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Avraham – Pillar of the World

One difficulty in learning Chumash is its terse style. Events seem to flow seamlessly one right after the other. We lose our perspective on time not realizing there are gaps, often with significant distance between the recorded events. One such example is with our father, Avraham. As this week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, begins, we find that our patriarch, Abraham, is now 75 years old, engaged in direct communication with God.

Prior to this event, scant information is given about him. We are told at the conclusion of last week’s parsha, Noach, that his father is a man named Terach; he has two brothers, Nachor and Charan; a wife Sari and a nephew, Lot. The family had set out from Ur Kasdim headed for the land of Canaan but only got as far as Haran. Other than that brief bio, the Torah is silent and provides us no information about his childhood or his development into manhood.

The Oral Law, God’s supplement to the Torah or to quote the late radio personality Paul Harvey, “…and now for the rest of the story…,” fills in some of the blanks. In it we are told that Avraham was an extremely precocious child. In the Laws of Idol Worship the Rambam relates that by age 3, Avraham was bothered by the puzzle of the motion of the celestial bodies. He was intrigued by the scientific question, what was the cause of their motion? However, we are also told by the Rambam that there was no other person with whom Avraham could study or learn. His entire society, indeed, the world’s population, was steeped in various systems of idol worship. Why is that fact significant?

In such a culture little or no emphasis is placed on questioning in order to understand how the world works. Intellectual curiosity and development are thwarted and shut down. These processes are antithetical to the mentality of the idol worshipper. Why is this so? The practices and beliefs of all man-made religions stem from the inner psychology of its originator and followers. This approach colors their entire outlook on life from thinking about how nature works to determine whether a person should get out of bed in the morning. In such a world view all academic pursuit that does not serve or promote those self-imposed notions is quickly blocked. These societies are not searching for the truth or objective reality. Their goal is the indoctrination of its members in order to inculcate and maintain their false notions and way of life. Such religious systems and societies throughout history have, in fact, been anti-science. The historical period known as the Dark Ages is but one example. In stark contrast, Judaism knows of no such experience. Why?

Our Torah scholars relate a different approach taken by Avraham. Avraham had to figure out and discover, completely on his own, how reality works. Then armed with his mind and methodology of thinking, he turned his attention to the study of science. He came to recognize that the universe cannot explain its own existence. He discovered the true source behind all reality, God. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam states, “…the best proof for design in the universe and hence a Designer is the study of astronomy. Thus, Avraham reflected on the stars as is well known.”

Avraham detested falsehood and challenged all the beliefs he was subjected to. He had the mental courage to reject any idea that made no sense. He eventually came to see that any man-made religion is baseless and ridiculous. The Rambam states that “Avraham was 40 years old when he finally had a complete recognition of God as the creator of the universe. It is to this Being alone that one is to recognize and worship.” In this way, Avraham was the greatest revolutionary the world has ever known, the עמודו של עולם, “the pillar of the world,” as the Rambam calls him. It wasn’t for another 35 years of study and self-improvement, however, that Avraham reached the level of prophecy. It is at this point in his life that we pick up his story at the beginning of parshat Lech Lecha.

It is significant to keep in mind that Avraham’s path to discovering God was through the study of science. To highlight the importance of the study of natural science in Judaism, the very first blessing before the Shema, morning and night, is praise to God for the wisdom displayed in the universe. In Judaism, the knowledge of how the universe works is an essential means by which we can know God. “How great are Your works Hashem. You make them all with wisdom, the world is full of Your possessions.” (Psalms 104:24).

When writing about the religious feeling of a scientist, Albert Einstein put it like this, “ a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” (The World As I See It, p.29) From its foundation, Judaism maintains that a person cannot fully appreciate and recognize God without accurate knowledge of science. Never in the history of Judaism was there a conflict between proven science and Torah.

The truths of science must ultimately be in harmony with the Torah, its laws, and its philosophy of life. Both have the same Creator. This concept, in brief, is the message Avraham brought to the world. When we refer to Avraham as “our father,” we do not just mean our biological ancestor. A convert is given the great distinction to be called “so and so, the בן or בת son or daughter of אברהם אבינו, Abraham our father.” He is the philosophic father of all who seek God from both the realm of science and the knowledge of Torah.

At Posnack Jewish Day School our mission is to imbue our students with the same approach of our father Avraham. It is this approach to learning that I have in mind when I also claim the science lab for the Judaic program as well. I like to think our campus is a place where scientists like Einstein, Rabi, and Penzias (all Jewish winners of the Nobel Prize in physics) and Torah scholars like Rashi, Rambam, and Ramban find mutual ground.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan