Iyunim - Weekly insights on the Parasha with commentaries by Nehama Leibovitz, za"l

Choice of Abraham

Ten generations elapsed between Adam and Noah. The descent of man from Adam’s sin to the commission of murder, idolatry and immorality are traced for us till the retribution of the deluge. A further ten generations elapsed between Noah and Abraham. The sins of men increased after the deluge and the deeds of the mighty hunter Nimrod were followed by the dividing of humanity into languages and nations, till the almighty decided to single out one particular individual from amongst them, and charged him with the mission of founding a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This Divine act of singling out one human being has the taint of discrimination and unfair privilige. As R. yehuda Halevi puts into the mouth of the king of the Kazars in his philisophic classic the Kuzari, “would it not have been better had god given his approval to all men alike?” the answer to this question is worked out for us in a Midrash on a verse in Jeremiah (51, 9):

“Get thee out of thy country”—R. Azariah cited in this connection the following verse: “We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed; forsake her, and let us go everyone into his own country.” “We would have healed Babylon” refers to the generation of Enosh; “but she is not healed”—to the generation of the flood; “forsake her” in the generation of the dispersion; “and let us go everyone into his own country”—“And the Lord said unto Abraham: Get thee out of thy country.” (Bereshit Rabbah 39, 5)

The Midrash traces the failures of mankind in three stages. The healer of all flesh tried to heal humanity, but it would not be healed. Adam and his descendants failed. A new start was made with Noah and his descendants. After the babel of tongues humanity became divided into nations and no further efforts could be made to heal it. Mankind would not return to its pristine unity and brotherhood, without a third start, in which one people would be singled out for blessing: “And in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed,” till all the peoples which do not now “understand one another’s speech” will become once again one family.

The above Midrash justifies the necessity for selection, since all other men have failed, but it does not explain what justified Abraham’s election. The Torah does not relate to us even one detail of Abraham’s previous life which would give us reason fro understanding the Divine choice. Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord because, as it is distinctly stated, he was a man righteous and perfect in his generation who walked with God. Even the choice of Moses at the burning bush was preceded by the stories of how he acquitted himself in championing the cause of his persecuted brethen in Eygpt, and of the daughters of Jethro in Midian and of his leading his father in law’s flock. Ramban refers to this difficulty:

This passage does not clarify all the issues involved. What sense was there in the Almighty ordering him to leave his birthplace and offering him unprecedented rewards, without prefacing that Abraham had deserved it by being loyal to God, or being righteous, or by telling him that by leaving his birthplace and going to another country he would attain a greater nearness to God/ it is more usual to find such phrases as “walk before me and hearken to My voice and I will reward you” as in the case of David and Solomomn, or such conditional clauses as “if you walk in my statutes,” or “if you hearken to the Lord your God.” In the case of Isaac the Almighty blessed him “for my servant Abraham’s sake” (26, 24). But surely there is no sense in promising reward and blessing on account of leaving his country.

Admittedly, oral tradition elaborates on Abraham’s inner struggle towards recognition of the true God in his youth and his fight against idaltry at home and abroad. We cited on p. 109ff Ramban’s reconstruction of his early life based on that tradition. He does not link Abraham’s past, his campaign against idol worship with his election. In contrast Ramban explicitly traces the Almighty’s choice of Abraham to the latter’s meritorious past:

But the real reason for the Divine promise was the fact that the Chaldeans had persecuted Abraham for his faith in God and he had fled from them in the direction of the land of Canaan and had tarried in Haran. Then God appeared to him and told him to leave and go on further as he had intended to do, inorder to serve him and rally other men to the true God in the chosen land where his name would become great, and the nations there would be blessed through him. Unlike his experience in Chaldea, where he had been despised and reviled for his faith and thrown into the furnace, in the new land He would bless them that blessed him and any individual who would curse him would have himself be cursed.

Our sages are not content with describing Abraham as the iconclast and fighter for the true faith even as far as martyrodom. They credit him with observing the whole Torah, even before it was given. Our sages probably wished to emphasise that in Judaism belief in one God and the true faith were impossible without observance of the precepts. Whoever acknowledges one God, must logically carry out His precepts.

If Abraham deserved being chosen by God as a result of what he accomplished in his youth, why did the Torah fail to record his achievements? To this Ramban answers:

But the Torah did not wish to elaborate on the opinions of the idol worshippers and dwell on the religious issues in Abraham’s controversies with the Chaldeans, just the same as the Torah deals very briefly with the generation of Enosh and their innovations in idolatrous belief.

This answer is not very satisfying. Surely, the Torah could have found a way of desribing Abraham’s struggles without giving too prominent a place to idolatrous practices! But another answer has been suggested. Abraham was destined to be tried ten times by the Almighty. The Torah was not interested in Abraham as the son of Terah or the subject of Nimrod, but only in his role as the ancestor of the jewish people, and as the beare of the Divine message. The very fact that God had chosen him as the object of His trials was in itself evidence that he was worthy to be chosen. The idea is propounded in the Midrash:

" Said R. Jonathon: A potter does not test cracked jars which cannot be struck even once without breaking. What does he test? Good jars which will not break even if struck many times. Similarly, the Holy One blessed be He does not try the wicked but the righteous, as it is said: “The Lord trieth the righteous...” (Bereshit Rabbah 32)

Henceforth fron this first Lech Lecha to the end of Vayera—the last Lech Lecha Will go from trial to tial.

Questions for Further Study:

  1. Get thee out of thy country,and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee. (12, 1) take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac, and get thee into the land of Moriah... upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. (22, 2)

    R. Levi bar Hama said: The Holy One blessed be He said to him: In both the first and last trial I try you with “Get thee out”: “Get thee out from thy country” and “Get thee into the land of Moriah.” (Tanhuma Yashan 4)

    Modern scholars have proved that the scirture uses key words and phrases in order to underline the links between the different stories in the Bible or parts of the same story. But our sages went much further than modern scholarship. They emphasized the identity of expressions in order to connect the incidents concerned and the lessons to be learnd from them. Our sages wove these threads even between precepts and facts and even between one precept and another.

    (a) Explain the connection between the two extracts which our sages wished to emphasize?
    (b) What other linguistic evidences do you find linking our passage with chapter 22?

  2. (c) Some commentators query: What does the word vayakom (he arose) in 22, 3 add after the text already states vayashkem (he arose early)? Cf. A similar insertion in Gen. 43, 15: “The men took of the gift and the double money they took in their hand and Benjamin too and they arose (vayakumu) and went down from Eygpt” in contrast to “Joseph’s brothers ten went down to buy corn from Eygpt”.
    (42, 3)

    (d) Can you explain why the two revelations (of chaps. 12 and 22) do not open with the words “He (the Lord) appeared to him” as in 12, 7; 17, 1 and 18, 1?

  3. What I Ramban’s view of the miracle of the fiery furnace as emerging from the quotation we have cited?


  1. What is the point of Ramban’s final thought in our second quotation from him: “he would bless them that blessed him and any individual who would curse himself be cursed”? What stylistic anomely did he explain through this?
  2. Which verse in the sidra of Bereshit did Ramban allude to in his reference “the generation of Enosh and their innovations in idolatrous belief” in our last quotation from him?




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05 Sep 2005 / 1 Elul 5765 0