AND THE WINNER IS: AVRAHAM
Rabbi David Walk
We begin the Avraham Chronicles again this week. There are three Torah readings in which he is the dominant character. He is credited with founding the Jewish nation, yet it's not clear exactly why he was picked for this august role. Often rabbis have asked how come Noach wasn't given the job. Less often do we hear: How come Avraham got the call? But I'd like to ask just that this week. When you look at the story as presented in the verses, it's not easy to put your finger on the reason. In last week's parsha his name gets mentioned in a simple genealogy without any special mention or explanation. This week's reading begins with God giving him this detailed instruction to leave home. Why? We don't know. It's almost as if there is something missing from the Biblical record.
The sages never like these lacunae in the text. So, whenever there seem to be loose ends in the Biblical record, they use the Midrash to fill it. This story about Avraham is, perhaps, the most famous example of this phenomenon: Terach, Avraham's father, sold idols. One day he went somewhere, and left Avraham to watch his store. A woman arrived, holding a plate of grain. She said to Avraham: "Take this and offer it before them." Avraham got up, took a stick in his hands and broke all the idols, leaving the stick in the hand of the largest one. When his father returned, he asked: "Who did this to them?" Avraham answered, "A woman came, carrying a plate of grain. She said to me, 'Take this and offer it before them.' I offered it before them, and this one here said, 'I shall eat first.' Then that one said, 'I shall eat first.' The largest idol got up, took the stick, and shattered the others!" Terach said: "What nonsense are you telling me, are they then conscious?" Avraham answered, "Do your ears not hear what your lips are saying? (Breishit Raba 38:13)." The story continues that Nimrod the King heard about this incident and had Avraham thrown into a fiery furnace for blasphemy from which he miraculously escaped. Therefore Avraham was the chosen one because of his crusade against idolatry, and we understand why Avraham had to get out of Dodge.
This story is so famous that many people think that this narrative appears in the Torah. Now I must reveal a verity about Midrashim. They aren't always historically accurate. Did I shock any readers? Even more than that, they don't always even attempt to give a literal explanation of the text. They often are an approach to the text which the authors believed was important for their audience. These tales are often preaching to the parishioners, rather than addressing the text. So the author of this Midrash (Reb Ado of Yaffo), thought that his flock required a polemic against idolatry, therefore the greatness of Avraham was based on this struggle. Reb Aryeh Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur, writing in the late nineteenth century, didn't believe that his Hassidim had an issue with paganism. He instead took this Midrash and explained that the greatness of Avraham was willingness to die for his belief in monotheism. Avraham invented mesirat nefesh, self-sacrifice. That's great homiletics, making the Midrash relevant, because the Rebbe thought that the Jews of Poland needed encouragement on the issue of mesirat nefesh.
I want to move in a totally different direction to understand the greatness of Avraham. Unlike so many rabbis throughout history I'm not interested in Avraham's importance as a theologian or philosopher. I think that Avraham Avinu greatest contributions to world culture and civilization was in the area of menschlichkeit. This idea is expressed most famously in Pirkei Avot: The students of our father Abraham have generosity, a modest demeanor and a humble soul (Chapter 5, Mishna 19). In other words to be a disciple of Avraham (and I hope we all are) one must be a mensch and have a deep concern for others. It says in our parsha that Avraham made (or developed) souls who travelled with him and Sarah to Israel (Breishit 12:5). The two founders of our faith had a profound influence on many of those they encountered in their own spiritual journey. That's significant and maybe the reason for their appointment by God to lead the chosen people.
But I think that the greatness of Avraham was stated in an even more categorical way in an even more famous statement: And you shall love your colleague as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18): Rabbi Akiva said, "This is the fundamental principle of the Torah (Sifra 2:12)." Did you ever ask yourself why Rabbi Akiva decided that this is the most important concept in Judaism? It seems that we can make a case that his decision was based upon the selection of Avraham as God's representative to humankind. Wouldn't it be logical that God would employ Avraham to fulfill this role because he best exemplified the Torah's most fundamental truth? There are so many demands upon us by the Torah, like Torah study and Divine Worship, and we often associate those with Avraham's descendants, Yitzchak and Ya'akov. So, I would like to propose that Rabbi Akiva is teaching this principle of the Golden Rule is the most fundamental one because it was modeled for mankind by Avraham. That was his mission and his persona.
Every year we reread these amazing stories. We should always be moved and inspired by these narratives, but more importantly we must feel the urge to emulate the behavior and character of these spiritual heroes. Avraham founded our nation and religion based upon his empathy for all humanity. That's why we must view that value as central and necessary to our continued existence and growth. God chose Avraham to guide humanity because no one else loved humans as much.