Avraham’s willingness to follow divine instruction

By Rabbi Dan Lewin
Parashat Lech Lecha

We are currently in the third week after beginning the Torah cycle anew. The opening section, Bereishit, dealt with the creation of the wonders within the world. For the most part, it’s a cheerful portion, though its ending is not pleasant. The portion of Noach brings the flood, a gloomy story, but it finishes on a positive note — our forefather Avraham is born. The completely joyful week is now, parshatLech Lecha.” Each aliyah speaks of Avraham, the first person to dedicate his entire life to spreading knowledge of G-d. 

Indeed, the Jewish story starts here — with one family, Avraham and his wife Sarah. In the opening verse, G-d calls out to Avraham, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you…”

Maimonides, basing himself on the Talmud and Midrash, explains the life of Avraham, who he refers to as “the pillar of the world” and describes the characteristics that eventually earned him the title of “the first Jew.” Avraham is born into a tyrannical society, an idolatrous and intensely immoral environment. But he stood strong, all alone in his insight. He was an innovative thinker. Through rational and deliberate investigation, he concludes that the universe has one Supreme Being who is not only the source of every existence but continuously invested in each detail. Avraham then sets out to expose this reality.

His discovery and courageous encounters — such as the breaking of the idols in his father’s store and resulting persecution are familiar; they have become household tales, even Sunday school studies. Yet they are conspicuously absent in the verses of Torah itself. 

An obvious omission 

The classical biblical commentator, the Ramban (Nachmonides), raises an obvious question: why are we not introduced to the personality and accomplishments of Avraham before we encounter G-d’s command? At least stylistically — and based on precedent — it would make more sense for the Torah to inform us about this individual and what he did to merit divine guidance.

His answer, in short, is that to adequately relate the background story — the trials with the people of his generation — the verses would have to describe the hostile environment, discuss the pagan culture and evil people who sought to prevent his efforts. And since every biblical verse is careful and significant, the Torah negates such abhorrent subject matter. 

But this answer does not explain the complete lack of background. If the objective was simply to avoid unpleasant stories, the description could have been brief and at least mention some of Avraham’s merits, as with our introduction to Noah where the verse states he was “righteous in his generation.”

From knowledge, to communication, to connection

Other commentaries offer a more profound interpretation of this omission wherein the Torah is not avoiding an issue per se, but rather conveying an important message. At first glance, what distinguished Avraham from those around him was his honest intellect, his generosity, his extraordinary courage to keep strong in a world that opposed his beliefs. Yet all these virtues paled in comparison to what he gained through the command of “lecha lecha”— from his willingness to follow the divine instruction. The former marked a superior human feat, the latter an eternal link that transcends any individual quest. 

Perhaps this is the lesson from how we are introduced to our forefather: by omitting any background, the Torah emphasizes the foundational recipe for coming close to the Creator. The real merit of Avraham was not his rational investigation — or even his selflessness — but a simple adherence to the divine initiative, the command “Go forth…” 

[An analogy: when it comes to our most precious relationships, deep love, insight into the feelings and qualities of the other are important ingredients to develop a close bond. The ultimate quality, however, is commitment. The willingness to fulfill the other’s request — to listen and act — unites the two parties in a more profound manner.] 

From another angle, philosophers are judged by how high the human mind they reach. Mystics are measured by spiritual experience. Prophets seek divine communication through visions. But all these traits — knowledge, spiritual experience, even communication — are incomparable to divine connection. Avraham heeding to this instruction was a foreshadowing of a new concept, the mitzvah — an early preparation for what would occur later with his descendants. With this idea in mind, whenever we perform a mitzvah, we can remember the power of just one simple good deed and rejoice at the opportunity it brings. 

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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