The story of Abraham is one of the more detailed, personal stories in the Torah. However, most of what we learn in the Torah only covers the last one hundred years of his life (may we all be blessed to have a last one hundred years). Which leaves a curious question: why did God choose Abraham in the first place? Other than the names of his family members, all we know about him before this week’s parasha, Lekh Lekha, is that his wife is barren and that his father intended to take the family from Ur Kasdim (maybe southern Iraq) to Cana’an (the land of Israel). His father stops short of Cana’an and settles in Charan (maybe in Turkey), although the Torah never explains why. The Rabbinics present Abraham as the first monotheist, attempting to explain why Abraham was chosen by God. However, other Rabbinic sources make it clear that several other monotheists existed in Abraham’s day, many of whom were his elders. The Rabbis teach that Shem and Ever, Noah’s son and grandson, ran a yeshiva in the ancient world. Therefore, Abraham (and Sarah, as we will see) must have done something special beyond being monotheists, which compelled God to choose them.
In Lekh Lekha, the Torah may hint as to why God chose Abraham and Sarah. The retinue which accompanies Abraham on his trip to Cana’an includes the “people that they made in Charan,” (Genesis 12:5). Onkelos, in his traditional Aramaic translation of the Torah, translates “people that they made” as, “Abraham and Sarah pledged the people to Torah.” The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 9a) suggests that Abraham marks the beginning of an era of Torah. However, what Torah looks like in Abraham’s time is unclear. Sarah and Abraham long predate God’s giving the Torah at Sinai. While some sources see it as an innate ability to perform Torah (see, for instance, Babylonian Talmud Yoma 28b), it seems more likely this means a concept of Torah. It might be that the method Abraham and Sarah use to teach to others is an understanding of what Torah is and that which sets them apart from both their predecessors and their contemporaries, even those who are monotheism. This may even be what makes Judaism, the religion of Torah, unique.
Maimonides suggests (Mishneh Torah Laws of Idolatry Chapter 1, Laws 2-3) that Sarah and Abraham are different in that they teach publicly, to the masses, about God. Other monotheists at their time kept to themselves, or maybe had a few select students. Maimonides suggests that Abraham wrote books and passed them on to his children. However, this fails to explain why those before Abraham did not teach publicly or did not write their own books. Nor does this explain what sets Torah apart from other traditions.
When God instructs Abraham to move to the land of Cana’an, God tells him, “Go, yourself, from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” (Genesis 12:1). God’s instruction that Abraham leave his father’s house is confusing. Abraham’s father, Terach, was himself headed to Cana’an (Genesis 11:31). God essentially says to Abraham, “Separate from your father by doing exactly what your father was planning to do.” How can Abraham break from his father by following in his father’s footsteps? This break without a break is heightened by the claim of the Tosafot (on Shabbat 10b) that Abraham first went to Cana’an, then back to Charan, then back to Cana’an, the second time at God’s command. That is, Abraham completed his father’s journey on his own and when he abandoned it, God asked him to repeat it.
Perhaps, God chooses Abraham because he knows Abraham is capable of simultaneously breaking from the path of his father and following it at the same time. After all, Abraham already did this on his own. Which might be what separates Sarah and Abraham from Shem and Ever and also what convinces others to follow Abraham and Sarah. While others can teach about God, maybe even publicly, Sarah and Abraham do so while cloaked in tradition. Their message is more palatable because it delivers a radical message, to follow God, while making it seem completely unradical. They make monotheism seem like a natural continuation of Abraham’s father’s path. Which is what makes him the start of Torah. For Torah is an ability to break from the past while making it seem like it is merely a continuation at the same time. Every good change made in Torah is always grounded in a past tradition—a saying, Biblical verse, or the like— as if the Torah always supported this new path. Perhaps it has. May we all merit to inherit such a Torah: where we forge new paths as we, at the same time, make those paths continuations of what always was. In doing so, we inherit the Torah of Abraham.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
Reb. Joel Goldstein