This week we begin looking into a character that will dominate the next few parashot and who has dominated history since. He is the “father of the Jewish people”, he is the ultimate example of faith, he is a prominent ancestor of the Messiah. G-d’s call went to Avraham and he heeded that call again and again without hesitation. When we read about him, as well as other biblical characters, we tend to elevate them and wonder how they did it, and why we can’t have the same kind of relationship with G-d.
Let us look at Avraham and see if perhaps, our deepest longings can be realized, and to see if we can discern something within Avraham that would direct us to this path. Let’s begin with what Avraham was not. He was not a mystic, he was not a visionary, he was not a philosopher or theologian, he was not exceptionally intelligent, he was not even perfectly moral and obedient. He was just a man who honestly sought the truth, lived generously and was completely devoted to his G-d regardless of the obstacles. That is something any of us can attain.
Avraham was a man who was willing to be a light, to take off the ‘bushel’ and let the truth that he has found shine brightly and to take that light wherever G-d called him. The midrash likens Avraham to a bottle of perfume. As long as the bottle remains closed, no one can enjoy it scent. When Avraham obeyed G-d and left his home for Canaan, it was as if the bottle had been opened and the wonderful scent of G-d’s truth now traveled all over the near east. He did not take the truth he found through his seeking to himself, he did not just talk about it but he shared it and obeyed it and allowed it to take him where it would. Our job is the same.
So what was it about Avraham’s relationship with G-d that gave him the courage to be this type of man and receive such wonderful blessings and promises? Most will point, and rightly so, to Genesis 15:6, “And Avraham believed G-d and he credited it to him as righteousness”. The key word here is ‘believed’ or in Hebrew ‘aman’. In most people’s way of thinking, Avraham accepted that G-d was going to fulfill the promise of 15:5 and therefore G-d was pleased that Avraham had such faith. ‘Aman’ has a lot more meaning than just intellectual assent to some facts or promises. Look at Isaiah 22:23. “I will drive him like a tent peg into a firm place, he will be a seat of honor for the house of his father.” ‘A firm place’ is the verb ‘aman’. So somehow Avraham’s ‘belief’ is analogous to a tent peg driven into firm ground.
Our understanding will be clear when we look at Gen 26:4, 5. “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and give them all these lands and through your offspring all the nations on the earth will be blessed because Avraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my Torah”. Avraham put himself in a place to be used of G-d and blessed because he was obedient to Torah! He showed himself as one whom G-d could confidently rely on. A better way to translate Gen 15:6 might be, “and Avraham was firm in his obedience and G-d credited it to him as righteousness”. It had little to do with Avraham's intellectual assent to some facts and everything to his obedience to his G-d.
Now we see that the blessing and credit were not because Avraham could look forward and see things we can’t, that he believed in the impossible, but because he was obedient to a Torah that was “very near...to do and obey”. That is something within the grasp of all of us.
We begin the story of one of the most extraordinary personalities of the Bible. Avraham was not just a unique character in His time but for all time. He had the kind of character and personality and conviction that made him a leader, not just of a local group but leader whose mark on history is still felt, in a positive way. Our parasha shows us how a man who sought the truth found it and formed a relationship with His creator that remains unique to this day.
At the end of last weeks parasha we read that Terah took Avram, Lot, Sarai and “they departed with them from Ur...” Certainly the passage should read ‘and they departed with him’, the ‘him’ being Terah. The them, however, refers to Avram and Sarai who took the initiative. Actually tradition has it that Terah thought this was an opportune time to go. Traditionally, this followed the incident in which Avraham confronted Nimrod with his idolatry and survived being thrown in the fiery furnace. Avraham knew he could no longer abide in such a sinful, unrepentant place and continue his search for his Creator. So he packed up and left. Terah had other problems. The people of Ur, seeing the miraculous deliverance of Avraham, much like the miracle Elijah facilitated on Mt. Carmel, saw the power of G-d and futility of their dead idols. They turned on Terah for it was he who was one of the primary creators of these things. So Terah left with Avram, not so much out of conviction but out of fear.
So Avram left Ur and sought the Creator. The whole family got as far as Haran and they settled there. As we all know, when we seek the Lord with all our hearts, He makes himself known. Our parasha begins with the initiation of that relationship with Avram. There is nothing in the Scripture which tells us why Avram was chosen, whether others had been asked and refused, what merit Avram had that caused G-d to initiate this contact. The answer lies in the initiative Avram showed by leaving Ur in his quest to know G-d. He was willing to give up everything to find his creator. He made the first move and G-d rewarded that action. It was not just an idea, it was not a leap of thought but of concrete action, His feet literally led him to G-d. He pointed himself in the general direction and as he began the journey, G-d met him to fill in the details.
And Avram was not just some mystic dreamer led by voices in his head. He was a real leader, a man of vision, of conviction, of courage. That is why he led his father and not the other way around. That is why as long as Lot drew from his strength, he stayed on the right road and when he was not, he moved closer and closer to sin until he was living in Sodom itself. What we need in this world are more men and women like Avram. Those who seek truth and hold onto it when they find it. Those who stand by their principles even when it is easier to go the other way. Those who have lived their whole lived with integrity and honesty, those who have no skeletons in their closets. People like that are people G-d can use for great things. May we all strive to emulate Noach’s example.
Introduced in this week’s parasha is our main character for the next few weeks, Avram. Many ideas and theologies have grown up around this man and his relationship with God, particularly within Judaism. The ‘restating’ of the covenant three times in this parasha culminating in the command for circumcision is what sets the Jewish people apart from all the other nations of the world. I am going to look at this story as it unfolds a little differently because it shows us what is best in our relationship with God and what is second best.
God first appears to Avram in Ch. 12 and tells him to go forth from his native land and he will make Avram into a great nation and bless him. And Avram went. Simple promise, simple obedience. Once he got to the land, God appeared again and promised him the land to his offspring. Avram built an altar in thanksgiving. So far they have a very simple and good relationship, a relationship based on friendship and trust. In Ch. 13, God again tells Avram of the great blessing he is going to give him and Avram listens and trusts. One of the people at Beit HaKadosh lives in a house I own. He is a tenant like Avraham is a tenant on God’s land. We do not have a lease because our relationship is based on trust and friendship just as Avram’s was at this point. No lease, no covenant, just promise and friendship.
Now we move to chapter 15. God tells Avram his reward is great. It’s been a while so perhaps Avram is starting to question how God is going to accomplish this and God promises that he will have a son to inherit. And Avram trusted God, or was shown trustworthy, and God was pleased. Then an interesting thing follows. Just after it says that Avram believed God, he asks for proof. Personally, I think there is a break in time between v. 6 and 7 in which Avram began to question. So he asks for proof that God is going to keep his word, he asks God to enter covenant. This covenant is in response to Avram’s request and God acquiesces. Up until this time They had a relationship based on friendship without threat or consequences. Avraham could leave the land, he could lie about Sarah, he could question but there were no real negative consequences to the promise or his relationship with God. Now, however, there is a binding contract between the two of them that if broken, will have negative consequences.
Chapter sixteen shows that Avram did not believe even the covenant God sealed with him. Instead of trusting and waiting, he had a child by Hagar the Egyptian. This put a wrench in the whole works, even to this day. In chapter fifteen Avram asked for proof that God was going to keep his word and he still didn’t believe him. Now God is going to demand proof from Avram. He and all his progeny will shed their own blood to enforce the covenant. Circumcision is a reminder, a sign, of Avram’s lack of faith and a warning to all his offspring not to show the same deficiency.
What we have here is a contrast between a covenant of faith and a covenant of law. Avram originally operated according to a covenant of faith. God and Avram trusted each other, a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ just like my agreement with my tenant/friend. This is when Torah comes from the inside, as in the renewing/everlasting covenant of Jer 31 and Ez 26 and Yahushua. Torah imposed from the outside with the promise of positive or negative consequences is a covenant of law, a formal lease agreement enforced by the law and courts. This is second best and in reality we will not keep it because it comes from the outside. This is what the Jerusalem council was talking about when they spoke of the ‘yoke they nor their fathers could bear’ and Paul described in Romans seven. Torah and covenant, while related, are separate things. Avram had his relationship with God because he kept Torah, it was a natural expression of who he was and His relationship with God.. That is how God wants us to relate, as mature adults, friends. Covenant is Torah imposed from the outside with the carrot and stick approach. The hope is that the children under the covenant will eventually mature and become the adults who don’t need the carrot and stick any more. God wants his people to be mature, he doesn't want to have to threaten or bribe or cajole us. We need to all grow up and learn to do Torah not because the covenant threatens us but because we love God. These are the kinds of people that please Him.
Avraham is one of the great men of the Bible, there is no question about that. Where the question arises is in what made him great. It wasn’t that he was without fault or that he had faith like a rock that did not move. If that was so he wouldn’t have thought of lying about his wife for safety. It was something about the way he lived life itself, how he walked, that made him great. If we can identify those qualities, we can practice them and by so doing, draw close to God as well.
Avram grew up in Ur of the Chaldees. In his time, Ur was a large city in southern Mesopotamia of several hundred thousand people. Archeology points to a high level of civilization in Ur by Avram’s time. There were craftsman and merchants and, of course, the religious cult-in Ur it was focused on the moon. Avraham came from a wealthy merchant family himself, tradition has it that Terah was an idol maker. Regardless of the trade, Avram and his father were successful businessmen not unlike many people today. They worked hard, they accumulated wealth and things which for them meant crafted items, servants, varied foods and a large home. Sound familiar? He partook of a consumer driven culture, a culture created by city life. It is our culture. Our goal in life is to work so we can consume more. We are judged in our culture by how much we consume and how expensive the items we consume are. The cars, the houses, the food, the places we vacation are all standards by which success is judged. All the while, we are raising our children to be more successful consumers than we are. What is the American slogan of child rearing? “I want my kids to be better off that I was”. We want them to be better consumers and so we have two parents working to provide a higher standard of living while the job of parenting is secondary. We have mountains of debt to provide that higher standard now. This was Avram’s life and it is ours.
God needed Avram to leave that life if he was ever going to become what God wanted. Consumerism teaches us to be goal oriented. We set a goal of acquisition whether it be a car, a home, a degree or position and our life becomes focused on the goal. The ones who are really good at it learn to block everything out but that which contributes to the goal. We do it religiously as well. We have a goal of building a big congregation or winning arguments or making converts so we study and practice until we are good at it to achieve the goal and we think when we do God is proud. Is He? Tradition has it that Avram was a preacher in Ur and annoyed Nimrod greatly. Noach was a preacher in his day. Neither of them had any success as we would measure it. Both were followed only by their households, although Avram’s was larger. Yet both walked with God more because of who they were than what they did.
Moshe asked God his name at the bush and God said, in most translations ‘I am who I am’. That is static. The way it is now is the way it is. We define ourselves the same way. We are defined by what we have, it is static. We are who we are. God is not static. Perhaps a better way to translate it is “I am becoming who I am becoming”. It is an eternal development because God is constantly interacting with a world that is not the same even for a moment and is affected by it. We try so hard to insulate ourselves from this very thing, we have our goal and we block out the rest of the world in our pursuit of it. We live in our own little cocoon and sometimes we project this image on God to justify it. We believe that God only cares about Israel or that he has a goal for history and only cares about the things that move it toward that goal. This thinking makes us, and God, into cold, uncaring, manipulative people.
Life is becoming and it is our becoming that makes life what it is. If we aim for a goal, whether in religion or in our career, and we keep our eyes so focused in the goal that we forget about living life as it is, we ignore the important things of the moment. It is our present that counts, it is the present that we have, the future is not promised. By leaving Ur and becoming a Nomad, Avram learned this crucial lesson. Nomads live in the moment and their lives are circular, not linear. They travel with the seasons coming back to the same areas year after year. Understanding that it is the present that counts makes the hospitality they gave possible. We do not take time for such things because we always have someplace to go, something to do, usually because of our goals. Without those kind of goals, we live life in the present moment and concentrate on fulfilling it. We interact with and help people without thinking about how it affects our goals. The end of the journey is no longer important, and perhaps there isn’t one. Perhaps it is the journey itself, the act of living on the journey, that is important. It is the growth on the journey and not reaching the end that makes a full life. Working fifty or sixty hours a week for fifty years so you can sit around and look at how much you accumulated and consumed is not life. Living the moment to it’s fullest without the constraints of consumerism and meaningless goals is what gives meaning to our existence. It is our interaction and not our accumulation that leads to a fulfilling life. Don’t worry about becoming ‘something’. Concern yourself with becoming every moment like Avram and like God and you will find yourself much like them very soon.