Friday, November 3, 2006

Inventing the Wheel

At the beginning of our parsha, G-d comes to a certain man named Avram and instructs him to take a great journey. G-d promises to make him into a great nation and G-d showers him with a plethora of blessings – giving him and his descendants the eternal gift of Israel. Why? We have absolutely no idea.
When it came to Noach, the Torah introduced him properly: “Noach found favor in G-d’s eyes... Noach was a righteous man, faultless in his generation” (Bereishit 6:8,9). However, when it comes to Avram, the Torah is silent. We are told nothing of his early life and no explanation is given for why he was chosen to father the Jewish people. Not a word on how Avram discovered monotheism. Not one act of righteousness. Nada. Surely the story of the young Avram must offer more relevant advice on spiritual growth than the story of Avraham the Prophet. Why does the Torah skip it?
This is an excellent question. The Zohar provides an answer that sent a shiver down my spine.
The truth is, Avram hadn’t really earned these blessings at all. Why was he chosen? He wasn’t. G-d said “Lech Lecha” to everybody – Avram was just the only one listening. It was his willingness to take the journey that was his first act of greatness (cf. Sefas Emes 5632, s.v. Ramban). The frightening implications of this teaching will be left to the reader to ponder.
The Midrash seems to take a different approach. It records several stories of Avram’s early life, painting a picture of a brilliant, passionate and philosophical young man, searching for truth, intolerant of hypocrisy and bravely standing up for the One G-d in a pagan world. In one story, we read how Avram was sentenced to death and sat for years in a dungeon for the crime of smashing his father’s idols (Bereishit Rabba 38). We are told of Avram’s issues with paganism and his grappling with the mystery of existence (B.R. 39:1). Maimonides writes that Avram ultimately discovered G-d through the wonders of nature and Intelligent Design (Laws of Idolatry 1:3). Together with his wife Sarai, he convinced many local pagans of the truth of monotheism (B.R. 39) In light of all this Midrashic material, our question is not answered, it just gets stronger.
If indeed our oral tradition records this information on Avram’s growth and development, why did the Torah leave it out? If it is unimportant, and does not qualify as “Torah study,” why is it recorded by the Midrash? And if it is “Torah,” why doesn’t the Torah itself write about it?
Of course, this really opens a much more basic and general problem: Why is the Torah divided between a written text and an oral tradition? This is a question well worth pursuing. In 2001, Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Kuperman of Jerusalem published an important work documenting the different approaches of the classic commentators to this question. Of course, fundamental issues are at play. What is the role and message of pshat vs. drash, the written Torah vs. the oral tradition? However, for our purposes let us localize the question. Why did the Torah leave out the story of Avram’s early life?
The answer is not difficult to understand. Had the Torah told us how Avraham became Avraham, many would be tempted to follow his path. The Torah does not want us to do that.
What was right for Avraham then is not appropriate for us today. Smashing idols? Is it our job to fix the world at someone else’s expense? Discovering G-d through nature? We know there’s a G-d. He took us out of Egypt, split the sea and gave us a Torah! Why should we waste our time with Intelligent Design? The Torah’s point is this: Avraham accomplished great things. There is no need for us to reinvent the wheel.
Avraham threw us the ball. We shouldn’t carry it back to where it came from and make the same throw; we should run with it. The mitzvot of the Torah tell us how.


  1. Jonathan Gershater11/03/2006 11:23 AM

    Shalom Yisroel,
    I think I am going to take the stance of attempting to find parallels in Torah for each of your commentaries. Last week was Noah and Jonah, this week Avram and Moshe.
    You write that we are not taught of Avram's early life yet Noah was properly introduced.
    My question is, never mind introducing the main character, how about introducing the speaker!? Isn't it a bit rude to come along out of nowhere and say "lech lecha"? At least Moshe got a proper introduction..."I am your father's G-d, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac, and the G-d of Jacob." [Exodus 3:4]

    Why does G-d introduce himself to Moshe but not to Avram ?

  2. Jonathan-
    That is a fantastic question! I never heard anyone ask it. Although G-d obviously couldn't say "I am the G-d of your father Abraham," He could say, "I am G-d, the creator of the world." I need to think about this one.

  3. "What was right for need to start from scratch".

    But,our human existence is essentially a struggle, a striving toward perfection. We must smash the idols within us, we must learn to appreciate and love God through natural laws (Intelligent Design).
    So, we are in essence, repeating the example of Avraham, but on a personal level. We are not leaders of a nation, but leaders, hopefully, of ourselves and our better inclinations.

  4. In response to Jonathan, I'm wondering if perhaps G-d selected Abraham for the very reason that he needed no introduction!

    That is, as the midrash suggests, Abraham engaged in a long process of discovery, of stripping away artificial projections. By the time G-d finally called upon him, the authenticity of His voice was recognizable.

    That said, I'm still reeling from the Zohar's interpretation of the Lech Lecha!! The Zohar, though, leaves unanswered the question of why it is that Abraham was the only who answered the call--perhaps this is where the Zohar and the Midrash complement each other.

  5. Jonathan-
    I'm going with Barry on this one.

    While you are correct that, like Avraham, we should also study science and nature, a major distinction remains. Avraham discovered G-d through nature - we have no need to do so. Our study of science and nature is not to discover G-d, but to develop a love for G-d (cf. Maimonides, Yesodei HaTorah 2:2).

    I like your idea of combining the Zohar and Midrash. Just keep in mind this quote from the great Gaon of Vilna: "I never understood a teaching of the Zohar with less than two weeks of thought."

  6. Rafael Araujo11/06/2006 2:03 PM

    Excellent blog - hatzlocheh rabbeh.

    According to the above-cited Zohar, where does Lot fit into the picture?

  7. Lot's journey seems to be more an act of following Avraham than accepting the mandate of Lech Lecha.