Israel's first olim: Abraham and Sarah

The story of his life up until the moment God tells Abraham to leave is tantalizingly elusive. This is why the midrash there plays such a central role in answering: Why was he chosen?

 IDOLS INSIDE a temple. Abraham embarked on a journey toward monotheism. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
IDOLS INSIDE a temple. Abraham embarked on a journey toward monotheism.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In a famous anecdote, Nechama Leibowitz asked a class of rabbinical students to open a Tanach and find the story of the young Abraham smashing the idols. The students readily acquiesced but one by one were puzzled to discover that they could not actually find the story in the text.

The lesson for the class was how seamlessly rabbinic interpretation can become integrated into the narrative, particularly when there are gaps in the biblical text. Here for instance, we first meet Abraham at the end of the portion of Noah as he is on his way to the land of Canaan with his father, brothers, nephew and his barren wife. We are perhaps puzzled why this family is given more detail than any other, including that of Noah. In Lech Lecha, the text opens with the Divine command for Abraham, who is already 75 years old, to set off for the land of Canaan. The story of his life up until this moment is tantalizingly elusive, which is why midrash plays such a central role in answering questions about Abraham’s being chosen.

In the referenced midrash, found in Genesis Rabbah 38, Abraham’s father Terach is introduced as both a maker and worshiper of idols, which already exposes the emptiness of the religious practice of the time. One day, he leaves Abraham in charge of the store. At some point, Abraham becomes enraged with the duplicity of this enterprise, particularly after a devout woman comes in to offer the idols a plate of fine flour. He smashes all of the statues but one, leaving an ax in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returns, he explains that there was a brutal fight over the plate of food and the remaining idol won. When Terach exclaims that the idols are only inanimate objects, Abraham immediately asks him why he continues to worship them. Terach realizes that Abraham is endangering the very existence of their society by exposing the fraudulence of their worship. Unable to cope with this shift in his son, Terach hands Abraham over to King Nimrod with the understanding that his son will likely be put to death.

A very clever and humorous dialogue unfolds between the two as Abraham gradually exposes the corruption of the king. No longer amused, Nimrod throws Abraham into a fiery furnace from which he emerges unscathed. Unfortunately, the true victim is his brother Haran who has become theologically conflicted. Should he side with Nimrod or Abraham? In the end, Haran sides with his brother and is thrown into the furnace. While he emerges outwardly unscathed as testament to his externally allying with Abraham’s God, internally he is thoroughly burned and tragically dies in front of his father Terach, whom the midrash implicitly blames for raising a son who cannot tell the difference between true worship of one true God and the corrupted environment of idolatry.

This midrash brings up many important biblical and general themes about religious identity, free will, belief and, the complex dynamic in parent-child relationships, particularly when a child chooses a path different from their parent. It is so remarkably in sync with Abraham’s character as we come to know it from Lech Lecha through Hayei Sarah that it organically feels like part of the biblical narrative even though it is not! This midrash, which is beautifully written and composed of strands from other biblical narratives, sets forth the premise that Abraham had already embarked on his journey toward monotheism and dedicated religious belief well before God spoke the words Lech Lecha to him.

This idea that Abraham sought out God before God sought out Abraham, syncs well with another powerful midrash comparing Noah and Abram. 

R. Nehemiah said: He might be compared to a king’s friend who was plunging about in dark alleys and when the king looked out and saw him sinking [in the mud] he said to him, instead of plunging about in dark alleys, come and walk with me. 

But Abraham’s case is rather to be compared to that of a king who was sinking in dark alleys and when his friend saw him, he shone a light for him through the window. Said he to him, instead of lighting me through the window, come and show a light before me. 

Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He say to Abraham: Instead of showing a light for Me from Mesoptamia and its environs, come and shine one before Me in Eretz Yisrael.

In the first parable, the king sees his friend flailing in the dark alleys and invites him to come walk with him, away from the darkness and the mud. Without an explicit invitation, the friend will not think to save himself. In the analogy, God sees Noah floundering in the dark world that has become awash with corruption. He is unable to extricate himself from his reality and so, God because He cares for Noah, invites him to walk beside him as the world is destroyed.

In contrast, the second scenario is building off of a verse in this week’s Torah reading, Genesis 17:1, where God instruct Abram to walk before Him, rather than beside Him. In the midrash, it is the king who is sinking in dark alleys. It is the friend, who is aware of the king even in the dark and shines a light through the window into the darkness. The king then invites the friend to continue to shine a light before him. In this way, the king will both see and be seen. 

Just as the king needs his friend in order to be seen by those who are unaware of his presence, the midrash suggests God needs true followers like Abraham who are actively in search of God to illuminate His presence in the world through their absolute belief. In the analogy God does not need the light to “see.” However, I believe it is suggesting that without Abraham’s keen awareness and public acknowledgment of God, like the king, God could potentially be shrouded in the darkness of ignorance or willful dismissal.

Finally, the last line emphasizes the centrality of the land of Israel in illuminating the Divine Light most directly and brightly into the world. It is especially fitting, given that this past week nationally commemorated Aliyah Day (since 2016) on the 7th of Cheshvan. For those of us who have embarked on our journeys of Lech Lecha, leaving behind our birthplaces, families and homes, it is certainly fitting to reflect and share our own aliyah stories to honor Abraham and Sarah and all of those who came in their wake.