By Rabbi Dan Lewin
My eight-year-old stayed home from school last Friday, claiming he was sick. So later that day, I brought him with me to run errands. As we pulled up to my bank’s ATM, our first conversation began with his question:
“Wow! How come the bank always gives you money for free?”
“It’s not for free. It’s my money.” I explained. “I just give it to the bank to hold.”
“Oh OK,” he said. “I didn’t know that … How did that idea (banking) start?”
“Ask your grandfather.” (My father’s an economics professor.)
A few minutes later, a new question floated in, and caught me off guard:
“How did God create himself?” he asked.
“Well, God is not a human being, a creation, like us.” I began.
“Yeah, I know,” he interjected, “but I mean it’s impossible to always exist …”
“Great question! Keep thinking about that idea…” (I.e., to be continued.)
Getting home-schooled in introduction to economics and Judaism is not such a bad substitute for school while playing hooky.
There are some questions that children ask that reflect a keen mind, a curiosity to discover the surrounding world. Other more existential questions — like the one mentioned — follow us into adulthood and last a lifetime. Even if such topics are impossible to fully fathom, or confined to belief, they are important enough to be asked, re-asked, and explored.
What does a creator of the universe imply? Was this creator always there? Twenty people can claim to have faith in a higher power, while all meaning something different. The first of the Ten Commandments, according to Maimonides, is to address and clarify belief, a distinctly Jewish value. Indeed the Hebrew word for faith, emunah, shares a common root with “to exercise/train.” Like a craftsman who trains his hands, faith must be cultivated and clarified through ongoing critical analysis.
For this reason, daily declarations of Shema Yisrael serve as short reflections, reminders that the Jewish notion of a creator transcends time and nature yet is intimately involved within the details. As the mind probes the limits of our understanding, one is aroused with wonder, awe and appreciation.
Introducing the first Jew
This week’s Torah reading centers on an individual who began with elementary questions, then pushed his mind to clarify the notion of a first cause, a singular supreme being who sustains all of creation. Abraham is commonly referred to as the first Jew. As he grew up in a pagan world, his conclusions stood in opposition to all those around him.
It was a lonely task, met with hostility and trials from the onset. He is described as the Ivri (Hebrew), which the commentaries explain to means “to be on the other side” — to stand alone against the world.
His claim to the title of original Jew is often taken for granted. Upon closer examination, however, it is not so simple: Biblical figures before Abraham — such as Noah, and Shem, and Adam — also acknowledged and had a relationship with this creator. What then distinguishes Abraham?
Kindness and expansion
One of the most basic answers is that he was the first to discern God by virtue of his own intellect. His philosophical investigation preceded any revelation. And after his vision, he chose not to be an insular scholar and prophet. While Noah stood by his ark and nurtured his family, Abraham was a leader who took his message to the world.
He and his wife Sarah spread their knowledge, attracting followers who took the journey with them. They cared for humanity and attempted to change the world for the better, a pioneer in tikkun olam. Abraham was the king of hospitality, constantly looking to host people in his tent, to serve them food and perform kindness.
Even more notable was his compassion and concern for civilization, finding full expression this week in the famous dialogue where he pleads with God not to destroy the city of Sodom. He sees as his task, as his descendants the Jewish people have seen as their task, the need to help even the wicked. It is these character traits, perhaps, that define him as the first Jew.
Merits versus promises
Other commentators take a radically different approach, moving in the opposite direction. It was not his merit, they argue, that made him unique, but the fact that he was the person to whom God made promises.
However noble one’s spiritual quest, however profound one’s intellectual discoveries, the parameters of the mind are limited; one will always get stuck when trying to grasp the complete infinite nature of a creator. What set Abraham apart — the real connection to the creator — was not his initiative or discovery (or even the self-sacrifice to publicize his beliefs, or help others). His spiritual closeness took place when the process was initiated by the creator and fulfilled through the deed.
For this reason the Torah’s tale of Abraham begins without description of his virtues; it begins with the communication — “And God spoke to Abraham: ‘Go from your land … and I will make you into a great nation …’” It continues with the command of circumcision, and culminates in complete obedience, against all logic, seen in the binding of Isaac.
Thought, speech and action
By the end of his life, all Abraham’s faculties — from faith, intellect, emotions and actions had become attentive to the divine purpose, as a horse follows the direction of its rider. This ultimate accomplishment, termed “a chariot,” set him apart.
It is interesting to note that our inheritance comes with a change in sequence: Abraham first recognized his Creator (thought); then he spoke to people about it (speech); and finally circumcision (deed).
From the time of Sinai, we work backward: For example, a baby enters into the covenant of circumcision, begins to inquire and discuss (speech), and eventually develops more sophisticated understanding (thoughts). Either way, the lesson involves a “holistic” soul search, where no question is left untouched and all faculties of a person are engaged in the mitzvah.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is the director of the non-profit Maayan Chai Foundation. He hosts the Sinai Cafe, a series of weekly Torah study at the Aaron Family JCC and in the community. For more information visit www.maayanchai.org.