue, namely history. Our God acts in history and leaves hints behind. Rav Yehdua Halevi describes the God who redeemed us from
For all of these reasons and probably others, Avraham sought out God and heeded the call to emerge from the shadows of ancient society to become a beacon to future generations. But what if there is a totally different way to look at this riddle? What if Avraham never searched for God? What if Avraham, instead, looked for mankind? I was reading The Emergence of Ethical Man by Rabbi Joseph D. Solveitchik, and I was looking for an answer to my question about what caused Avraham to believe in God, but I couldn't find an answer. After some frustration, I decided that the omission was on purpose. The Rav says: The Charismatic person (in this case Avraham) revolts against a non-moral legalistic society, whose ends and objectives often collide with the basic tenets of a natural, living morality... Only later does he find out, to his surprise, that with the moral law in himself he has discovered the God of morality beyond himself, and at a still later date he becomes acquainted with this unique being…God helps him to develop his moral spontaneity and creativity (p. 154).
It seems that we've been asking the wrong question all along. We wanted to know how Avraham discovered God. Avraham was never looking for God. Avraham was seeking ethics and morality. He sought a world which treated people with dignity and respect. The Rav says that God didn't address Avraham in the commanding, authoritative tone of the Lord but in the comradely, friendly manner of a fellow wanderer. God is also lonesome, and seeks a companion. The Arabs actually call Avraham 'God's Friend.' The Rav avers that in many respects God was closer to Avraham than to Moshe, because they traveled the same path.
Ultimately the question isn't why should we believe in God. We should instead ask: What can we do to make God believe in us? That's what Avraham did.