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Who Was Avraham?

To truly appreciate Judaism, what it is about and what its goal is for mankind, we must thoroughly understand its founder, Avraham Avinu, our Patriarch. Who was he and what did he do for all humanity? He is known by the Torah scholars as, “the pillar of the world.”

At the conclusion of last week’s Torah portion, Noach, we are informed of the birth of a person called Avram. In the closing verses we are told that Avram took a wife, Sari, and 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, parshat Lech Lecha, opens with God charging Avraham with a task, “Go for yourself from your land… to the land that I will show you.” (12:1)

Wait a minute! What happened between the end of Noach and the beginning of Lech Lecha? What indication did we have last week to speculate that God would talk to Avraham this week? What transpired in Avraham’s life between the end of parshat Noach and the beginning of Lech Lecha? The Torah now informs us that Avraham is 75 years old. Inquiring minds want to know!

The Oral law, our Talmud, fills in the missing information. We need to appreciate who Avraham was. He was a precocious and curious child. From age three, Avraham directed his curiosity to explore and ponder natural law. Day and night he wondered: What is causing the revolution of the heavenly objects? He was drawn to science and astronomy in particular. The problem was he had no teacher. As Maimonides writes, “Avraham was steeped, mired in the culture of Ur Kasdim. Everyone he encountered 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,”  the way to know objective reality. To make this breakthrough and to advance further, Avraham realized his behaviors would have to change as well. All his energy was then directed to discovering the truth. His discovery of the path to the truth would of itself be worthy of a Nobel Prize. Using his דרך האמת , he distinguished between reality and make believe.

“At 40 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 and controls all existence. Avraham also recognized what it was that caused the entire world to err so seriously in their understanding of reality. He was an astute student of human psychology. The Talmud tells us that he wrote four hundred treatises on idol worship. My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Yisroel Chait, explained the Talmud is teaching us that Avraham analyzed every human emotion by studying his own personality. He then understood all the internal, irrational causes that are responsible for people having false ideas of how reality works. Idol worship is nothing but the result of people projecting their innermost emotions, desires and fears on to reality. An imaginary system is then created to explain what is happening, so people get what they want and avoid what they fear.

Armed now with knowledge of  science and psychology, Avraham then set about to help the people of Ur Kasdim. After all, he broke through the intellectual and emotional 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.

Out of his recognition and love of God, Avraham also became known for his chesed, acts of 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.

However, Avraham’s love for humanity and desire to show them the truth was not without personal sacrifice and life-threatening danger. The Talmud Baba Basra, 91a tells us Avraham was thrown in prison for 10 years, a consequence of teaching his ideas. According to 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, Nimrod, 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 found in Rashi’s comments, that Nimrod threw Avraham into a furnace from which he survived.

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, do not 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 throughout the universe and in His Torah. Then, we too will become like Avraham, practicing loving kindness to all mankind. That is the goal of all the 613 mitzvot in the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan

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