And God said to Abram: 'Go out from your country, from your birthplace, from the home of your father, to the land which I will show you ...' [Genesis 12:1]
This Torah portion begins with the Divine directive to Abram (later to be known as Abraham) to leave his home for a destination unknown.
Who was this man Abram and why was he chosen for this special directive? How had he merited God's attention? Why was he, of all people, destined to become the first of the patriarchs, the father of many nations?
Regarding all these questions, the Torah is silent.
Of course, the Midrashic literature ably fills in all the gaps, recounting Abram's many trials and tribulations as a child and young man. We are told of his lonely spiritual quest and eventual discovery of the One God. While we have no question about the authenticity of the Oral Tradition, why does the Torah itself not share these details with us?
Of course, such a question could be posed about any section of Midrash, but, in this instance the complete lack of explanation of Abram's special status in the Torah leaves us especially puzzled. After all, Abram was selected for a truly monumental encounter with God -- an encounter which would give humanity monotheism and change the world forever. Why is the reason for something so important related exclusively through the Oral Tradition?
To answer this question, let us examine the picture of Abram that is painted by our Sages.
Abram was born into a world of polytheism. In fact, we learn that his father, Terach, was a purveyor of idols. When young Abram was asked to mind the store, he engaged various customers in theological debate, as the Midrash relates:
R. Hiyya said: "Terach was a manufacturer of idols. He once went away somewhere and left Abram to sell them in his place. A man came and wished to buy one.
'How old are you?' Abram asked him.
'Fifty years,' was the reply.'Woe to such a man!' he exclaimed, 'you are fifty years old and would worship a day-old object!'
At this the man became ashamed and departed.
On another occasion a woman came with a plateful of flour and requested him, 'Take this and offer
[After she left] Abram took a stick, broke the idols, and put the stick in the hand of the largest.
When his father returned he demanded, 'What have you done to these idols?!"
'I cannot conceal it from you,' Abram answered. 'A woman came with a plateful of fine meal and requested me to offer it to them. One claimed, "I must eat first," while another claimed, "I must eat first." Then the largest got up, took the stick, and broke the others.'
'Why do you make sport of me,' the father cried out; 'they don't know anything!'
Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?' Abram retorted." [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis, 38:13]
Abram's challenge is a theological one, the result of many long hours of painstaking analysis. We are told that Abram considered the various forms of worship practiced in his part of the world, rejecting one after the other through the use of critical thinking. [Talmud Shabbat 156a] He used pure logic to conclude on his own -- without any guide or teacher -- that the world must have had a beginning. He reasoned that there must be some great force in this world, there must be a First Cause, there must be a God. [Midrash Rabbah 39:3, 95:3]
We are told Abram's beliefs were challenged by Nimrod, a wicked tyrant of his day:
" 'Let us worship the fire!' he [Nimrod] proposed.
'Let us rather worship water, which extinguishes the fire,' replied Abram.
'Then let us worship water!'
'Let us rather worship the clouds which bear the water.'
'Then let us worship the clouds!'
'Let us rather worship the winds which disperse the clouds.'
'Then let us worship the wind!'
'Let us rather worship human beings, who withstand the wind.'
'You are just bandying words,' Nimrod exclaimed, 'we will worship naught but the fire. Behold, I will cast you into it, and let your God whom you adore come and save you from it.'" [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 38:13]
Nimrod hurls Abram into the fire, but the young man leaves the furnace unscathed. The Midrash is a vivid testament to Abram's incredible heroism -- he is willing to sacrifice all for his beliefs. Again we must ask: Why does the Torah omit this impressive story? Surely the image of young Abram withstanding the torments of his persecutor would have served as an impressive example for future generations.
But God preferred to begin the tale of Abram with revelation: Go out from your country, from your birthplace, from the home of your father, to the land which I will show you ...
The issue at hand is that for all of Abram's genius, his deductions, conclusions and behavior were based on logic -- wonderful logic, compelling logic, but nevertheless human logic. There are limits to the human mind, to man's understanding. When man analyzes the world around him, he is limited by his subjectivity. [Kuzari 4:27]
All the logic that Abram could muster pointed in the direction of the truth of his conclusions. He must have felt with every fiber of his being that he had uncovered the truth, he had found God. He was so convinced of the merits of his argument that he was literally prepared to die for them. The Sages give us an image of a man who was sure of his conviction as any human being can be, within the limits of human logic.
Perhaps now we can understand why the Torah starts the saga of Abram with a revelation. Human logic has its limits, but revelation is beyond logic, beyond limits. Revelation is meta-logical.
The Torah is a document which describes the covenant between God and His people, between a people and their God. Such a covenant can only be based on revelation. The Torah is replete with commandments, yet such commandments can only exist if there is a command. Revelation is the vehicle through which God commands us.
For millenia, Jewish children have been inspired by the awesome religious legacy which the young Abram forged prior to the revelation, but his early story lacks the Divine imperative. Abram's story reflects a time and place long ago and far away. For it was only after Abram's lonely, logical search led him to realize that there was something beyond nature, that God revealed Himself and His commandments to Abram, and the world was changed forever. The dark ages came to an end. The world devoid of the knowledge of the Divine Presence disappeared forever, shattered like the idols at Abram's feet.
