Abraham's Sense of Adventure


Dear Rabbi:
From time to time I am called upon to perform the honor of Hagbah to lift the Torah after the particular parshah of the week is completed and show those within the congregation that what they just heard was in fact written down. When called upon at this time of the year, I have some trepidation in that it is the beginning of the Torah and the bulk of the transcript is on the left side and I am right handed. The last thing I ever want is for me to drop the Torah which would leave not only me but anyone inside the sanctuary in peril. That being said, I take this as one of the great honors that are given out on any given Shabbat.
Why do bring this up? Well we are now into the third Parshah of the year Lech-Lecha and hardly any of the scroll has been turned from the left to the right, yet so much has already happened. The world and all of its inhabitants have been created. There was a breach of what seemed a very easy rule and as a result paradise, Eden, was lost. The evil of murder has been established. Evil in general has been looked upon as such a bad thing that the All Mighty almost put an end to His experiment of mankind and animals but thought better of it and reestablished man through one righteous person, Noah.
Generations pass and now we come to the “meat” of why we read the Holy Scroll and try to find its true meaning. Although he is mentioned at the end of last week’s Parshah, Noach, we get to know about the first “Jew”, Abram, who eventually we learn is our first patriarch, Abraham. History literally “turns” much slower with the introduction of Abraham.
I say this more often than I should, but despite reading it before, the Torah always makes me think of something I never realized before. Starting with the first sentence of Lech-Lecha Genesis 12:1, we read the following:
“And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.”
There is no mention of why Abram is chosen or for what purpose, in contrast to Noach wherein G-d sees that Noah is a righteous person and much like Noah, Abram just does as he is told.
Until I read it again, I had believed that Lord saw Abram as someone that believed in only one G-d and that was why he was chosen, but there is no such introduction. It is not until the Fifth Aliyah that we hear the following from Abram at Genesis 14:22:

“And Abram said to the king of Sodom, "I raise my hand to the Lord, the Most High G-d, Who possesses heaven and earth.”

This is after learning that Abram has been made rich and that he has defeated other kings with a relatively small band of men. In fact in this same Aliyah, Abram hears directly from G-d that he is going to be protected when we read the following at Genesis 15:1:

After these incidents, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, "Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great."

Even when we learn that Abram is to be forever known as Abraham, there is a wrinkle of what Jews think is their first father when we read in the Sixth Aliyah at Genesis 17:5:

“And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

So we learn that not only is Abraham the origin of our religion but of other nations and because of Ishmael I assume that means what is now Islam with all of its derivatives. Here is where the questions start. First and foremost, why is it that Abram/Abraham is chosen to be the first Jew? Noah was chosen to save mankind because he was righteous but is not considered a Jew. I have heard midrashim that while with his father, Abram broke all of his father’s idols thus recognizing that there is only one G-d, which led to him being the “Chosen One”, but this is, in a sense, one man’s opinion, which has fallen into favor but is not a proven fact.

We have gone back and forth as to why one is ”chosen” over another and as we read the rest of the text, there will be others, but Abraham, to me is the first figure for which there is no definitive answer.

Along with Abraham being the first patriarch of what became the religion we show allegiance to, he fathered another religious sect that sees us as at least a threat if not an enemy, and the second obvious question is why did the All Mighty set up this clash of religions?   

Shalom, Mordecai



Dear Mordecai,
What makes Avram the first Jew can be ascertained from the first verse of the parsha which you quote.

 וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
The verse states that Avram left his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house.  What this establishes is that the first Jew had to have a sense of adventure.  Abraham is the questing Jew, not the wandering Jew.  I would also add that Noah is described as follows.

אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ
Clearly Noah lacks a sense of adventure.  He walks alongside God, not before him.
 We’ve established what makes Avram special-his capacity for questing.  Inherent to that questing spirit is his affirmation of one unique and only G-d, which you rightly point out is given voice for the first time is 14:22.

Yet what makes Abraham so astounding is the multiplicity of reasons why he becomes G-d’ chosen partner and servant.
You cite 15:1 but you do not ask of what Abraham was afraid.  The answer is forthcoming in the subsequent verses, revealing another reason why G-d  calls out for him: his childlessness.  All of chapter 14 details Abraham’s military prowess.  If this were a Greek myth, the story would end there, but the Torah is more interested in Abraham the father than in Abraham the warrior.  Abraham’s quest for fatherhood is intimately tied to his relationship with the divine.  Speaking of fatherhood, you suggest that many Jews overlook Abraham’s fatherhood “of a multitude of nations” (17:5).  I am not sure that is exactly the case in the non-Orthodox world.  My understanding is that mainstream Judaism recognizes Abraham’s role in the other two monotheistic traditions. 
I disagree that the creation of multiple religions creates a clash.  Rather the clash is an outcome of human nature not religion.  Furthermore, taking into consideration the Tower of Babel narrative, G-d appears to value diversity, which would mean multiple paths to him.
I’m glad that you too have dispensed with the Midrash about Abraham, Terah, and Terah’s store of idols.  Some Jews aren’t even aware that this Midrash isn’t in the Torah!
Finally, I think that the lack of a “definitive answer” regarding Abraham’s choseness is appropriate given what I wrote at the outset.  Many Jews believe that Judaism is about questions forgetting that the word quest is built in to “question”.  A quest may have a destination but arrival at the destination is only one reason for the quest in the first place. 
In short, G-d called to Abraham “Lech Lecha” and we, Abraham’s  descendants, are responding to this day.

