By Shlomo Riskin
Abraham is the founder of the Hebrew nation and the path-breaker who created the Hebrew religion. From this portion in the 12th chapter of the Book of Genesis until the last word of the Book of Deuteronomy, it is Abraham’s Israelite descendants who are the major subjects of the Bible.
Fascinatingly, God commands Abraham to leave his country, his birthplace and his father’s house to travel to the unknown land of Canaan (Israel) without any introduction to Abraham’s personality or his previous connection with God. Indeed, God elects Abraham as the progenitor or patriarch of “a great nation which will become a blessing to all the families of the earth” without any mention of Abraham’s worthiness.
This is very different from God’s commandment to Noah to build an ark, which comes after the Bible has already informed us that Noah “was a righteous man, wholehearted in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). It also contrasts with God’s charge for Moses to lead His people in the Book of Exodus, which comes after Moses left Pharaoh’s palace to empathize with his Hebrew brethren and put his life on the line by slaying the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave.
So why did God choose Abraham? Maimonides is struck by this question. His approach is paraphrased in a famous exchange. British antisemite William Norman Ewer wrote, “How odd of God to choose the Jews,” to which American poet Ogden Nash responded, “It wasn’t odd; the Jews chose God.”
Abraham chose God. Maimonides maintains that Abraham found God through his own reasoning powers.
“After this mighty man was weaned, he began to explore and think. Though he was a child, he began to think [incessantly] throughout the day and night, wondering,” until, as a result of his own correct understanding, he reached the truth (Laws of Idolatry, Chapter 1, Halacha 3).
From Maimonides’s perspective, it is not only that Abraham understood that there must be one Power above all powers, one Lord above all lords who is the Master of the Universe and therefore traded in paganism for monotheism. Abraham realized that this Unity behind the apparent diversity that fills the world is an ethical and moral force that insists on righteousness and compassion; Abraham knew that it is not sufficient to be a monotheist but that it is necessary to be an ethical monotheist. The Bible itself tells us this: “Because I [God] have known [loved, chosen] Abraham because he commands his children and his household after him to observe the way of the Lord to do compassionate righteousness and moral justice.”
Once Abraham discovered this great truth, it gave him no rest. He continually built altars and called upon people to accept his ethical God. It is important to note that on none of the altars recorded in our portion does Abraham present an offering, a sacrifice to God; he rather calls out to individuals to join him in his faith and in his ethical actions. Maimonides continues in his description of Abraham’s mission: “Once Abraham recognized and understood the ethical God, he began to tell the idolaters that they were not pursuing the true path; he broke their idols and informed the people that it is only proper to serve the God of the world… he stood up and called out in a great voice to the entire world that there is only one God in the entire universe and it is only Him that they must serve. He would walk about, call out and gather people from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom until he reached the land of Canaan, and he called out there in the name of the Lord of the universe. The people would gather around him and ask him questions and he would teach each of them according to their respective knowledge, until he would bring them to the path of truth…”
The Kesef Mishneh commentary to Maimonides makes the point that Shem and Eber – although great individuals who were also close to God and who according to the Midrash established a great yeshiva where Isaac went to study immediately after the akeda (binding) – were not chosen to be the first Jews precisely because they only taught about God to those who came to study in their yeshiva; they were rashei yeshiva (yeshiva heads), whereas Abraham was a rabbi – an outreach worker in the style of Chabad and Ohr Torah Stone.
This is what the Bible means when it speaks about “souls that Abraham and Sarah made in Haran” (Gen. 12:5). The Midrash explains that Abraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women. Maimonides further rules that the commandment to love God includes “making God beloved to all the people of the earth” (Book of Commandments, 5) and he insists that Jews must even coerce the gentiles to accept the seven laws of morality (Laws of Kings, 8:10). We are not in any way commanded actively to convert the gentiles to Judaism; but it seems that, at least according to Maimonides, we are commanded to convert the world to ethical monotheism.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.