Prior to revelation everything that Abram did was, in fact, correct. He was so spiritually sensitive that he had the ability to discern God's will; this is the reason that our Sages, in the Midrash, have recorded and preserved Abram's trials and tribulations. But the all-important story of Abraham, father to nations, begins with revelation.
Said R' Isaac: "This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a building in flames. 'Is it possible that the building lacks a person to look after it?' he wondered. The owner of the building looked out and said, 'I am the owner of the building.' Similarly, because Abraham our father said, 'Is it conceivable that the world is without a guide?' The Holy One, blessed be He, looked out and said to him 'I am the Guide, the Sovereign of the Universe' ... hence it is written: And God said to Abram: 'Get out from your country, from your birthplace, from the home of your father, to the land which I will show you ...' [Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 39:1]
Still, spiritual greatness does not exist in a vacuum. And we continue to ponder what brought Abram to this crucial time. The Biblical text leaves us a hint about the source of his inspiration -- it was none other than his pagan father Terach.
And Nahor lived twenty nine years, and fathered Terach. And Nahor lived after he fathered Terach a hundred and nineteen years, and fathered sons and daughters. And Terach lived seventy years, and fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran. [Genesis 11:24-26]
We find that Terach, son of Nahor, fathered three sons: Abram, Nahor and Haran, becoming the first person to name his son after his own father. Every day of Abram's youth, when he looked at his brother Nahor, he was reminded of his roots, and of his father's roots. Perhaps this is what started Abram wondering about the origins of other things. This approach, taken to its extreme, eventually led Abram out of the pagan mindset and into the concept of monotheism.
If so, we can ascribe to Terach the nascent belief in One God. However, Terach was unable to take the idea to its conclusion. Apparently Terach was derailed somewhere along the way.
Terach took Abram his son, and Lot, the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife, and they went out with them from Ur Kasdim to go into the land of Canaan, and they came to Haran and dwelt there. [Genesis 11:31]
Terach was on his way to Canaan -- the land of Israel, where God would eventually send Abram -- but he never arrived there. He ended up in Haran instead. Terach knew that he must leave the place of his birth, his homeland, his people. He also knew that his destination must be Israel, but he never quite accomplished his mission.
The Divine revelation, with which our parsha opens, commands Abram to continue that which his father began but lacked the ability to complete -- to finally get to the land of promise. The Zohar teaches:
"It was in that land that Abram drew near to God. For it is written:and the Lord appeared unto Abram. [Genesis 12:7] Here was revealed to him what he could not previously find out, the hidden force that ruled over the (holy) land, and so he built there an altar to the Lord who appeared to him. The words who appeared to him, which seem to be superfluous, indicate that here was revealed to him that grade which rules over the land, and that he entered into it and was confirmed in it ... There were, in fact, two altars, because here it was revealed to him that God is ruler over all, and he became acquainted with the higher wisdom, which he had not known previously. He therefore built two altars, one for the grade (of the Godhead) which was already known to him, and one for the grade which was still concealed. This can be seen from the text: It first says: And he built there an altar to the Lord who appeared to him, [Genesis 12:7] and afterwards it says and he built an altar to the Lord, [Genesis 12:8] simply with an allusion to the higher wisdom. Thus Abram proceeded from grade to grade until he reached his own rightful grade, as it is written: And Abram journeyed, going on still toward the South, the South (typifying wisdom) being the allotted portion of Abram, and there he finally fixed himself. [Zohar, Bereshit, 1:80a].
The closing section of the parsha is equally instructive, for it is here is where Abram's name is changed to Abraham and he is given the commandment of circumcision:
And God said to Abraham, 'You shall keep my covenant therefore, you, and your seed after you in their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you. Every male child among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. And he who is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male child in your generations, he who is born in the house, or bought with money from any stranger, who is not of your seed. [Genesis 17:9-12]
The basic concept of circumcision is that nature is not perfect, and that man can "improve" on nature. Circumcision declares to man that he can control his sexual urges; indeed, that man can go beyond nature. This is a concept that necessitated a revelation. It is the logical Conclusion -- perhaps we should say the meta-logical conclusion -- that Terach and his generation were unable to find. Similarly, when the Jews eventually stand at Mount Sinai to forge their own covenant with God, revelation is once again required. The destiny of the Jewish People will call for a encounter with God, and they will be called upon to transcend the physical and search for the metaphysical. In order to accomplish this they will have to transcend the logical and hear the meta-logical words of revelation.
This returns us to the starting point of this parsha, for the revelation of God to Abram, and the commandments which are the content of that revelation, mark the foundation of the Jewish People.
The details of young Abram's life prior to that point in time are really a part of a different story. It is an inspirational story but it is not the story that the Torah sets out to tells us. The Torah is a book of revelation, of Divine directives, of instructions for living. And that is the story that begins here.