Shalom, Rabbi

Dear Rabbi,

Your response is rabbinical in the sense that you see the side of Abraham that we are fed not the plain and simple truth. You seem to read into the first sentence that Abraham had some sense of adventure and Noah did not. I do not see anything more than G-d directing Abraham to go to the land "that I will show you", and the next thing we read is that Abraham gets there. I do not see Abraham questioning why he had to go or where he was going for that matter.
 How you can conclude that Noah had no sense of "adventure" is completely beyond me. Anyone that gets on a boat with all those animals and not know where or when it will end, seems to me to be a person that is up for some sort of "adventure". You also want to distinguish Noah from Abraham with Noah walking "alongside G-d, not before him" inferring that Abraham led the way. That does not coincide with the plain language of "to the land that I will show you". Again, rabbis have to make the "chosen one" the good one but I do not think you have answered my overall question of why is one chosen over another. 
I do not think Abraham was so much "afraid" before G-d made the remark Abraham was told. After all, he did not call on G-d to give him strength when he took 300 or so of his men to fight the battle against the kings. It was only after he won that the gratuitous remark was made. 
I also disagree that the All Mighty does not have some hand in the clash among religions. It is all set up by making Sarah childless, then her telling Abraham to take up with her maid Hagar, which produces Ishmael.  Sarah then takes offense to Hagar which ultimately leads to her banishment which in turn leads to a conflict that goes on to this very day. That is hardly something that starts with "human nature".
While we are on the subject of Sarai/Sarah, as I understand the translation, Sarah translates to the word "princess". What did she do to earn that honor? I do not want to get too far ahead of myself, but I believe our First Matriarch is the cause of much of our tsuris as the word is said in Yiddish. 

Shalom, Mordecai

Dear Mordecai,

Relying on the rabbinical tradition too much is a problem but so is relying on it not at all. 12:1 clearly indicates that Abraham leaves his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house. In short, Abraham is leaving everything he knows to go to a place that he hasn’t seen, for G-d will “show” it to him. That is what I mean by a sense of adventure.
I agree with you that getting on an ark with no knowledge of where it will end up is not for the faint of heart; however, Noah is responding to circumstances, an emergency. Abraham’s decision comes without circumstance.
What I should have brought forward to strengthen my point is 17:1, which states, “Walk before me and be blameless.” The relationship between G-d and Abraham is not strictly one of G-d following Abraham, but I must correct for the misperception that religion is about following G-d. When we practice righteousness, G-d follows us.
You are clearly focused on the question, Why was Abraham – or Jacob for that matter – chosen? We have three options when we seek answers to questions like these. We can look to the text, we can look to the tradition, or we can engage in our own reflection. I don’t see the text providing strong clues. The tradition has many answers. Finally, the reflection of my own mind leads me not to an answer but to further query. Why does the question of What a given patriarch was chosen for animate you?
Abraham’s fear is clearly not connected to military engagements; rather it is an outcome of his anxiety about the future and who is heir will be.
No, the All Mighty does not create a clash among religions. Each religion is a different avenue to arrive at the universal truth that G-d is one, and human beings are united as one kind. The way you describe the narrative around Sara and Hagar makes G-d look like a puppeteer. Precisely what is happening in the narrative is an outcome of human nature.
I am surprised. You generally display a skeptical attitude toward the Torah, but you accept the Islamic claim at face value that Ishmael is the actual founder of Islam.
Again with Sarah, you note that her name is related to the word for “princess” and then ask what she did to deserve that. You then lay at her feet the ongoing conflict between the Jews and the Muslim world, which really is about Israel and has nothing to do with what Sarah did as described in the Torah. Here the arrows are definitely moving in the wrong direction. If the Jews have a conflict with the Muslim world today, that conflict is not due to Jewish mistreatment of Muslims – or proto-Muslims – but to the Muslim world’s inability to accept Israel.
Shalom, Rabbi 

Dear Rabbi:

I am only commenting on two things your reply speaks to. As to your question:  "Why does the question of What a given patriarch was chosen for animate you?" My first comment is that you did not get my question as to those that are "chosen". It is not what the patriarch was chosen "for" it is why is one person "chosen" over another, period. We can further discuss this throughout the rest of the Torah readings but understand it is the why that gets me. 

As to Sarah, I respectfully disagree with your conclusion that she is not to blame for the ongoing problems between Jews and Muslim world. Again, we are getting somewhat ahead of ourselves but my question to you is if Sarah had not sent Hagar and Ishmael away, would the mindset of Jews and Muslims be any different? As to Sarah and the translation of her name to "princess" I believe her actions have given rise to the term "JAP" or Jewish American Princess, which is someone that thinks everything is hers for the taking and that she can act in whatever manner she wants. 

This as well as some of your other comments can be continued with the parshahs that are upcoming. Stay tuned.