By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
In this week’s Torah portion, Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32), we are introduced to that majestic personality, our patriarch Abraham, originally Abram. We learn of his birth to his father, Terah; of the names of his siblings; and of his marriage to his wife, Sarai. We are made aware that Sarai was barren and that Terah set out with some of his family, including Abram, for the land of Canaan. We are told that he stopped short of his destination and settled in Haran. That is all that we are told. The Torah is almost teasingly silent about the details of Abram’s youth. In the coming Torah portions we will become immersed in the dramatic story of Abraham’s – beginning next week when Abraham, at age 75, leaves Haran for Canaan at God’s command.
The gap in the narrative is disturbing. What transpired in Abraham’s life from the time he accompanied his father to Haran, presumably as a very young man, until that time when the Almighty saw fit to speak to the now elderly Abraham and enjoined him to leave Haran for the Promised Land? We also cannot help but wonder why this man, of whose deeds we are told nothing at all, merited to hear the voice of the Almighty. Surely, he must have done something very meritorious to warrant the sacred mission which God assigned to him.
Abraham’s early life, his formative years, are a blank to readers of the Bible. But those years are not a blank for the readers of rabbinic commentaries, especially the Midrash. For them, details of Abraham’s childhood and early adulthood are not lacking. The Midrash fills in the blanks – and besides rabbinic scholars, every child fortunate to have a basic Jewish education reaps the benefits of learning the colorful and exciting stories about Abraham’s background.
Readers of the Midrash, along with the child in the Jewish kindergarten, learn of Abraham’s discovery, at the prodigiously early age of three, of the One God, He who created heaven and earth. They learn too of Abraham’s struggle against his idolatrous surroundings and how he defied his own father, smashing the idols that were Terah’s merchandise. They learn of how Terah cruelly delivered Abraham to Nimrod, the archetypal combination of king and wizard. They are privy to Abraham’s debates with Nimrod, and of how Nimrod was angered to the point where he cast him into a fiery furnace from which Abraham unscathed.
The question is, why is there no mention of all this in the text of the Torah? Why was this dramatic narrative of religious courage not deemed worthy of inclusion in the Bible?
Ramban, for one, answers this question thus: “Scripture avoids describing these wondrous events, because to write about them would have necessitated mentioning the idolatrous views of those whom Abraham debated and, unlike the case of Moses whose responses to the Egyptian sorcerers are on record, Abraham’s responses to his opponents were not made available to us.”
Ramban’s approach begs the question, why were Abraham’s counter-arguments not recorded? Surely they would have been of at least historical interest and may even have proved useful in debating contemporary idolatries.
Permit me to share a different approach that I once thought was original to me, but which I have since seen advanced by a number of modern commentators. It is commonly assumed that Abraham’s great contribution to the world was his discovery of monotheism. He, as our Sages taught us, came to “know his Creator” on his own. He spread the word of God already in Haran, where he “made souls,” as we will read next week.
But it is erroneous, or at least not completely true, that the concept of the One God was Abraham’s primary gift to the world. Two weeks from now, in the Torah portion of Vayera, we will read what God Himself considered to be Abraham’s greatest contribution: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” (Genesis 18:19).
Teaching justice and righteousness to the world was Abraham’s greatest contribution. The stories included in the biblical text recount Abraham’s ethical behavior, not his theology. He is known for his hospitality, not for his metaphysics. He argues for justice, and not against heresy.
We can thus conclude that the Torah deliberately omits the stories of Abraham’s early battles against idolatry, because those battles are not representative of Abraham’s essence. Rather, his essence is better expressed in the stories of his defense of the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah, in the compassion he showed to his nephew, Lot, and in his generous demeanor in his encounter with those he thought to be idolatrous wayfarers, but who were, in fact, God’s own angels.
True, Abraham introduced monotheism to the world, but that monotheism is best termed “ethical monotheism.” The God he came to know was not just One God, but a God who teaches humankind right from wrong and who expects mankind to abide by that teaching.
While the Torah does not demand that we be theologians, it does demand that we perform acts of righteousness and deeds of justice. Thus, God demands ethical behavior from all of us, and that is Abraham’s primary teaching. The Torah is therefore comfortable omitting the theological debates, but it will never suppress those stories which illustrate Abraham’s historic commitment to eliminate evil from God’s world.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the Executive Vice President, Emeritus of the Orthodox Union.