Looking For God In All The Wrong Places
At the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion, Noach, we are informed of the birth Avram, that Avram took a wife Sarai and that together with Avram’s father, Terach, and his nephew, Lot, they set out from Ur Kasdim to Canaan. In the Torah’s typical fashion of condensing time, this week’s reading of parshat Lech Lecha opens with God charging Avram with a task, “Go for yourself from your land… to the land that I will show you.” (12:1) Verse 4 tells us that at this time Avram is 75 years old. Later in the parsha, Avram has his name changed by God to Avraham.
Wait a minute! What happened between the end of Noach and the beginning of Lech Lecha? What indication did we have last week that we could even speculate that God would communicate and charge Avram with a command this week? There seems to be a large gap separating how we left off the story last week and how we are continuing the story this week.
The Oral law, our Talmud, fills in the missing information. We need to appreciate who Avraham was. From age three, Avraham was curious. His curiosity caused him to explore and think. Day and night he wondered: What is causing the revolution of the heavenly objects? He was drawn first to science and astronomy in particular. Problem was he had no teacher. As Maimonides writes, “Avraham was steeped, mired in the culture of Ur Kasdim. Everyone he came in contact with was an idol worshipper. Although he attended the idol worship ceremonies with his family, his heart was searching, slowly gaining understanding. On his own he worked out the דרך האמת, “the way to the truth.”
To make this breakthrough and to advance further, Avraham realized his behaviors would have to change as well. All of his energy was then directed to discovering the truth. His discovery of “the path to the truth”, to recognize objective reality versus having a subjective world view, would of itself be worthy of a Nobel Prize. Using his formulated דרך האמת ,he and anyone else for that matter can distinguish between reality and make believe.
“At forty years old, Avraham recognized the Creator of the universe.” (Rambam: Laws of Idol Worship, 1:3) He understood that there is one, non-physical God who is responsible for all existence. Avraham also recognized what it was that caused the entire world to err so seriously in their understanding of reality. The cause is that people project from their emotions how they want and think the world should be or work.
Avraham set about to help the people of Ur Kasdim. After all, he broke through the intellectual corruption of their society so he was in the best position to help them do likewise. Avraham’s life became dedicated to teaching and promulgating the truth. Avraham was known for his chesed, practicing loving kindness. When we think of chesed, we usually think of helping a person out of some financial, physical, or even psychological distress. No doubt these are true acts of chesed which Avraham engaged in. But the greatest chesed you can do for a person is to remove a false idea from their mind.
Avraham’s love for humanity and desire to show them the truth was not without personal sacrifice and life threatening danger. The Talmud Baba Batra, 91a tells us Avraham was thrown in prison for 10 years as a result of teaching his ideas. According the comments of the Ramban found in his letter, “The Law of the Eternal is Perfect,” “Even while in prison, Avraham continued to argue against them. At last the king apprehended that Avraham would undermine his kingdom and turn his people against him. Thus he banished Avraham to the far land of Canaan, after confiscating all his wealth.” We all know the Midrash of Nimrod throwing Avraham into a furnace which is brought in Rashi’s commentary.
All this time, from the end of parshat Noach until the beginning of parshat Lech Lecha, Avraham had no communication with God nor was he expecting any. His life’s mission until that point was completely self-directed. His life centered on making further discoveries and insights into the Creator of the universe and sharing them with the world.
Avraham taught the people that the most essential relationship we have with God is via understanding how His universe works. He referred to God as קל עולם and ואלקי השמים ואלקי הארץ, “Abstract God of the universe, God of the Heavens and God of the Earth.” The way to have a relation with God is via understanding God through His creation, מלא כל הארץ כבודו, “the Earth is full of His glory.” מה רבו מעשיך כלם בחכמה עשיה , “How great are your works Hashem, with wisdom you made all of them.”
Most people, even religious people, don’t feel this way. They are looking for what God does for them personally. Not surprisingly, they find God intervening quite frequently. This feeling stems from an infantile notion of God. Unfortunately it is often reinforced by our religious leaders. This notion is the exact opposite of the message of Avraham. Never once, even later in his life, did Avraham ask for or expect God to intervene on his behalf. In fact, when the Creator told him that he and Sarah will have a son together, he laughed and said “Let Ishmael live before You.” He never doubted God could breach the natural law, but that He would do it for him was astounding.
Let us be guided by the approach to God used by Avraham our Father. Let us redirect our energy and actions to understand the “wisdom of God” displayed in the universe. That is the goal of all of the 613 mitzvot in the Torah. In that process may we merit Hashem’s protecting care over the nation of Israel, Jews and God-fearing people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan