By Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
When we meet Abram (Genesis 12) – who later in the portion becomes Abraham (Genesis 17:5) – God has tried three times to encourage human beings to create a just, caring, and compassionate society on earth.
From the time of creation that has been God’s highest goal. But the societies in Eden, after Eden until the flood, and after the flood have all failed.
Even though God is frustrated and disappointed, God does not give up. In a fourth attempt, the Eternal One chooses Abraham, Sarah and their descendants to be God’s “special agents” in the ongoing quest to make the world a better place.
Early in my career as a rabbi, a Protestant minister said of Abraham: “He was like a random lottery winner. It was just a mysterious act of God’s grace that God chose him.”
From a Jewish perspective, nothing could be further from the truth. True, the Bible says nothing about Abram until he is 75, when God tells him, “Go forth from your native land from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” I will make a Covenant with you, God continues, and I expect you to “be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2), “so that all the nations of the earth will find blessing through you and your descendants” (Genesis 12:3).
For Jewish tradition, the choice of Abraham is not random at all. The Sages saw the Torah’s silence regarding Abraham’s earlier life as a golden opportunity to illustrate why God very intentionally chose Abraham as a covenantal partner in the quest to make the world a more just, caring and compassionate place.
Two classic Midrashic stories illustrate the rabbinic outlook.
(1) When Abraham was born, the ruler of the world was Nimrod, mentioned earlier in Genesis as a mighty hunter. Nimrod’s astrologers tell him of a baby born that will overthrow his kingdom; and so Nimrod orders all the babies killed. To protect his son, Abraham’s father, Terach, hides him in a cave.
At the age of three, he wanders out of the cave and being a most precocious child asks what is hardly a typical three-year-old question: “Who created the heavens and the earth and me?”
He looked up at the sun and imagined that was the creative force. So he worshipped it all day. That night the moon came out. And he thought the moon must be stronger than the sun. So, he worshipped the moon all night. When in the morning the sun came out again, Abraham reasoned that there must be a God more powerful than both the sun and the moon who is responsible for creation.
And so, according to this story, Abraham at a very young age chose God, which helps explain why God chose him (Bet ha-Midrash, chapter 2).
(2) One of the most famous of all Midrashic themes recounts that when Abraham was a boy, Terach was the proprietor of a shop selling idols that people worshipped as gods. One day, Terach went on a business trip and left Abraham in charge of the store. While he was cleaning up, Abraham accidentally broke one of the idols. Rather than try to hide it from his father, he placed a stick in the hands of the largest idol in the shop and left the broken idol on the floor.
“How did this happen?” asked Terach upon his return.
“The broken idol was misbehaving and the bigger idol beat him with the stick,” answered Abraham.
“Fool,” said his father, “don’t you know that idols can’t do anything?”
“If so,” Abraham responded, “why do you worship them?” (Bereshit Rabbah 38:13, retold with variations many times).
The story illustrates that Abraham rejected idolatry and further explains why he was God’s choice.
Four thousand years later we who claim to be Abraham’s descendants should still be hard at work, each in our own way, to make a righteous and just society on earth. When the task seems overwhelming, we should remember the famous teaching of the second-century sage, Rabbi Tarphon: “It is not incumbent on you to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it!” (Pirke Avot 2:21).
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. He is the author of the book What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives.