Why was Abram told to leave his home and family and go out into the wilderness? (Genesis 12:1) The Midrash, the vast collection of rabbinic reflections on the Torah, offers a number of answers. One rabbi, noting that Abram had already traveled from Ur Casdim, suggested that on the journey Abram had deduced something remarkable: Like a wanderer in a wilderness who, coming upon an illuminated city, concluded that someone must be in charge, so Abram on his way to Canaan looked at the world and concluded that there must be someone in charge, namely the One God. According to another rabbi, that conclusion forced Abram to leave his idolatrous homeland. Yet another rabbi saw Abram as a man who faced martyrdom for his new faith and, therefore, was compelled to leave his homeland. Still another rabbi compared Abram to a precious perfume whose aroma cannot be enjoyed until the stopper in the flask is removed; so Abram had to move from his homeland in order to have an effect on the world.
What can we learn from these various answers? First, that according to the rabbis, Abram/Abraham, the founder of Judaism, had reached his belief in God by rational means. Hence, from the very beginning, Judaism was and still is a religion committed to the use of the mind. The reason that Abraham could respond to God's command to go forth was because he was already convinced that there was a God. Second, unlike the gods of the pagans, the God of Abraham sought justice for all. That is why in Genesis 18:25 Abraham could also plead for non-Jews, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah: Hashofet kol ha'aretz lo ya'aseh mishpat? "Shall not the Judge of all the world deal justly?" To champion a God of justice might well have put Abraham at risk and would certainly have put Abraham's descendants at risk. Even so, it was Abraham's task to go out into the world and tell people about God and what God demands of them.
To follow Abraham's lead, we, members of the people of and faith founded by Abraham, need to ask ourselves about our own commitment to the beliefs we say we embrace. Paganism in our time is not about worshipping little statues; today's pagans place things above people, and possessions above values. Sometimes, merely asking certain questions places us at risk; thinking of Abraham and those who followed, however, should convince us that some risks are worth taking. We Jews have an impact on society beyond our numbers; like perfume, it sometimes takes very little to make an impression and just a few committed people to make an impact.
At the time of this writing in 1997, Rabbi Leonard S. Kravitz was professor of Homiletics and Midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York.